In Second to None, author Joe Valerio tells the incredible story of the Buffalo Bills: the perpetual almost-champions and their indomitable fans. The Bills’ incredible skill and teamwork on the field was matched only by their single-minded determination as, in the four years spanning 1991 to 1994, the team won four consecutive conference championships, and lost four consecutive Super Bowls. The peaks and nadirs of their record reflect a fascinatingly dynamic, uneven, and—at times—uncontrollable array of talents. Valerio renders in sharp detail how the Bills’ unique culture was formed by an unlikely ecosystem of world-class athletes hunkered down in bleak western New York, far away from the celebrity playgrounds of other pro teams. Meticulously researched and carefully crafted, this one-of-a-kind look inside the Super Bowl–era Buffalo Bills is based on extensive interviews with the key players, coaches, and management, including Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, as well as coach Marv Levy, general manager Bill Polian, and many others, including players and coaches from opposing teams, and the reporters who covered them.
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About the Author
Joe Valerio is a sportswriter and producer who covered sports for People and Sport magazines, among others. For more than 10 years, he was a producer with ABC News and CBS Sports, where he won multiple Emmy awards for writing and producing. He has produced the Sports Reporters numerous other programs for ESPN for 23 years. He lives in Westport, Connecticut. Steve Tasker is a former NFL player who played for the Buffalo Bills for 12 seasons. He currently works as an analyst for CBS sports. He lives in Buffalo, New York. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, Marv Levy coached the Buffalo Bills from 1986 to 1997, leading the team to four straight Super Bowl appearances. He resides in Chicago, Illinois.
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Second to None
The Relentless Drive and Impossible Dream of the Super Bowl Bills
By Joseph Valerio
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Joseph Valerio
All rights reserved.
Coalescing in Jim Kelly's Man Cave
Deep into the night, they kept streaming into Jim Kelly's house on Hillsboro Drive, out in the woods of Orchard Park, a short drive from Rich Stadium where, just hours before Kelly and his teammates had demolished the Los Angeles Raiders 51–3 to win the AFC championship and earned a trip to the Super Bowl the following Sunday.
On this January evening in 1991, it seemed like an endless parade of revelries. Among the merrymakers were not just Kelly's teammates, but their families and friends and friends of friends, who had witnessed perhaps the crowning moment in the history of this dignified franchise that had brought so much pride to upstate New York since it entered the old American Football League more than 30 years before. 'We're going to the Super Bowl. We're going to the Super Bowl, Kelly kept thinking to himself as he watched everyone arrive. "I had fulfilled it. It was a dream I'd had ever since I was a little boy," he later said.
It was a dream so many people have, not just NFL players but perhaps millions of kids, of playing quarterback and making the big plays and getting to the big game. Only for Kelly and those gifted few men who ever reach such lofty aspirations to play quarterback in the National Football League, this was no longer a dream, or a goal. It had become a reality.
The feeling was better than he had ever imagined. So many of the people who had meant so much to him over the years were here with him. It almost didn't seem real. "That was the goal all five of my brothers had: to become NFL players," Kelly said. "Fortunately I was able to do it. I was more excited for my brothers, my family, and the city of Buffalo than I really was for myself. I wanted to win it for everybody."
That night, his house was nearly as raucous as the stadium had been that afternoon. Maybe not as loud, but certainly just as boisterous. All the big players in Buffalo, which is to say all of the Bills, were there now and having the time of their lives. They had just won the biggest game any of them had ever played, and they had won big. If possible, they were even more proud than the 80,000 fans who had filled Rich Stadium — no small thing, for the Bills, their Bills, meant the world to the people of Buffalo.
"Everybody, the whole team was there," Darryl Talley, the Bills' outstanding linebacker, remembered. "Everybody showed up. Like Robin Hood and his merry little band of men. Everybody was really estatic. We were going to the Super Bowl."
Jim Ritcher, the offensive guard who always made it a point to drop by Kelly's with his family and friends on Sunday nights, said, "It just brought the team closer together. Everyone would just stop by his house. The night wasn't complete unless you were there."
