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After 40 years in the NFL darkness, Walt Patulski explains how it all went wrong

After 40 years in the NFL darkness, Walt Patulski explains how it all went wrong

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In a blink, detailed storylines can project through the mind.

We might experience a lifetime in our dreams although asleep just 30 minutes. They say when you're about to die, your entire life flashes before your eyes.

An NFL punt takes about two seconds from the ball being snapped until it's kicked.

That's how long it took Walt Patulski to visualize the career he desired and then what it had become.

"I broke through and had the punter right in front of me," Patulski said. A pained expression overtook his aquiline face.

"I would have been my own man, but I just pulled up."

Patulski slumped in his seat and slapped his meaty hand on the table. He didn't speak again for a while.

That's what playing for Lou Saban did to him. Patulski was a ripsnorter defensive end at Notre Dame, a 6-foot-6 tower of quickness, the No. 1 draft choice in 1972. He was supposed to help the Buffalo Bills become feared.

Patulski instead has been haunted by the NFL and the coach he seemed to neither satisfy nor understand.

For the first 22 years of his life, Patulski was sports perfection. Over the 44 years since, despite success in the business world and serving on the Syracuse school board and raising two daughters who've become social workers, he has been remembered as a titanic failure.

Patulski thinks it's about time he explained himself.

"What happened to Walt Patulski the day he left Notre Dame and became a bust?" Patulski said. "Now I'm responding."

Former teammates are glad to hear he's finally defending himself against criticisms they claim to be unfair. His renowned college coach is amazed there has been an issue.

"I'm shocked to hear that there is negative feedback," former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian said from his home in South Bend, Ind. "Walter Patulski was a great team player, a co-captain and did all the things right.

"Now we're talking about measuring his abilities in retrospect? I'm surprised we're even having a discussion here."

An unexpected moment of silliness nudged Patulski out of the NFL darkness.

Bills coach Rex Ryan, joining local reporters on a September conference call with New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, identified himself as "Walt Patulski from The Buffalo News" in hopes of wheedling information about the Patriots injured quarterbacks.

Patulski, after decades of answering the phone to find himself in another interview about draft disasters, was elated to hear his name mentioned on a national scale and in way that wasn't depressing.

Patulski has relived enough disappointment, second-guessed enough decisions, lamented enough missed opportunities.

He wonders if that punt might have been his career crossroads. If it wasn't the precise moment, then what transpired at least symbolizes a professional miscarriage.

The first regular-season game at Rich Stadium was Sept. 30, 1973, against the New York Jets. Both offenses struggled. The Bills kicked three field goals to win, 9-7. Throughout, a single play could've swung the result.

On one of Julian Fagan's eight punts, Patulski broke through the wall of blockers with a free path. Patulski, with his terrific reach, should have blocked the kick.

But between his helmet's ear holes swirled burdensome doubt. Patulski was in his 17th NFL game, but Saban's chiding and denigration eroded his confidence.

Saban thought Patulski was soft and wasn't afraid to say so publicly.

"I had a fantasy of blocking that punt," Patulski said. "We could have scored a touchdown, and I was going to take that ball to Lou Saban and say, 'Here you go, Coach. Seven points. My gift to you. Don't put a lid on me.' "

Patulski, fearing a possible roughing penalty and Saban's subsequent wrath, didn't follow through.

"Notre Dame Walt Patulski? Ball is blocked," he said. "Not Walt Patulski of the Buffalo Bills because then I thought, 'Aw, but what if you don't block it?' "

For 43 years, Patulski has replayed that punt in his mind and wondered how it would have changed his career, his life.

A spike in confidence, acknowledgement from his stoic coach, a surge toward greatness rather than being stuck in a quagmire of hesitation and puzzlement.

He left the NFL after six years, four with the Bills, two with the St. Louis Cardinals and a training camp with the Chicago Bears. Back surgery, not a lack of talent, forced him to retire with a well-known name to preserve.

"So you try to show the world," said Patulski, who put his Notre Dame business degree to work after retirement and lives in downtown Buffalo. "You run for office. You make a million dollars. You show your bank statements. You become a great public speaker, a great manager.

