On my first trip through Scott Pitoniak’s latest book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, I stopped reading after seven or eight pages.
That’s certainly not meant as a knock on Pitoniak’s work. Scott knows his stuff – he’s covered the Bills since the mid-’80s, after all – and I’ve always enjoyed his writing style. Instead, I was having so much fun checking out all the reproduced memorabilia included in this gorgeous “scrapbook,” I began eagerly flipping through the pages like a kid on Christmas morning, impatient to see what was inside the next brightly-wrapped gift.
Here’s how Whitman Publishing, which began the series with books on major-college football and basketball programs, describes the concept:
“Imagine being given the key to a vault in a bank where you can touch everything inside. With Whitman Vault Books, we have taken this dream one step further by delivering to you the treasures of your favorite team inside of our ultimate history books.
“Every book in the Whitman Vault series takes you back to the very beginning of a school’s football or basketball program through a narrative provided by an author with detailed knowledge of the program while accompanied by vintage photographs from extensive campus archives. But what makes this book different than any other ever produced is that we include replicas of old collectibles and memorabilia that you can touch and actually remove from the Vault. That is why each book weighs almost 5 pounds!”
In the Bills Vault, those reproductions, stored in protective sleeves on and between the pages of the book, include a 1961 season-ticket order form ($5 per game for sideline seats) ... copies of the “Buffalo Bills Bulletin” newsletter ... a sideline pass from the 1964 AFL Championship Game ... postcards of gameday program covers and the famous Machine Gun Kelly poster ... Pitoniak’s own Super Bowl press passes ... a ticket from the Comeback game ... and even, stuffed in behind a color photo of the 1964 squad, a miniature felt AFL Bills pennant. (There’s more, much more, but I’ve given you enough spoilers for one review.)
Back to the book itself, which kicks off with a foreword from Chris Berman titled, “Why I Love Buffalo.” Pitoniak’s clear, concise writing, full of quotes and anecdotes, smoothly covers all the requisite high and low points of the team’s first 50 seasons from Ralph Wilson’s pre-Bills background all the way up through Chan Gailey’s hire. The text is handsomely complemented by countless photos – many which were never used in any previous Bills-related book – and more memorabilia from both team and private collections; in his acknowledgments, Scott compared the hours he and Bills archivist Denny Lynch spent working on the book to a treasure hunt.
It’s easy to see why he feels that way. “Bills Vault” isn’t inexpensive; the book retails for $50, although I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.com at a discount. But to me, it’s absolutely worth the price – as much collector’s item as reference source – and would make an eye-catching centerpiece for any true Bills fan’s bookshelf.
Well, the list of preliminary Pro Football Hall of Fame nominees has been released and several names familiar to all Bills fans appear. The usual suspects – Steve Tasker and Andre Reed – are on the list, but I thought I would take a moment to discuss the entire list, their qualifications and my opinion of what is going to happen.
Brief Bio: Tasker played 13 seasons for the Bills and was selected to seven Pro Bowls, making him the first special teams player to accomplish that task. He generated 204 special team tackles and blocked seven punts over his career. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-Time Team in 2000 and was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
My Opinion: This one baffles me. The definition of a Hall of Famer is someone who dominates at his position or is a trailblazer. Hall of Fame selector Rick Gosselin stated, “You can compare Emmitt Smith to Walter Payton, Brett Favre to John Elway and Michael Strahan to Lee Roy Selmon. But you can’t compare Tasker to anyone.” Sounds like a trailblazer to me. Either that or the selection committee has trouble understanding how to evaluate talent. Former special teams coach Bruce DeHaven stated, “I never saw anybody use three guys to try to block a gunner on punt coverage until I saw teams start to do it against Steve Tasker. He forced people to do things that no one had ever done before on special teams.” He made seven Pro Bowls and was the only special teams player to be named MVP. How can you say that he did not dominate? Tasker is probably not going to make it. The Hall of Fame selectors are more concerned with offensive and defensive players, and will ignore special teams. If, by some miracle, the selection committee elects a special teamer, it will be Ray Guy. Is Tasker deserving of the honor? Yes. Will he get it? Probably not. It is unfortunate that Tasker will not get the recognition that he deserves. You can thank the selection committee for that travesty.
Brief Bio: A fourth-round pick for Buffalo in the 1985 NFL Draft, Reed went on to play 15 seasons for the team. Over that time, Reed was selected to seven Pro Bowls and retired as the all-time receiving leader for the Bills and third all-time in the NFL. His 941 receptions netted him 13,095 yards and 86 touchdowns.