Steve Tasker, the special teams star, knew it was the perfect way to end gameday. "Jim would say, 'You gotta come over,' and I'd say, 'I'd like to, but Mom and Dad are in town, and my brother's around, and I have to do something with them.' And Jim would say, 'Just bring 'em. Bring 'em all over. What fan would not want to come? So it got to the point where everybody's families — Mom, Dad, kids, brothers, sisters — would all be over there. It became more than just players. And you'd see them all there."
If nights like this helped bring them together, well, it had been a long time coming. There had been so many dismal seasons before they became champions. Long, endless years when the Bills went 2–14 back-to-back and then 4–12. Lingering, punishing autumns, often played out in harsh conditions, as the Bills became the joke of the entire league.
Oh and 10.
For Talley, one of the few veterans who had endured so much pain, it only made this moment all the more gratifying. "As far as the 2–14s, and the 4–12s," Talley would say years later, "there weren't a lot of guys there for that — except for me and Bruce Smith. Jim Kelly went through one. But one thing we all had in common was you got to work real hard to get what you got. Nothing's handed to you. And once we all figured out we had that one thing in common, we all held each other to a higher standard than what anyone else thought [of us]."
It had all come together on an almost balmy January day in Buffalo. The temperature was 36 degrees and a light rain was falling when the Raiders kicked off, just past 12:30 in the afternoon. The game soon turned into a rout. The Bills' high-octane offense could not be contained much less stopped. With Kelly throwing all over the Raiders, Thurman Thomas running by them, and Bruce Smith, one of the Bills' Big Three who were headed for the Hall of Fame, wreaking havoc on Los Angeles's offensive game plan, Buffalo simply overpowered its opponent.
And on this day, Talley delivered the hallmark game of his Pro Bowl career. He made numerous tackles and had two interceptions, taking the first pick 27 yards into the Raiders end zone to make it a 21–3 Bills stampede. Game, set, and match.
By halftime the score was 41–3. Later, as the clock was winding down, Talley and Smith began slapping each other's shoulder pads in celebration and yelling, "Where are we going?" Smith shouted. "To the show," Talley yelled back. "Where are we going?" Smith screamed once more. "To the show," Talley roared. Then, in unison, they kept laughing and saying, "Next week. Next week. Next week." Then they embraced and were on their way.
Don Pitts, a season-ticket holder, remembers buying a souvenir hat in the parking lot before he entered Rich Stadium that day. "I don't know how they had them yet, but I bought a Buffalo Bills AFC Champions hat," he said. "Of course, I wouldn't wear it going in. I didn't want to jinx them or anything. But at halftime I felt pretty good about what was going on so I put it on. Man, that was a game."
The greatest game any Buffalo team had ever played. The party was on. Tampa, here we come.
Nearly everyone who visited Kelly's home that evening had spent the afternoon cheering wildly for their team dressed in red, white, and blue — appropriate colors for this day in America with the country at war in the Persian Gulf. "Everyone had their Bills paraphernalia on," continued Pitts, a sales representative for Altria. "Whatever items came out, everybody had to have it. The newest and the best. The old Zumba pants, striped red, white, and blue. You wanted the latest and the greatest stuff. You wanted to be seen."
All around the stadium fans could be seen waving American flags. In the days leading up the game there had been concern about terrorist threats, that the war would escalate and force the National Football League to postpone the contest. But the game went on, and the West Point Band performed the national anthem, bringing tears to the eyes of Ralph Wilson Jr., the only owner the Bills had ever had and a World War II veteran.
Wilson was not alone in his sense of pride and accomplishment. The entire municipality of Buffalo had never experienced anything like it. There was no Major League Baseball franchise. The pro basketball team, the Buffalo Braves, had long departed for the West Coast. The hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, could never elicit the passion of football fans, however longsuffering they were. The Bills' championship seasons of 1964–65 came in the old American Football League before the league merged with the more esteemed National Football League. There was no doubt about it, this was the biggest stage any team representing Buffalo had ever reached. And the Super Bowl, only a week away, was no less than the biggest sporting event in the United States.
