Monday, January 31, 2011

Closure after 20 years

Most of us who grew up in Western New York inherited three things: a toughness to weather (and the lame, uninformed jokes about Buffalo's in particular), fandom of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, and an inferiority complex.

I've never been as nervous as I was sitting on our family room floor on Jan. 27, 1991 watching Scott Norwood line up for the 47-yard field goal from the right hash that would decide Super Bowl XXV. If he misses the Giants would win 20-19, upsetting a team that the Vegas oddsmakers had made a 7-point favorite based on their vaunted no-huddle offense that thrashed the L.A. Raiders in the AFC Championship Game 51-3.

But if Norwood makes it, he wouldn't just be kicking the ball through the bright yellow uprights further than he ever had on grass and winning the Super Bowl for championship-starved Buffalo. He wouldn't even be kicking our region's inferiority complex in the face, he'd be stabbing it in the heart while simultaneously resurrecting a civic pride probably not seen since the turn of the 20th Century when Buffalo was a thriving city of half million people that provided life-giving sea access for the Midwest. Hell, he might even be curb-stomping the tired weather jokes.

Despite being just 15 years old and not even a lifelong WNYer (let alone an actual Buffalonian), I knew that. I knew that because every Bills fan watching knew that. It was inherited from our parents, the national pop culture, our giving the key to the city to Frank Deford because he stuck up for our weather on a national pregame show by pointing out that multiple NFL cities had colder average winter temps, our County Exec making the embarrassing choice to bet maple syrup with his counterpart rather than chicken wings, and two city slogans that used improper grammar (Talking Proud! and Buffalo, You're Looking Good).

To quote the great longtime Bills announcer Van Miller (as written in the Buff News story):

"Scott Norwood, rarely raises his voice above a whisper, he can fire the shot heard 'round the world now and win a Super Bowl with eight seconds to play ... He's made only [six of 10] outside the 40. Here we go. Lingner ready to snap it back to Reich. Eight seconds to play. Norwood takes a practice swing with the right leg. Everyone up on their feet, watching intently. Norwood reaches down and takes something off his left cleat, now does it again. Still standing up near his holder, concentrating, waiting for the snap. Here we go, the Super Bowl will ride on the right foot of Norwood. 

Waiting for the snap, Reich, arm extended, puts it down, on the way, it's long enough ... and it is no good. He missed it to the right with four seconds to play. It was long enough but it was no good. And Norwood, walking slowly and dejectedly off the field. Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won the Super Bowl for the Bills."

As Sports Illustrated's Peter King said later, "Does that paint a great picture or what?"

I have a pretty fucking great memory, but I can't remember how I reacted. I don't recall if there was yelling, screaming, punching of pillows or just shocked paralysis. I watched the game with my parents, so I know that I didn't swear. I know that I didn't cry and nothing in the room got broken save for the most important thing in there—our hearts.

My only memory of life after Super Bowl XXV is dreading getting the next issue of Sports Illustrated, which had typically been one of the highlights of my week. Apparently I let my feeling of being cheated metastisize so much that months later my mom yelled at me to "get over it, because it's just a game." I don't actually remember being bitter, but my mom wouldn't have said that if it weren't true. Joan F just doesn't roll with exaggeration.

Six months later I finally opened and read that issue of Sports Illustrated with Giants DB Mark Collins on the cover. A couple years (?) later, my father and I re-watched the VHS tape with the Super Bowl on it. The first half, which ended with the Bills up 12-10, was fine. For a fleeting instance we both felt like we might win.

At one point late in college (after the Bills had lost four Super Bowls in a row), I started to come to terms with the experience. My father and I (in that bizarro version of rationality that is mostly warped emotion but spoken without feeling in the voice) noted that what this Bills team did was as impressive as anything any other team had done (no NFL team before or since made it to four straight Super Bowls)  ... they just didn't win when it mattered the most.