My Opinion: Reed is going to have a difficult time this year. No other receiver on the list comes close to Jerry Rice, and the selection committee might ignore all other receivers in this class. If they put another receiver in, it will probably be Cris Carter. Cris’ problem is his whining a few years ago about his induction and having a camera crew follow him around that weekend to capture his Hall of Fame moment. The selection committee seems to want to teach him a lesson, so he might have to wait another year for induction. They appear to want to put him in, but the selection committee has a history of acting petty and childish, so they may try to impose their will one more time. Reed was more dominant in the post season – you know, when it counts – but Carter is a member of the media, so the selection committee will give Carter the edge.
Brief Bio: Kent Hull was one of the keys to the no-huddle offense run by the Bills during their Super Bowl runs. From 1986 through 1996, Hull only missed two games. He was selected to three Pro Bowls over his career.
My Opinion: Kent Hull is deserving of the honor, but with him going up against Dermontti Dawson, he will not be a later-round finalist. The Bills put Hull on the Wall of Fame in 2002. He deserved the recognition for his play.
Brief Bio: A second-round pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, Talley was selected one pick behind Jim Kelly. He played in 188 games over his twelve seasons with the team, generating 1,137 tackles, 38.5 sacks and two Pro Bowl berths.
My Opinion: Talley will not get in before some of the other linebackers on the list, namely Kevin Greene and Clay Matthews. Not that they are deserving of induction when you compare them to the best linebackers of all time like Butkis and Nitschke, but the selection committee has a habit of electing people with lesser qualifications.
Brief Bio: A mainstay at linebacker for the Bills, Bennett racked up 1048 tackles (142 assists) and 71.5 sacks over his career. Add to that, seven interceptions (one for a touchdown), 31 forced fumbles, and 27 fumble recoveries (including one for a touchdown) and Bennett earned his five trips to the Pro Bowl.
My Opinion: The same opinion I have with Talley, I have with Bennett. While he was a solid player for the Bills, he is not going to get the love from the selection committee. Other linebackers will go in and Biscuit will be left out.
Brief Bio: Knox was the Bills’ head coach from 1978 through 1982. He also spent time coaching the Los Angeles Rams (two tours) and the Seattle Seahawks. His overall coaching record was 186-147-1, with a 37-36-0 record as the Head Coach of the Bills.
My Opinion: Next.
Brief Bio: Smerlas was selected in the second round of the 1979 NFL Draft and played eleven seasons for the Bills. He played in 162 games and earned five Pro Bowl nominations as one corner of the infamous “Bermuda Triangle” of the 1980s (Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson were the other corners).
My Opinion: He really doesn’t stand a chance against Charles Haley, Richard Dent and John Randle. He has no shot of becoming a finalist and I do not expect him to make it out of this round.
There are others who spent a short time with the team (Larry Centers, Mike Pruitt and Chris Spielman), but since their time with the team was brief, I will not focus on them.
A glaring omission from the list of nominees is Tom Sestak. He was a seventeenth-round pick in the 1962 AFL Draft who went on to play seven seasons for Buffalo. Over that span, he recorded 51 sacks and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Sestak was named to the All-AFL team four times and was selected to be on the Bills Silver Anniversary Team in 1984. As one of the most dominant players at that position at that time, he deserves consideration.
Back in 1994, during the prehistoric days of this Internet thing, a friend put up a website dedicated to the Buffalo Bills. Having moved away from WNY well before that, the Internet opened a wide new window to follow our favorite team. It sure beat waiting until Friday’s mail delivered the print editions of Shout! magazine.
On our little website we thought it would be cool to offer random musings on the Bills drawing from the still sparse tidbits that were collected from pioneer sports sites and other connected fans. The basic hobby turned into a weekly review of the games and major offseason events. Oblivious to how spoiled we were in the mid ‘90s by a Bills team of the ages, we allowed ourselves to forget the true history of Buffalo’s football mediocrity interspersed with brief flashes of triumph.
Still, it’s a shame that this Internet thing wasn’t discovered sooner by us. By the time we began writing, the light was dimming on the franchise run, the offense sputtered and the run game stalled. But the team still played sound fundamentals and it was funny to see confusion on the sidelines and in the huddles of the opponents. And appropriately, most of the weekly game notes still poked fun at the other teams’ miscues in attention to detail, clock management and general incompetence.