"So I flailed around and tried to do all of that. You try to excel."

Patulski paused for effect, realizing the poetry of what he was about to say next.

"You take that ball," he said, "and give it to Lou."

But Patulski never could. The best he can do now is stick up for himself and hope the scars continue to heal.

Google Patulski, find failure

Sports Illustrated last year selected Patulski the worst Bills player of the Super Bowl era.

The Orlando Sentinel included him in its "Dirty Dozen" rundown of draft busts in 2006, a year before the Minneapolis Star Tribune put Patulski in its "No. 1 Hall of Shame."

The San Francisco Chronicle in 2010 placed him No. 36 on the worst draft busts from all four major leagues. in 2003 listed Patulski among the 14 worst No. 1 draft picks from any sport.

Five years later, rated Patulski the 27th worst NFL pick regardless of draft slot, remarking "this former Golden Dome standout never delivered in four seasons with the Bills."

That's false.

The season before Patulski arrived, Buffalo went 1-13. The defense finished dead last against the run and second to last in yards allowed.

As a rookie, Patulski led the Bills with five sacks. They won four games. Their run defense went from 26th to 22nd, pass defense from 11th to seventh and total defense from 25th to 17th.

Patulski followed up with seven sacks, finishing one behind Earl Edwards for the team lead. Buffalo ranked seventh against the run, slipped to 17th against the pass and clicked up to 14th overall.

Two years in, fans liked what they saw out of Patulski.

"Coming out, we were thrilled to get him," said Greg Tranter, who attended his first game at the Rockpile and has had Bills season tickets for 32 years. "He was a great building block, the O.J. Simpson for the defensive side of the ball. Just build around him, and we'll get good."

Tranter's perspective here is keener than most. He will be the Buffalo History Museum's next president in 2018. He's in the process of donating his collection of about 100,000 Bills memorabilia items to the museum.

And he's a lifelong Notre Dame fan. Tranter's grandfather, Cy Sanders, played left guard for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame in 1918 and 1919, the legendary coach's first undefeated season. Sanders' teammates included George Gipp and Curly Lambeau. Sanders lined up against future Bears founder George Halas.

"Patulski played better in his first two years arguably than O.J. did in his," Tranter said. "So we were waiting for him to really blossom and become that dominant defensive end. It just never happened. He went the other way."

In 1974, the Bills reached the playoffs for the first time since winning their second straight AFL title eight years earlier. Their defense was 14th against the run, third against the pass and fifth overall.

The Bills won nine games each in Patulski's third and fourth seasons, with him recording 5.5 and four sacks. Not an All-Pro, but certainly competent.

"Disappointment came more in the '75 season," Tranter said. "We had one of the best offenses in all of pro football, and the defense let them down.

"We began 4-0 and sputtered to 8-6. The defense took a huge step backwards and cost us the playoffs. There was no pass rush. The defense was just bad."

Patulski, the supposed defensive savior, was an easy target.

Four months after he beat St. Louis Cardinals right tackle and future Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf for two sacks, the Bills traded Patulski to the Cardinals for a second-round draft choice. The Bills selected offensive lineman Joe Devlin, a 12-year starter.

In that regard, Bills fans were glad to unload Patulski. He didn't measure up to how a No. 1 pick is expected to perform, Simpson's incandescent play worsening the disillusionment over Patulski. Once gone, Devlin's constancy clearly was favorable.

But an all-time bust? What's the definition of "a bust," anyway?

Criteria are subjective. In basic terms, a bust is a prospect who doesn't meet expectations. But when grading the severity of bustiness, nuance should be considered.

"A number of qualitative and perhaps unfair factors can go into the equation," said CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang, "such as injury, obviously, as well as coaching or schematic change, which can rob a player of his potential."

ESPN deputy editor Chris Sprow, who has worked closely with pioneering draft forecaster Mel Kiper over the years, noted it's unreasonable to fault a prospect for getting hurt.

"I just don't think you can be a bust by NFL standards if an injury is the predominant aspect of your demise," Sprow said. "Vernon Gholston is a good modern bust, just as Aaron Curry or Jason Smith is.

