Bills Fans May Be Hurt, But We Are Not Slain

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This is not the Commentary I had planned to write. Nonetheless, I write it with reluctance because a community cries out for it. Not our entire community, so if this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip it.

Of course, to ignore this piece betrays a certain detached coldness many of your neighbors would find less than appreciative. Read it to understand them. Read it to empathize. Read it to sympathize.

Those within the portion of our community to which this column addresses – especially those new to the cause – will read this to recognize the true meaning of resiliency.

By the time you receive this, Saturday’s heart-breaking loss will be nearly a week old. A lot of stuff has happened between now and then. A lot of stuff that separates you from that pain. A lot of stuff way more important than a game.

Nonetheless, it’s important to capture the emotion of that moment when an overtime field goal ended a Cinderella season. That feeling must be bottled. Not bottled-up, but preserved. You must keep it in the back pocket for future use, future reference, future inspiration.

The elements of the Bills Wild Card loss stand all too familiar to true believers. They’re a litany of nitpicks. A handful of butterfly wings that, had they flapped in a different direction, would have obviated the need to write this Commentary. At least this week.

But flap they did. From dropped passes in the first half (including one which would have yielded a touchdown), to defensive breakdowns in the second half, to questionable officiating in overtime, they flapped. And they flapped wrong.

Some were quick to blame Josh Allen. Some think that’s what quarterbacks are there for. But no one this day blames Jim Kelly for Ronnie Harmon’s drop of the game winning touchdown pass in the 1989 AFC Wild Card Game that poignantly ended a different Bills’ Cinderella season.

The fact is, Allen, only in his second year, did what a quarterback had to do. He brought the team back with not much more than a minute left to tie the game and send it into overtime. He brought the team into winning field goal territory during the ensuing overtime only to have a phantom penalty erase that play.

Why is it that the referees persecute the Buffalo Bills with imaginary calls? (Remember the “face mask” penalty in the Pittsburgh game that replays showed without a doubt did not occur?)

Yet, at the same time, the referees seem to conveniently overlook infractions by opponents. Set aside the egregious example of the second half opening kick-off touchdown/touchback SNAFU. (That reversal was vintage, wasn’t it?) I’m talking about the overtime non-call. The delay of game penalty that wasn’t called when the Texans converted a third and long on what would become the game-winning drive.

Why? Because Buffalo Bills.

We’ve been there. We’ve seen it. And most of us are too young to remember the 1964 and 1965 AFL Championship games to feel anything other than the agony of defeat.

Before the 1989 Wild Card Game against Cleveland, there was the 1988 AFC Championship Game against Cincinnati, and then the four straight Super Bowls, and then the “end of the era” home playoff loss to Jacksonville (when a concussed Jim Kelly was carted off the field after fumbling away what would be the game-losing field goal), and, finally, the “Music City Mistake” (a.k.a., “The Immaculate Deception,” another blown non-call by the referee as replays clearly show it was a forward lateral).

And while you cannot deny the agony in these defeats, don’t mistake agony as a negative thing. Rather, it represents a key building block which has come to define those Bills teams during that long-ago ten-year span: resiliency. The term has since been embraced by the team’s fans and its city. Indeed, the concept of “resiliency” has been adopted by many organizations (even Yale, see “Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, December 5, 2019).

Marv Levy, the Harvard educated coach of that Bills era, once famously said, “Football does not build character, it reveals it.”

Perhaps Levy’s intent was inspired by another famous football coach’s quote. Packer great Vince Lombardi said of losing, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

Both of these coaches offer advice that transcends football and even sports.

Everybody gets knocked down. Everybody loses. Everybody suffers a heart-break that pushes you so low you don’t think you’ll ever climb out of that hole.

When (and whether) you climb out of that hole attests to your character. And your character is your worth. It’s the value you add to your team, your community, your family. That’s what coaches Lombardi and Levy mean.

They say poets cannot truly find their muse until they descend to the deepest of depths. That’s the beauty of a terribly wrenching loss. It doesn’t seem that way at the time, but over time, it becomes more apparent. At least if you abide by the good counsel of Lombardi and Levy.

Marv Levy’s teams, much more than Vince Lombardi’s teams, had to deal with great adversity. As a result, he had to search back into his Master’s Degree in English bag of tricks to continue to motivate his team year in and year out.

After the team’s first Super Bowl loss, perhaps the worst of them all, Levy posted this Thomas Moore poem on the locker room wall:

“Fight on, my men!” says Sir Andrew Barton,
“I am hurt, but I am not slain;
I’ll lay me down and bleed a-while,
And then I’ll rise and fight again.”

With that, the Bills would go on to a never-before-and-never-again done four straight Super Bowl appearances. Along the way, they would defy changing free agency rules meant to slay their dynasty (it didn’t but age did).

The legacy we remember those teams by – aside from the record-breaking Super Bowl run – is resiliency. It is Don Beebe’s determination to catch Leon Lett and prevent a meaningless touchdown. Most of all, though, it is the greatest comeback in NFL history. A comeback staged when key stars Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas sat out with injuries.

Take heart, Bills fans. We may be hurt, but we are not slain. We will most certainly rise and fight again.

Besides, Tom Brady’s final pass was a pick six that sealed the Patriot’s own “end of an era” home Wild Card Playoff loss.

There will be no fourth straight Super Bowl for the Patriots.

Take heart, Bills fans. The rising has already begun.

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