By the end of last season, I was so thoroughly disenchanted with the Bills’ first-to-worst freefall that even though I knew there were a couple of new team-related books on the market, I consciously avoided that section of the bookstore on my Christmas-shopping sprees. But time heals all wounds, or so the old adage goes, and when Jim Gehman asked if I’d be interested in looking at a copy of “Then Levy Said to Kelly ...”, I eagerly agreed. (I also told him I’d review it once the spring high school sports season ended—which was two months ago—proving that I’m dangerous without a firm deadline. But I digress ...)
Gehman is well versed in his subject. He was a regular contributor to Shout! magazine during the 1990s, has written “Where Are They Now?” features on National Football League alumni for buffalobills.com and several other teams’ Web sites, and currently serves as a columnist for Eagles Insider. However, in “Then Levy Said to Kelly ...”, the author isn’t interested in writing an in-depth history of the team or impressing the reader with his extensive knowledge of the game. Instead, the book comprises a series of brief anecdotes based on interviews with dozens of former Bills, from Hall of Famers to short-term role players. He efficiently sets the scene in each piece, then quietly moves out of the way, allowing the subjects to tell their stories in their own words. A bonus compact disc containing interviews with Wall of Fame inductees Darryl Talley, Jim Ritcher, Joe DeLamielleure, and Elbert Dubenion adds another dimension to the project.
The result of Gehman’s lengthy list of contacts is an engaging and informative look behind the door of the Bills’ locker room. Of course, there are chapters on the AFL championships, O.J. Simpson’s 2,003-yard season, and the “Super Bills” era. But you’ll also find stories about the mostly-anonymous guys in the trenches and on special teams, players who moved on to other teams (some of whom weren’t exactly disappointed to leave town), and others who dealt with career-altering injuries. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Ken Jones thought about changing his number to try to avoid flag-happy referees, why Fred Smerlas derisively dubbed Hank Bullough “Braincell,” or what happened when Jerry Butler was introduced to Buffalo-style chicken wings for the first time on the night before his record-setting 10-catch, 255-yard performance against the Jets, you’ll find those stories here.
The most poignant tale in the book appears close to the end, when Gehman writes about the final play of Derrick Burroughs’ career, and its aftermath: “During the second quarter of a September 24, 1989, game in Houston’s Astrodome, Buffalo’s fifth-year cornerback was covering Oilers wide receiver Curtis Duncan on a routine play that did not have a routine ending.” Burroughs suffered a compressed spinal cord when tackling Duncan, spending a frightening hour paralyzed from the neck down before beginning to regain feeling in his arms and legs. He was immediately placed on injured reserve, and following neck surgery, a previously undiagnosed narrowing of his spinal canal forced him into retirement at 27. At first he understandably thought, why me? But Burroughs, now an administrative assistant with the UFL’s New York franchise, eventually realized, “Being a part of the NFL is great. Being a pro football player is wonderful. But being able to walk is more important than anything in the world. When I understood that, I stopped asking why.”
For bringing us stories like these, “Then Levy Said to Kelly ...” is a worthy addition to any Bills bookshelf.