"But if you ever inch your way into 'what he would have been' and still saying that word, I think you're breaking the football code, if there is such a thing."

Rang's primary factors are lack of effort, professionalism or talent.

In those categories we can, with conviction, place the likes of JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, Steve Emtman, David Klingler and Lawrence Phillips.

But if the problem is misjudging talent, Rang said, "The scouts and/or coaches who missed in their evaluation of the player deserve at least some of the blame as well."

By those standards, Patulski was not a bust.

* Patulski was considered a difficult opponent. Norm Evans, the Miami Dolphins' mainstay right tackle, lined up against Patulski twice a year.

"I tried to be aggressive and in his face," Evans said, "because if he got a run at you he could leverage with those long arms. He could push you away and pull you forward or sling you sideways.

"You would think you're doing pretty good and all the sudden he has the quarterback by the shoulder pads. You'd think, 'How the hell did he do that?' "

* Patulski was considered a quality teammate.

"Walter Patulski was a terrific football player, a terrific team man," Parseghian said. "He didn't care who got the credit, whether it was somebody else or himself. That's one of the characteristics of a great captain."

* Patulski was considered a physical marvel.

"Any talk of Walt being a bust doesn't sit well with me," Bills teammate and Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure said. "This guy was an unbelievable athlete.

"In camp, we had to run six laps -- a mile and a half -- in, like, 12 minutes. He did two miles in 12 minutes. He lapped guys, and he weighed 260. He was great at basketball, racquetball, jumping rope, all the things that linemen are klutzes at.

"If he was playing today he'd be a natural left tackle and a franchise player. He would be dominant, no questions asked."

* Patulski led the Bills in sacks as a rookie and got better the next year. He contributed to the defensive line's improvement. Serious knee and back injuries curtailed the next phases of his career in St. Louis and Chicago.

"Walt Patulski has nothing to apologize to anyone for," said quarterback Joe Theismann, a Notre Dame teammate. "He was a professional's professional who went to a football team and helped them.

"In no way would you consider him a bust."

Deviating from mean

Patulski's most unforgivable football sins might have been he was too erudite, too contemplative. He often needed to interpret a situation before he could attack it.

Such an intellectual approach did not mesh with Saban's world view of how a defensive player should act.

Saban wanted mean. Patulski wanted to know what it meant.

In a 1993 Los Angeles Times column that called Patulski the "softest 6-foot-6, 268-pound player in the game," Saban reflected on why Patulski didn't work for Buffalo.

"In tough situations," Saban said, "he would take the easy way out. To be aggressive, it just wasn't him." Saban added Patulski "just went through the motions."

Howard Cosell told a "Monday Night Football" national audience in 1975 that Patulski would rather discuss tiling his basement than play football. Patulski figures Cosell got that line from Saban.

DeLamielleure scoffed at the notion Patulski was a liability for refusing to gnaw off the quarterback's leg and hurl it into the bleachers.

"He was missing the one key thing to being a defensive lineman: He wasn't mean," DeLamielleure said. "That's not a character flaw.

"He was really smart. Most of the defensive guys were all about read and react; you see something, go. And they had jackass mentalities."

DeLamielleure recalled a conversation with Bills defensive line coach Stan Jones, who lamented Patulski's unwillingness to froth at the mouth.

"But he made plays," DeLamielleure countered. "He did many good things.

"Back then it was, 'Only the strong survive.' He'd be a good defensive end today."

Not every effective pass-rusher head slapped like Deacon Jones did or inspired bloodthirsty chants like Bubba Smith did.

Evans faced every type during his 14 NFL seasons. He started on Miami's undefeated 1972 team and made a couple Pro Bowls.

"Walt wouldn't curse you, chop you under the chin with a forearm, kick you in the shin, smack you in the head or push you into a pile after the whistle," Evans said. "He just played hard, an honest player."

Many coaches from that era demanded nastiness.

The Bills were trying to build a new defensive identity. Finesse and deep thought weren't what Saban wanted.

Fans noticed when the only coach to have guided Buffalo to glory, having overseen back-to-back AFL championship runs, began to openly ridicule Patulski's desire to be great.