A big part of that attention to detail, of course, involved respecting nature’s elements that inevitably came up in the stadium previously known as Rich. It wasn’t the Bills’ coaches or players idea to put the playing field on a flat plane within a spitting distance of the lake with an unobstructed path for the winds, water, snow, ice, or whatever Erie felt like disgorging onto the 80,000 red, white, and blue revelers on its eastern edge. But the smart players and coaches knew and respected it. That’s why it was always amusing to see visiting coaches stick to normal routine and ignore the main point that after October, you defend the scoreboard endzone in the fourth quarter, no matter what. Every 10-year old Buffalonian knew that, but somehow few of the opposing coaches picked up the local nugget of wisdom. Back then it was funny to laugh at Bill Parcells who stood stonefaced when Adam Vinatieri (yeah him) was short on a 30-something yard field goal. Funny stuff.
But as all good things must end, things started changing for us in 1997, as many other sites did a better job covering the Bills than we did, and the pros realized that this Internet thingy was not a passing phase. We took down the shingle from gobills.com, but still offered irregular commentary here & there, much like the Bills playoff runs in 1998 & 1999. But mostly we’ve been away from actively writing & reporting, again similar to the Bills being away from competitive football since 1999.
I didn’t miss it that much, as in these 10 seasons, thanks to wall to wall coverage of Bills news on the Internet, NFL Sunday Ticket, ESPN and NFL Network, I’ve been able to get my Bills’ fix. Year round. 24/7.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one. It was great to watch Bills’ away games in sunny climes and hear a huge roar from the visiting crowd when something good happened to Buffalo. When DirecTV surveyed its Sunday ticket customers this year, it found that Bills fans were among the largest and most loyal among the displaced fandom in the sunbelt. The Bills dispora is large and is everywhere.
Which brings us to today. Most of my Buffalo fandom soulmates grew up in the ‘60s & ‘70s, so following a losing team isn’t unique to us. You can say it’s part of character building, like being forced to clear the driveways and sidewalks from November to March.
So why was this season not like another season? What made this season and brief offseason particularly depressing?
It actually didn’t sink in during the three game slide to hated division rivals, but in a meltdown on Monday Night in full view of a national TV audience. It wasn’t just the loss, it was the way they lost it. They lost by ignoring the fundamentals of what it means to play in Western New York in the fall and winter. They ignored the basic tenets of the home advantage that the dark foreboding lake has on the out-of-towners’ psyche as their airplane circles Orchard Park on the landing approach.
Following that game I fielded a few messages from the diaspora comrades. Somehow this loss was different. The messages were, “I’m finally out.” The guys who were die hard fans, dedicating each fall Sunday afternoon to watching the team for over 30 years, were giving up. “Why should we bother to give up most of our Sundays,” they asked, “When the team obviously doesn’t care.” Their financial commitment isn’t the same as flying to Buffalo and buying game tickets, but the time and emotional commitment is the same.
I couldn’t respond, as I agreed. The emotion and attachment that I always associated with the team was suddenly gone. Why bother? There are better things I could be doing. Why bother with the nearly $300 Sunday Ticket sticker price shock, when the summation of the previous day’s ineptitude is available online in real time? For a few moments on prime-time recap shows, the Bills highlights are indistinguishable from the Lions or the Browns. So the uniform color is different. So, what?
That suddenly empty feeling was later amplified upon hearing louder cheers for a Dolphins first down at a December “home” game. Otherwise, the Rogers Centre crowd elicited the sound of empty seats dressed up in US dollar green.
As the season ground to a merciful halt, it turned out that I had company. The feeling of disgust permeated the entire Bills fan community. Say what you want about these Internets tubes, they are wonderful feedback loops.
Suddenly the Sunday Ticket plans that are usually set for auto renewal, are on the backburner. Circling the Sunday dates on the 2009 calendar when the schedule is released in April, is no longer a given. Visits back to Buffalo will no longer happen only in football season (good thing for the rest of WNY economy).
Other franchises with large home bases may shrug off a temporary fan revolt.
Not when it’s an annual struggle to fill the stadium. Not when a good portion of the crowd has to travel over 100 miles to attend the game.
It would be easy to blame the economy for the fan apathy. But in a bad economy, there is more competition vying for a share of Bills’ fans attention and spending cash. Chances are, the fans’ money will follow those who don’t skimp on the product nor insult their intelligence by taking them for granted. When the emotion is taken from the fandom, you have to compete on purely economic and entertainment terms. That’s where Ralph Wilson’s Bills lose.
Of course speaking in economic terms, Ralph Wilson probably did his math and if less than 7,000 fans walk out on the team next year, then he’s a net winner with Dick Jauron’s extended contract.
A net winner indeed.
So many thanks Mr. Wilson for all these years, but next year I think I’ll stick to checking out the highlights on the Internet. For free. If time permits.
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