Twenty years later there's still a scar on my heart. The vulnerability of the open wound has healed over, but my heart is not the same as it was before. I walk with a feeling that Buffalo's best days won't return no matter how many cool new things pop up and thrive through the cracks in the city's foundation (like the Lloyd Taco Truck and Hero Design and even hosting a TEDX event). And I walk that way despite knowing what my mom said about it being just a game is true, particularly now as Egypt faces a revolution.

Well, all that was true until today. On Sunday, The Buffalo News ran it's 20th anniversary package about Super Bowl XXV. News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan interviewed more than two dozen former players, coaches and execs to get their memories of that fateful experience. The benefit and wisdom gained over time paired with native Rhode Islander Sullivan's ineffable "get" of Buffalo resulted in the closure I've needed.

My favorite story was "It ain't hooking," which focused specifically on players' and coaches' memories of Norwood's kick. To liberally quote from the passage that redeemed my relationship with the city ...

Hearing [Bills longsnapper Adam] Lingner and [backup QB and holder Frank] Reich anguish about the laces, you sense that, even to this day, they would like to take some of the burden off Norwood. He was crushed by the miss. Norwood has said he didn't feel he had failed, but that he had let his teammates down. He trudged off the field, his head slumped forward, then went into the losing locker room.

Norwood stood at his locker for a good hour, answering every question from wave after wave of reporters. [Special teams coach Bruce] DeHaven stood by his side the whole time. A few minutes would go by, then DeHaven would ask Norwood if he'd had enough. Norwood shook him off each time. "I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions."

DeHaven later named a son after Norwood. "We adopted him in Colombia," said DeHaven, who is on his second tour as the Bills' special teams coach. "Tobin Scott DeHaven. Scott handled that deal with so much dignity, so much class, that day."

He spoke haltingly, the emotions surging in him again. "I, I just wanted to be able to tell Toby some day, 'This is how you should conduct yourself in life. This is a pattern in life to follow.' He'll be 14 soon. I think he understands now."

I literally ended the story, which also revealed a new detail shared by backup QB and kick holder Frank Reich about Norwood's uncharacteristic struggles during warmups, in tears. And not a single Indian don't-pollute-or-litter tear, but cheeks soaked by streams of tears.

My favorite nuggets though were in Sullivan's interview, which ran in an extended version on his blog, with fantastic Bills backup running back Kenneth Davis, which reminded me how much the people who played on that team meant to me and the city. 

I told Kenny he seemed emotional just talking about it.

"It is emotional," he said. "I never had a bad day in Buffalo. I don't care if it was practice, training camp at the college, Rich Stadium or on the road. I never had a bad day. I was excited to come to work. I was up early every day. I ... loved ... coming ... to work. It didn't matter if it was summertime or the middle of the year. It was because of the cohesiveness of the organization, the attitude. I'm talking even the people who cleaned up for us, the people who fed us lunch, the ones who cleaned up the stadium."

Davis said he never felt much separation between the team and the fans in Buffalo. He felt a kinship between a blue-collar team and a blue-collar community. He remembers how it felt on a cold Sunday on game day, seeing the smoke coming out of tailpipes in the cars, the smell of barbecue as he walked down the tunnel. He seemed ready to run out and hit someone as he spoke. By the time he was done, I was ready to run out the tunnel with him.

"To walk out there and see those fans with their beer helmets on, their wool caps, drinking their beer and the smiles on their faces. It made work better for them when we won. It was exciting to walk out and see them up there. You'd see the team on the other sideline and want to kick their butts. There was no feeling quite like it. Man, Buffalo is just a wonderful place."

The fact that men like Davis got that added the corollary to my mom's admonishment that I should "get over it, because it's just game" ... "and that what's most important about what just happened wasn't that kick or the score, but that you got to experience the unique synergy of a city, its team and the fans of both."

So thanks to Mom, Sully, Buffalo the city and the Bills and City of Buffalo fans and most of all to the execs, staff, coaches and players for the memories.

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