"I don't think the fans picked up on Saban getting inside his head," Tranter said. "The fans certainly picked up on Saban's disappointment with Patulski and put more blame on Patulski because he was a No. 1 pick.

"I do remember him saying Patulski was soft and didn't want it enough. That colored the fan's perspective: 'Patulski was more to blame than anybody else,' and in retrospect that was not fair."

Not the same game

A lack of perspective also smears Patulski's legacy.

Today's NFL bares little resemblance to when Patulski played. To judge pass-rushers of yesteryear, when teams ran a preponderance of the time and sacks were unofficial stats, by contemporary standards can be dangerously misleading.

Over the four decades since Patulski left, the Bills have played in 13 games with fewer than 40 pass attempts. The lone instance over the last 26 years was amid gale-force winds in the 2008 finale against the New England Patriots.

There hasn't been a game across the entire NFL with sub-40 throws since January 2010.

Through Patulski's first three years, a span of 42 games, the Bills and an opponent combined for fewer than 40 attempts 18 times.

"You did not get the opportunity to rush the passer back then," DeLamielleure said. "He would be pretty damn good today if he got to really get after the passer every play.

"Not only could he rush, but you wouldn't see Walt Patulski tapping on his helmet to come out of the game because that sucker was in shape. He could run forever."

[Related -- Walt Patulski: Bills fans should enjoy the ride]

In six of 14 games Patulski's rookie year, the other team threw 17 or fewer passes and completed no more than nine. Buffalo's defense that year saw 308 attempts, 12th fewest -- excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season -- since the NFL-AFL merger.

Joe Ferguson and Bob Griese combined for 33 completions in both of Buffalo's games against Miami in 1973.

Patulski led the Bills with five sacks as a rookie, or .016 sacks per opponent pass attempt.

He recorded a career-high seven sacks the next year, or .019 sacks per opponent pass attempt.

That would equate to 11.5 sacks last year.

For another contemporary comparison, Bills outside linebacker Jerry Hughes amassed 20 sacks while opponents threw 1,120 times over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. That's .018 sacks per attempt.

While Patulski couldn't compete with Hughes' pass-rushing explosiveness, Hughes likely would have struggled to be as sturdy against the run as defensive ends needed to be in the 1970s.

Head of the class

Pro Quarterback magazine's March 1972 cover story featured Patulski in his gold Notre Dame helmet and a pair of headlines, "Special Report/The Buffalo Bills: Time for Re-evaluation" and "Walt Patulski: Best of a lean college crop."

The 1972 NFL draft is considered among the weakest classes. Not only did it produce a subpar number of superstars, but also a dearth of players who could be regulars.

From the birth of the American Football League in 1960 through 1997 (the most recent class to mint a Pro Football Hall of Famer), only four drafts have not delivered at least two inductees.

The 1992 class likely won't have any Hall of Famers. One apiece emerged from 1986, 1977 and 1972. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris is the lone '72 Hall of Famer. Eleven teams, the Bears twice, passed on Harris.

Patulski's first-round group produced 11 players who started at least five seasons. No first round has been worse -- by total number and percentage of picks -- since the NFL-AFL merger. Even the 2011 first round already has surpassed that barrier.

A dozen '72 first-round picks played fewer career games than Patulski did, and there were 26 teams then.

Three quarterbacks -- Jerry Tagge, John Reaves and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan -- were drafted before the seventh round. They started 33 games combined. Eighteen quarterbacks were taken, but only 13th-round pick Brian Sipe became a regular.

To find a more futile first round, travel back to 1966, when the NFL and AFL held separate drafts, and seven of the 23 prospects selected couldn't start at least five seasons.

So who should the Bills have selected instead of Patulski? They already had O.J. Simpson, making Harris, who would turn out to be the most prolific player, moot.

The Bills craved a bookend for Al Cowlings, the fifth overall pick in 1970. The Bills envisioned a duo to fill the void left by Ron McDole and Tom Day, the defensive ends from their AFL championship teams.

And Patulski sported more high-end decorations than Martha Stewart's Christmas tree.

Patulski was a consensus All-American, a co-captain and defensive MVP. Notre Dame lost five games during his three years as a starter. He was MVP of the Hula Bowl.

