A Fathers Gift
Christopher M. Sniezak
In 1988, I began my relationship with the Buffalo Bills, and over the next few years, I fell in love with a team for the ages, a team reminding me of the things I loved most about my father.
My dad was the typical super fan of a football team, which meant Sundays were sacred. It started when he´d get home from church at eight in the morning and Al Jolson began blaring through the house. He´d sing and dance, eat peanut butter Captain Crunch, and wake everyone up doing it. What happened next depended on if it was a home or away game. Home games meant getting the coolers out, packing them with a bunch of beer and food, loading them into whichever beat up vehicle he owned at the time, and leaving for the game. This finished up at around nine AM with a crew of twelve or so friends waiting around the house. The faces changed very little over the years and I called most of them uncle even if they weren´t. They’d get to the parking lot early, before too much traffic built up, and start in on the beer up until they walked to their seats, and man did they have great seats. They were on the twenty-five yard line, visitor’s side, scoreboard end, only twenty-six rows from the field. I loved sitting there, but that year I saw most of the games from home and loved away games more because away games were parties.
My family lived in a modest three bedroom lower apartment of a double in the city of Buffalo. It felt cramped at times, but there was enough room for my parents, my two siblings, and I. That changed on Sunday. The extra TV went in the dining room, and the little black and white one sat on the kitchen table or the mantle in the living room. (It was big enough to hold a 24-inch tube TV) Food was cooked, beer was bought, and when kickoff came it wasn´t uncommon for more than fifty people to be in the house. My dad had a lot of friends he kept in touch with over the years from his childhood. He grew up in a different time where college wasn´t necessary, people stayed in Buffalo, and the friends you made in high school and the neighborhood became life long ones. All these people, and their families, would come to the house on Sundays when the Bills were away. So growing up a Bills away game meant a party. I miss those Sundays in my house with friends and family all around me. I liked football for all those reasons, but in 1990, I started to understand why the game was so great, why people were happier on a Monday when the Bills won, and why Buffalonian’s bleed red, white, and blue. It didn’t happen overnight. I was brought into it over the course of time by my father and my own curiosity.
I´d dabbled in watching football during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. My dad noticed my growing interest and started taking me to games. The first I remember was against the Packers in 88. The Bills scored a touchdown every quarter and I can still see the row of 7´s across the scoreboard. Those years I was a watcher, spending many Sundays sitting on the floor of the living room being quiet, or getting yelled at to stop asking dumb questions. I learned a lot about the game just by spending hours watching play after play in front of the TV while listening to my dad and his friends. They yelled, cheered, screamed, and sometimes swore. I imagine they held their tongues a lot more around the younger me. The first, and most important thing I learned, was walking in front of the TV on a Sunday during football season is heresy. It was also a quick recipe for getting something thrown at you. My father’s favorite projectiles were slippers or empty plastic cups, but I can still hear my dad´s booming voice yelling at anyone who got in the way. Those couple years of being around "the guys" prepared me for the best football in Buffalo Bills history.
The 1990 Bills caught my imagination as a sports fan. It was the year I stopped going out to play football in the street with my friends on Sundays because watching the game felt more important. The turning point for me feeling this way was week five against the Raiders. It was a Sunday Night game starting at 7:30. My bedtime was at nine in those days and when mom called for lights out at half time, I complied. I turned the lights off, turned the TV volume down, covered it with my blanket to dim the light, and watched the game as if I had a tent with the TV as one wall. I’m sure my mother knew what I was doing but she let it go. She must have because when the Bills blocked a punt and returned it for a Touchdown to take the lead in the 4th quarter she had to have heard me “silently” going nuts. A little later I started freaking out again as Nate Odomes returned a fumble for a touchdown to finish the Raiders off. It was a euphoric experience for my young mind between the excitement of the game and the thrill of disobeying my mother. The win also built up the idea of the Bills being a team of destiny having beaten the Denver Broncos the week before in a similar manner. Later on that season, I was at the Patriots game when Thurman Thomas had his longest run from scrimmage. The Bills were on their twenty yard line just trying to run the clock out. It was a dive play to Thomas. He disappeared into the pile, and popped out the other side. Eighty yards later, he was in the end zone. Man, was that fun. Week fifteen, they beat the Giants and broke Phil Simm´s foot in the process. Jim Kelly got banged up in the game too and would be out for a week. Of course, it was just in time for a pivotal week sixteen match up with the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium. If the Dolphins won, they would have the division lead with one week to go, having the tiebreaker by sweeping the Bills. I was worried but Thurman and Frank Reich, one of the best back up quarter backs in NFL history, weren´t having it. Thurman carried the rock thirty times for a 154 yards, grinding out runs, while Reich made the plays he needed to, and threw a couple touchdowns in a 24 - 14 win. The Bills had home field advantage for the playoffs.
