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Former Bills back Joe Cribbs learned to love Buffalo, even the snow

Erik Brady

Joe Cribbs will never forget his first Buffalo snowfall. He was born and raised in Alabama, where a couple of inches shuts down the state, so when he peeked out the window and saw a couple of feet, he figured everything would be shut down for a week.

This was 1980, when Cribbs was the Bills’ second-round draft choice on his way to conference rookie of the year honors and a starting spot in the Pro Bowl.

“I remember waking up and looking out the window and seeing all that snow,” Cribbs says. “So I went back to bed.”

He was supposed to be at a team meeting at 8 a.m. His phone rang at 8:10. It was Elijah Pitts, his running backs coach.

“So he says, ‘Hey Joe, where the hell are you?’ ” Cribbs recalls. “And I said, ‘Coach, I’m snowed in. There’s snow everywhere.’ And he informs me, ‘Hey, the streets are clear, you just need to get out your driveway.’ ”

Cribbs says when he looked out the window again he could scarcely believe what he saw: Sure enough, the roads were clear.

“So I dug my car out, drove to the stadium and tried to slip into the meeting,” Cribbs says. “Coach (Chuck) Knox was speaking and he’s not letting me sneak in. He busts me: ‘Cribbs, you know I ought to fine you. But I’m not.’ ”

Cribbs quotes these words in a dead-on imitation of Knox’s slow, deliberate speaking style.

“ ‘And the only reason I’m not,’ ” Cribbs quotes his head coach, “ ‘is because you’re from Alabama.’ ”

Cribbs laughs out loud at the memory.

“So that was kind of my first real personal experience with the snow,” Cribbs says by phone from his home on Alabama’s sunny Gulf Coast. “And what I learned from that is nothing stops in Buffalo because of the snow. And I was never late for another meeting.”

Bills alumnus Joe Cribbs waves the flag before the Bills play the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

The Bills took Cribbs with the first pick of the second round of the 1980 draft, a selection they’d gotten from the San Francisco 49ers in the O.J. Simpson trade two years earlier. Cribbs, the 29th overall draft choice, says he had expected to go near the top of the first round.

“I remember, ‘Thank God,’ is what I was saying inside when the Bills finally took me,” Cribbs says. “And then I tried to visualize Buffalo. I had heard of the ’77 blizzard, so I had that image in my mind. I remember thinking, ‘I’m happy to be drafted, but does it have to be Buffalo?’ ”

All that changed when he reported to training camp in July and found the joys of Western New York summers, far from the oppressive humidity he had grown up with in Alabama.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Cribbs says. “It took me 40 minutes to break a sweat.”

Then came something even more surprising. The Bills won their home opener – and fans tore down the goalposts.

“I was a rookie and unaware of the history,” Cribbs says of the Bills’ 20-game losing streak to the Miami Dolphins. “I’m watching the fans rush the field and tear down the goalposts and I’m thinking, ‘Come on! It’s just the first game!’ ”

Cribbs had 60 yards rushing and 71 yards receiving and scored the clinching touchdown with 2:02 left in that game. The last time the Bills had beaten the Dolphins, in 1969, Cribbs was 11 years old.

Now he’s 61, an insurance broker who sometimes works with professional athletes to set up supplemental retirement plans. Some of them are names you’d know, he says, but he doesn’t discuss the names of his clients publicly.

Cribbs had a series of contract squabbles with the Bills and eventually signed to play with the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions back home in Alabama after his contract with the Bills was to run out in 1983. But the Bills maintained they had a right of first refusal and the case wound up in federal court in Buffalo, where Bills coach Kay Stephenson called Cribbs’ services irreplaceable, which is a heck of a scouting report.

U.S. District Court Judge John T. Elfvin ruled in favor of Cribbs, but he still had one more season to play with the Bills in 1983. He ran for more than 1,000 yards in that lame-duck season and made another Pro Bowl.

“I’m a guy who whenever I walk between those white lines I am always going to give my best,” he says. “And I did everything I could do that year.”

Cribbs would lead the USFL in rushing for two seasons before it folded. The Bills retained his NFL rights and Cribbs returned to Buffalo in 1985 but played sparingly. “I don’t think I was going to be allowed to shine too much,” he says. If he had it to do over, knowing the USFL would fold, he says he never would have left.

Cribbs finished his career bouncing around among the 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins. He never again found the NFL success he’d had in Buffalo, where he played his three Pro Bowl seasons.

“I love Buffalo,” Cribbs says. “I have always loved the fans of Buffalo. They are the most supportive fans in the NFL. Just the way they show up in some of the conditions they show up in, that’s a commitment 2 that’s a real commitment. Players appreciate that. I know I did.”

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