Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fitz's new contract, Bills stadium renovations and Syracuse in BCS bowl game

For those of you who think $10 million per year is too much to spend on Ryan Fitzpatrick, please consider the contracts of Kansas City’s Matt Cassel ($9.67 mil), Arizona’s Kevin Kolb ($12.4 mil) and Oakland’s Carson Palmer ($11.7 mil).

Fitz definitely is in their league. So if I’m the Bills I would give him a three-year contract in that neighborhood and load it with incentives for team (playoffs) and individual (Pro Bowl invitation) achievements.

The Bills are far enough under the salary cap where they can afford it, and it would free them up to concentrate on procuring pass rushers in upcoming drafts.

I hope this deal gets done soon and I hope Buffalo also rewards running back Fred Jackson with a fair contract extension, too.

It’s not only the right thing to do, but also would send a positive message to their teammates and prospective free agents that the Bills are truly committed to winning.


Speaking of contract negotiations, you may have seen reports that it could cost in excess of $100 million to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium, and that Erie County and the Bills are ready to talk about a lease extension. My feeling is that any lease extension and stadium refurbishment funds from county and state taxpayers should be tied to a commitment from Ralph and the NFL that the Bills will stay put for at least 10 years.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.


Sports Illustrated is projecting that Syracuse will win the Big East football title and play Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl. That’s definitely doable, given the way SU is playing and given the lack of a powerhouse team in the Big East. But it won’t be easy because the Orange men also are eminently capable of losing to remaining opponents Pitt, South Florida and Louisville.

Syracuse is now 17-15 under Coach Doug Marrone and has won 13 of its last 19 games. Contrast that with a 26-57 record in the seven seasons prior to Marrone’s return to his alma mater, and you can understand why people on the Hill are excited about their football program’s revival.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A 'gorgeous" respite from football during the Bills bye week

No Bills game meant a rare Sunday off for moi, so my beautiful bride and I decided to take a ride down Rt. 390 to Letchworth State Park.

It is billed as “the Grand Canyon of the East,” and that’s not an exaggeration. The glacial gorges that the Genesee River snakes through are spectacular and enormous – the cliffs several hundred feet high in many places. And the vista was made all the more exquisite by the radiant sunshine and colorful leaves that were just a tad shy of peak.

We saw numerous out-of-state license plates in the lots throughout the park, and as we were leaving we came across an artist who was painting a water-color landscape from his vantage point near a stone wall just down the river from the upper and middle waterfalls.

I don’t mean to sound like a shill for the “I Love New York” tourist campaign, but I was once again reminded what a beautiful and diverse state in which we live. There are hundreds of breathtaking places to behold here – from the Big Apple’s skyscrapers to Niagara Falls to numerous points in between. We harried New Yorkers sometimes take our state for granted as we struggle with high taxes and a broken economy.

I can’t think of a better way to spend an autumn day. It was a welcome respite from the rat race, an opportunity to savor one of the most beautiful places on earth and replenish our souls.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Syracuse makes a statement in its biggest win in a decade

I journeyed to the Carrier Dome Friday night with my good friend, Max Robertson, in anticipation of a blowout.

And that’s just what occurred.

A blowout unfolded, but the team I expected to get routed (Syracuse) wound up routing the team (West Virginia) I expected to do the routing.

By crushing the 11th-ranked Mountaineers, 49-23, before a national television audience and more than 45,000 vociferous fans beneath the Dome’s Teflon-coated roof, the Orange men took another huge step on the road to national relevance.

No, I’m not saying SU is a top-25 club yet – heck, when you barely beat Rhode Island and Tulane, you obviously have much to prove. But the Orange men continue to move in the right direction under head coach Doug Marrone.

They still need to recruit more talented players in order to return to the prominence they enjoyed in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. But this impressive win, in front of an ESPN audience, might convince some prospects to jump aboard the Syracuse football revival train.

Although it’s seating capacity is just under 50,000, the Dome can be a terrific college football venue when it’s full. I was reminded of that last night as the Loud House truly was that.

SU quarterback Ryan Nassib was superb, accounting for five touchdowns – four passing, one on a run. With pass-rusher Chandler Jones healthy and back in the lineup, the defense harassed West Virginia’s vaunted quarterback Geno Smith all night long, sacking him four times and forcing two interceptions. There are few plays that quicken the pulse more than a kickoff return for touchdown, which SU’s Dorian Graham provided, going 98 yards to put the Orange on top, 21-9, in the second quarter. It was a game-changer for sure. As was Jeremi Wilkes interception of a Smith pass at the SU goal line just before the half, denying a score that would have reduced the Orange men’s lead to either four or five points.

And the icing on the cake was that this all occurred on a night when the university was commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ernie Davis’ Heisman Trophy season.

Again, I’m not going crazy here and telling you that 5-2 Syracuse is back with the big boys. But this was a statement win and it gives the ‘Cuse a legitimate shot at the wide-open Big East Champsionship and a major bowl berth in January.

And that’s great progress for a program that had experienced two 10-loss seasons in the years before Marrone returned to his alma mater to pick up the pieces.