I had so much fun watching the Bills that year. They were great but it was more than that. I understood the game a little better and the Bills gave off a vibe Buffalo was grooving on. The team meant so much to the city for so many reasons. The city of Buffalo had never won anything as far as professional sports teams went. In fact, we were looked at as losers in the sporting world. The Bills hadn’t been good since the beginnings of the NFL with OJ and the offensive line known as the Electric Company, the Sabers hadn’t been to the Stanley Cup Finals since the mid 70’s, and even with the addition of Pierre Turgeon and Alexander Mogilny the Sabers still floundered in the playoffs. We couldn’t even hold onto our professional basketball team, the Buffalo Braves, who snuck out of town one night. The Bills, on the other hand, had made two playoff runs the previous two years and put aside a time when they were known as the Bickering Bills. They’d come together becoming a team. As they did they pulled a whole community right along with them thirsting for something to hold onto in an area slowly fading away. Maybe we Buffalonian’s wouldn’t be losers anymore? Maybe this year would be different? Looking back now and listening to people talk about those days reminded me that the Bills made a difference in the lives of Western New Yorkers. In my case I found something I enjoyed connecting me to my dad in a way nothing else ever did.
During the playoffs, I watched the games at my grandparents´ house since my dad and the guys were at the games. It was something to behold. The whole of Western New York felt shut down for those games as a whole community was watching, waiting, and hoping. In essence, the post season began where the regular season left off. The Dolphins beat Kansas City in the Wild card game and were coming back to Buffalo. Bring ´em on, we beat ´em once, we can do it again. Those were my thoughts, and the thoughts of a city riding the wave of fandemonium and as Sunday rolled around the Bills did just that. They couldn´t stop us. Kelly, Andre Reed, and James Lofton went off. Thurman had a solid day, and the offense was clicking. Dan Marino just couldn´t keep up. I remember yelling, cheering, and jumping with joy. It was an amazing feeling to be wrapped up in something so much bigger than myself. Just beat the Raiders to get to the Super Bowl versus the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were playing the Giants who were without starting quarter back Phil Sims, I couldn´t see the Giants beating future hall of famers Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, not to mention the rest of their amazing team. Boy was I wrong.
The Bills handled their business destroying the Raiders 51-3. It was glorious day in Buffalo. The details are a little muffled in my mind but Darrel Talley’s interception for a touchdown sticks out as the point where it was just about a sure thing. We were going to the Super Bowl. It was just a formality for the 49ers to win but Lawrence Taylor, all world linebacker who changed the way the position was played, disagreed, and decided to take out Joe Montana. Man, he hit him hard. I felt it even thought they were playing the game on the west coast. So the Giants won. Alright, it won´t be a shoot out between two of the most potent offences in NFL history. Instead it´ll be a whooping of the Giants by the high-powered Buffalo Bills. I guess I was naive but I´m pretty sure everyone else thought Super Bowl XXV was going to be a Bills victory.
We all know how this story ends. At least you do if you´re any kind of football fan. The Bills lost. Wide right. Why didn´t you tackle Mark Ingram? Someone catch that little Megget. How did Hostedler hold on to that ball in the end zone? You get the drift. It broke my young heart. It was the only time I ever cried from a sporting event and I still hold a grudge against Bill Belicheck. He´s the coach of the dynastic New England Patriots these days but that year he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. He and Bill Parcells figured out how to slow down the vaunted Bills K-Gun offense enough to make a game of it, and with a little luck, and a few broken tackles at the right places they won, 20-19. It´s still the closest Super Bowl in history.
I was broken for a day but my younger self bounced back. I was a hooked football fan and it only got worse from there. Over the next three years I got to see over twenty of the twenty-four home games at Rich Stadium. You remember all those friends of my father’s I mentioned earlier. It just so happened almost every week one of them couldn´t go to the game. My dad would buy the ticket off them for me every time. I´ve seen some of the best football you can see in Buffalo and I have my father to thank for it. He died of cancer a while ago. I’ve always been kind of dense. I never thanked him for giving me this gift, this love for something greater than myself. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of something so meaningless and yet so meaningful to a community. The Bills are more important to me than I realized and for that, I just wanted to say thanks, dad.