He won the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman (on either side of the ball) or linebacker. He was the only non-quarterback or non-running back to receive Heisman Trophy votes in 1971. Notre Dame lost five games during his three years as a starter.

Patulski was the best player on the country's best defense. The Fighting Irish allowed 8.6 points per game and was a safety away from posting four shutouts. They ranked fourth overall and third against the run.

Three of their defenders -- Patulski, safety Clarence Ellis 15th to the Atlanta Falcons and defensive tackle Mike Kadish 25th to the Miami Dolphins -- were drafted in the first round.

The Bills added Notre Dame's other starting defensive end, Fred Swendsen, with the 53rd pick and Patulski's roommate, defensive back Ralph Stepaniak, in the seventh round. Neither played an NFL game.

In reference to Patulski's defensive prowess, The Sporting News put him on the Nov. 6, 1971, cover with the headline "Notre Dame's Walt Patulski: They Shall Not Pass."

The Bills did not. They insisted on a defensive end, and Patulski appeared to be the finest.

"Walt was long and quick," Theismann said. "If he came out of college today, he could probably play the hybrid end-outside linebacker position. He was that talented.

"But when you get drafted No. 1 at any position, you're probably in a situation where the team needs more than just you to be good; forget about great.

"The team thinks you're outstanding, but one player doesn't make that kind of impact, especially on the defensive line. If you're really good, you'll get double-teamed, and you'll disappear."

Thing was, the 1972 class was uninspiring on the whole, and Patulski played a position that offered few guarantees for that era.

Of the 38 defensive ends drafted in 1972, seven became starters over their careers and zero went to a Pro Bowl.

With hindsight, the best defensive end that year was Sherman White. He never went to a Pro Bowl but played 12 serviceable seasons.

White, however, couldn't approach Patulski's pedigree. White played two games of organized football before enrolling at Cal. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him second overall.

Buffalo eventually landed White anyway. Four years later, Buffalo sent the third overall draft choice to Cincy for him. So the Bengals drafted defensive end Eddie Edwards, whose career also lasted 12 seasons, ending five years after White retired.

In short time, the Bills collected 1972 first-rounders, including three of the top four draft choices.

The Bills in 1974 acquired Cardinals receiver Ahmad Rashad, the fourth overall pick, for backup quarterback Dennis Shaw. Rashad played one season for Buffalo, missed the next with a knee injury then left as a free agent. He became a four-time Pro Bowler with the Minnesota Vikings.

Kadish was another 1972 first-round prospect, yet not good enough to make Miami's roster. He spent his rookie year on the practice squad then was sent to Buffalo for worn-out guard Irv Goode.

From gold to rocks

Patulski's father was a mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service and worked a second job repairing trucks. His mother raised four boys and a girl.

Patulski was a bruising fullback at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. He rushed for 1,111 yards in eight games his senior year. He averaged 20.4 points in basketball, broke the school's discus record and cleared 6 feet in the high jump.

Around 60 colleges recruited him to play football. Syracuse University, of course, wanted him.

Notre Dame had the inside track.

Notre Dame's president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, was from Syracuse. At a local event, he met Patulski's parents and greeted his mother in Polish, essentially assuring Notre Dame would take care of her boy.

That was that.

Patulski was introduced to the football business about a week into his freshman season. Parseghian switched him from fullback to defensive end, a move that still stings Patulski.

"I knew in my heart I wanted to be a fullback," Patulski said. "It was hard to swallow because I knew I had the physical assets to compete.

"I did feel betrayed, to be honest."

Patulski thrived at defensive end straight away. His sudden success and feedback from the coaching staff warmed him up to the change.

"We played players where they could best help the team," Parseghian said. "We had to make sure that all of our good ones weren't sitting on the bench, were in there playing and helping us win."

Patulski was a star on campus. Notre Dame contended for national championships, and he was a dominant force.

NFL splendor beckoned.

Or did it?

Patulski departed Notre Dame's mystique -- the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus and the helmets painted with actual gold leaf dust -- and found himself staring at a steel girder in the Rockpile.