"I don't think anyone else on that team had been to a Super Bowl," Talley said, "front office or anything. The team was charged up. You played, worked all your life to get to this game, to get to this point, and it was one of the days when [you do] whatever it takes to win. It was a chance to get to the Super Bowl. And everybody thinks about doing it, but now you have the power to get yourself there. Everybody was as happy as they could be. But there was still a one-win game."
Upon arriving at Kelly's house, all the guests, and there were easily a 100 of them now, promptly made their way downstairs to where his state-of-the-art entertainment center, sprawled across the basement of his spacious home, was switched on. The massive television set — "one of those big refrigerator-size things," Steve Tasker recalled — was showing the final seconds of the National Football Conference title game out in San Francisco. The New York Giants were about to upset the two-time Super Bowl–champion 49ers on the final play of the game, a 42-yard field goal by Matt Bahr, his fifth field goal of the day, that would send the Giants on to Tampa with a 15–13 victory.
By then Smith had settled into his customary place, a front-row seat on the huge couch next to Kelly, as they always did on these Sunday nights, so no one could block their view as they watched SportsCenter on ESPN and then the VHS tape of their game from that afternoon. For the Bills, this was like watching their own installment of Masterpiece Theater over and over again, much to the delight of an adoring crowd of Buffalo insiders.
Ritcher, a lineman, remembers those nights like they were yesterday — how his parents and groups of friends would drive up from Ohio for every game and afterward they would all go to Ilio DiPaolo's, a popular Italian restaurant in Buffalo and then make a final stop at Kelly's house.
Pete Metzelaars, the big tight end, loved going to Ilio's. "Almost 20 guys on the team would go there after the game. He kept the whole back room isolated for us. We came in a back entrance and we'd have dinner. Kind of kick back, relax a little bit, talk about the game a little bit. We all had our families and kids, and that was the place to be after the games."
"My father and the players would come in after the game," Dennis DiPaolo recalled, "and my father would always have his friend tape the game. Then when we came back we'd put the tape in so the players could watch while they were eating with their families. Kent Hull, Will Wolford, Jim Ritcher, Andre Reed — they wanted to hear what Don Criqui was saying about them. They really enjoyed watching a nationally televised game while they were sitting eating dinner. You never got tired of watching the game."
"Then a lot of times, after dinner we'd take the kids home," Metzelaars said, "and get a babysitter and go to Jim Kelly's house." He laughs at the memory of it now: fairly nice neighborhood, big houses and stuff, cars parked up and down the street. That poor neighborhood got invaded every Sunday night when there was a home game."
It had become a ritual, and not only did it bring the team closer together, but it reinforced the bond with some of the Bills' great players from the past who were always welcome. And in Buffalo, and throughout America, no Bill was more famous than O.J. Simpson, the celebrated Heisman Trophy winner who had been one of the greatest running backs in NFL history and led Buffalo's last rise to prominence in the early '70s. O.J.'s fame had only increased after his playing days, through television broadcasting, commercials, and movies. "Of course, this was before the O.J. Simpson incident," Ritcher said. "O.J. would be on one of Jim's couches watching the replay of our game with Thurman [Thomas] with my friends from Ohio sitting between them. And one of them looked over at me, like she couldn't believe it, and she'd say, 'O.J. can you pass the chips?' Stuff like that was just so incredible for someone like that from Ohio."
The real centerpiece of Kelly's man cave was a long bar accented by a huge mirror bearing the inscription Kelly's Irish Pub. At one end of the bar was a dance floor and at the other end was the huge, rear-projection TV. In still another corner of the room sat a large pool table that seldom lacked activity. Don Beebe was a fixture there, shooting pool even on a Sunday night like this, with the broken leg he had suffered a month earlier in a game against the Miami Dolphins. The downstairs doors fanned out to a huge backyard that contained a bocce court.
Situated on a quiet cul-de-sac with only a handful of neighbors, the surroundings could not have been more beneficial to Kelly. A bachelor, he had the spacious, 7,500-square-foot custom home built not long after he arrived in Buffalo in 1986 with the then-most-lucrative contract in the game. This was a place where his parents and five brothers would be able to stay when they came to visit, which was often, since the Kellys were a close-knit group. And the home afforded every luxury of a five-star hotel, which were in short supply in Buffalo. It featured eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, a sauna, a steam room, two Jacuzzis, and of course, a magnificent finished basement.
It served his needs well since it afforded privacy, a currency in short supply for the celebrated quarterback of an adored team in this small city in upstate New York. After all, his was the face of the Buffalo Bills, and at 6930 and 225 pounds, he clearly stood out in a crowd. And in a municipality as small as Buffalo that notoriety can be suffocating as well as intoxicating. It surely made it difficult to go out and socialize without drawing attention.
He was young and handsome and single, the trifecta, to say nothing of his wealth. If fans thought he had the perfect life, they often expected — damn well demanded — perfection from him on the field, and nothing less than civility in public.
There had been times in the past when Kelly would be out on the town and fans would shower him with much more than affection. On one particular evening there had been an incident with a woman in a nightclub. "Jim said something she didn't appreciate," Bob Koshinski, a local television reporter for WKBW-TV remembered, "and she threw a drink at him and I think he put her up against the wall according to stories. And our station, we were the number-one news station in town, and, of course, we had a reporter out at his house in the early-morning hours. And his dad came to the door and sent her away and Jim refused to talk to us for a week or two, till he got over it."
A few years after the incident, Bills management was only too happy when Kelly began inviting his teammates back to his home after games, far from public view, to kick back and let the good times roll. "Not that we didn't have a good relationship with the fans," Ritcher said, "but there was always a chance guys would go out and get in trouble when we were starting to be fairly successful. Being an offensive lineman, you're never that noticeable. And I wasn't a big name up there, but everyone would seem to recognize you and ask, 'Hey, how're you doing?' It was nice. It was always great to be a Buffalo Bill."
Mark Kelso, a safety, who by his own admission "wasn't a well-known guy" remembered how he couldn't go anywhere without attracting attention. "Driving around, they'd wave or say hi to you in a very respectful way. Of course, they'd want autographs every once in a while, but they were only too happy to be part of us, and proud of us, and winning only accentuated it more. We were part of the fabric of western New York. There's no question."
By the time Kelso finally made it home later that night to pack for the Super Bowl, his neighbors had draped a big sign over his house: Tampa Here We Come. "I think they felt every bit of the excitement we felt as players," he said.
Throughout the downstairs room at Kelly's home, there were platters of food, heaping portions of burgers, slabs of beef, and chicken and chicken wings, Buffalo-style — a local favorite that would soon sweep the nation. There were also a few bartenders who kept opening cases of beer, wine, vodka, and, on this night to remember, even several cases of Dom Perignon champagne. "The best of the best," Cornelius Bennett remembered. "Jim always took care of us." On this special night, with the Super Bowl in sight, Bennett remembered a distinctive touch: "Each bottle of champagne was engraved with the player's name."
There was never trouble keeping the good times flowing at Kelly's Irish Pub, but then they had never celebrated an occasion quite like this.
Dennis DiPaolo, whose father ran the popular restaurant in town, remembers catering Kelly's parties. "One of the keys to the Bills' success was that Jim was a leader and he did a lot of team functions with everybody," DiPaolo said. "All those parties at his house after games, they were something. They used to call them 'the bickering Bills.' Maybe you saw that on the field, but after the game they were all having dinner together with their families, high-fiving, laughing. They were one big family."
Excerpted from Second to None by Joseph Valerio. Copyright © 2014 Joseph Valerio. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Steve Tasker xi
Introduction Marv Levy xv
Chapter 1 Coalescing in Jim Kelly's Man Cave 1
Chapter 2 Bill Polian's Building Blocks 19
Chapter 3 Super Bowl XXV 35
Chapter 4 Eight Seconds of Infamy 59
Chapter 5 The Pride of Buffalo 79
Chapter 6 Bouncing Back from Heartbreak 93
Chapter 7 Marv Levy's Guiding Hand 107
Chapter 8 Super Bowl XXVI 129
Chapter 9 A Testament to Buffalo's Resiliency 149
Chapter 10 Super Bowl XXVII 157
Chapter 11 A Cowboys Rematch 169
Chapter 12 Don Beebe's Salvation 191
Chapter 13 The End of the Run 195
Chapter 14 Hall of Fame Redemption 207
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