Unable to play in the Bills' first exhibition because of a knee injury at the Chicago College All-Star Game a month earlier, he was handed an obstructed-view ticket because there wasn't enough space in the locker rooms or on the sidelines for him to be with the team.

Patulski would watch in astonishment as a snowplow occasionally cleared an asphalt parking lot for practice.

"Coming to the Rockpile from Notre Dame," Tranter said, "he must have thought, 'I've been sent to the minor leagues.' "

Searching for peace

The National Football League, in turned out, was not Shangri-la.

The money, the facilities, the egos were jarring.

"It was professional football, but it was a step down," Patulski said. "There was disappointment at the perception of what all the players were making. The press made it sound like I was going to be set for life and never have to work again.

"That was another welcome to reality."

Buffalo's stadium situation eventually changed. The coach did not.

Patulski played in the Rockpile's final game and the first in brand-spanking-new Rich Stadium, the same afternoon he couldn't pull the trigger on blocking that damned punt.

"The difference between Saban and Parseghian would be dramatic," Tranter said. "Patulski came across as a cerebral athlete. Well, Parseghian was a cerebral coach. So Patulski would, I'm sure, react well to that.

"Then you come with Saban and he's screaming at you and calling you an idiot and saying you're soft."

Patulski knows that paralyzing an important player wasn't what Saban intended.

But the blue-chip prospect who could -- to make sure he got the ball carrier -- simultaneously tackle Louisiana State quarterback Bert Jones and running back Tommy Casanova on an option play couldn't follow through on his instincts anymore.

"I just didn't want to make a mistake," said Patulski, looking toward the ceiling with a laugh. "Where was the psychiatrist?

Patulski has been searching for a better self his entire life.

He follows motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins and the late Zig Ziglar. He attends extreme retreats that involve fasting and vows of silence. He can speak deftly about existentialism and Buddhist philosophy.

Patulski on Friday learned somebody new wanted to speak with him.

Barbara Saban, the coach's daughter, is a psychotherapist.

"I adore my father," she said from her suburban Denver office, "but I also know he was not easy to roll with all the time."

Patulski, stunned at the development, said he absolutely will call Barbara. He was given her number Friday afternoon. There's so much he wants to say, so much to ask.

"Which Lou Saban memory should you remember? The one that picked you No. 1, or the one that traded you?" Patulski mused. "That's a koan. It's not solvable by the mind.

"He helped make you famous and helped destroy you."

Patulski had opportunities to visit before Saban died in 2009.

About a two-hour drive north from Syracuse, Saban supervised SUNY-Canton's startup program from 1995 through 2000. Saban coached with an oatmeal-colored poodle named Callie, who had been abandoned by neighbors, under his arm. Callie sat on the stool next to him at the bar.

"I'm sad for Walt," Barbara Saban said. "I wish he would have seen my dad in Canton. I think he would have enjoyed knowing a different person who wasn't under the pressures of coaching in the NFL.

"As grown men, they would have found that spot that would have been a source of healing for Walt."

Patulski ached for Saban to be the father figure Parseghian was to him at Notre Dame. They never developed a relationship beyond a card game called booray.

Saban was an intellectual, but distant. Patulski wanted to understand him. Wanted to "know how he thought, what's in his life." Wanted Saban to show a mutual interest in Patulski as a man.

"Whatever that gap was, I'm not even sure my dad noticed it or not," Barbara Saban said. "Sometimes, there's just a disconnect between two adults.

"My dad was not a man who, if you were looking for some sense of approval, you would not necessarily feel you were getting it. Was he disappointed in you? He probably wasn't thinking about it at all, and that feels a lot like disapproval."

Relayed what Barbara Saban had to say, Patulski emitted a revelatory sigh.

Perhaps at some point wondering how great it would've felt to stick that football in Lou Saban's chest will give way to wondering how sweet it would have been to shake his hand and feel those old emotions wash away.

Patulski has coped with these demons for four decades. He wasn't a draft bust. He wasn't a bad football player. He has tried to be a good man.

And Saban probably knew all that.

"I do regret just not being able to apologize to him for letting him down from what he thought he was getting," Patulski said. "I wouldn't apologize for anything I did, but I would like to say, 'I'm sorry this didn't work out for the two of us.' "

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