He definitely has proven himself to be one of the most innovative coaches in America. And he appears to be the perfect guy to lead the renaissance of Syracuse football.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It was a privilege to have known Kent Hull

Kent Hull was, without a doubt, the greatest center in Buffalo Bills history.

The three-time Pro Bowler anchored the line that gave Jim Kelly the time to complete all those passes to Andre Reed and opened the holes for Thurman Thomas to run from Orchard Park to Canton.

As Thomas eloquently said today: “I owe a lot of that stitching in my Hall of Fame jacket to Kent Hull.”

So do Kelly and former Bills coach Marv Levy.

Without Hull’s instant analysis of defensive alignments and blocking calls, the Bills pedal-to-the-metal, no-huddle offense would have been stuck in neutral. He quarterbacked Buffalo’s O-line as adroitly as Kelly quarterbacked the entire offense. And he was one tough hombre in the trenches. Just ask any of the condo-sized nose tackles or snarling linebackers who were on the receiving end of Kent’s crunching blocks.

Equally impressive was the work he did in the locker room. He and Darryl Talley helped keep in check a roster filled with massive egos. Everybody – and I mean everybody – on those Bills teams looked up to and respected Kent. They took heed when he offered advice.

Kent was one of the wisest and most accommodating guys I and my fellow ink-stained wretches ever dealt with. In a drawl as thick as Mississippi mud, he would provide folksy insight and perspective. And the thing we admired most about him is that he was a stand-up guy. Win or lose, Kent would face the music, and tell the unvarnished truth. He was our go-to-guy.

To be honest, a lot of people we cover in big-time sports are phonies. But not Kent Hull. The cattle-rancher was as genuine as they come.

Those of us who chronicled the Bills back in the glory days thought so much of him that when he retired following the 1996 season we took him out to lunch at Illio DiPaolo’s restaurant and presented him with a newspaper page containing tributes from each of us and the corny headline reading: A Hull of a guy. I’ve never heard of this sort of thing occurring before or since. It was a clear indication of just how much we thought of him. I remember him being touched by the gesture.

In the commemorative paper we gave him, I wrote the following blurb:

“Our copy editors used to razz us about quoting you so much, but we told them we couldn’t help ourselves. You always told the truth, always lent perspective, often in a humorous, entertaining manner. In 19 years of covering sports for a living, I’ve never encountered a classier, more up-front, down-to-earth athlete. I wish you nothing but the best in your retirement. We’ll miss you.
“By the way, would you mind if we call you for a quote or two after games next year?”

I remember how choked up Marv was at the press conference announcing Kent’s retirement. He said he was honored to be able to tell people he once coached Kent Hull.

Well, as I reflect on Kent’s passing yesterday at age 50, I’d like to say that I was honored to be able to say that I once covered Kent Hull.

RIP, my friend.


Here is a feature I wrote about Kent that appeared in the Jan. 18, 1991 edition of USA Today:

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The story was buried deep in the sports section in 1986, the headline rather small.

On any other day, news of Kent Hull's signing with the Buffalo Bills might have received better play. But not on this day.

Not with Jim Kelly finally coming to town. Bills fans had waited three years for the flamboyant quarterback to leave the USFL. And when he agreed to terms, the city greeted him with a welcome normally reserved for heads of state.

''I guess my timing was kind of bad,'' Hull joked. ''I guess you could say I followed Jim's limo and police escort into town. Buffalo was shut down by the time I got there. Everybody was at Jim's press conference.''

Five years later, Kelly remains headline king, but you no longer have to go deep into the sports section to find stories about Hull. He's headed to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and in a Sports Illustrated midseason poll of personnel directors, Hull was named the NFL's best center.

Not bad for a lanky farm boy from Pontotoc, Miss., who grew up thinking he'd make a living blocking basketballs instead of linebackers.

''My dad had been an All-American basketball player at Mississippi State, and I took to the sport right away,'' the 6-4 Hull said Wednesday. ''But there came a point where the game got too tall for me.''

Hull didn't draw much interest from the NFL scouts because he had spent four seasons playing for a wishbone offense.

Another hurdle awaited him when he arrived at the Bills' training camp complex in August 1986. During his first pass-blocking drill, Hull found himself face-to-face with a snarling 300-pounder by the name of Fred Smerlas.

''I looked at him and his mustache was twitching and smoke was coming out of his earholes,'' Hull recalled. ''I could tell that he was thinking he was going to absolutely rip this 260-pound guy apart. I hung in there and fought pretty good for a while. When we were done, he patted me on the butt and said, 'You are going to be all right, little boy.' ''

Although he is a country boy from the South, Hull has developed an affinity for hockey. He attended his first game at Buffalo Auditorium five years ago, and grew to love the sport after watching the Sabres and Boston Bruins go at each other. He now owns season tickets.

Hull also retains his love for basketball. He enjoys playing for the Bills' barnstorming team in the offseason and still wonders what might have been if only he were a few inches taller.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's how the Bills can still make the playoffs

Although the Bills head into the bye week nursing a long list of injuries and two disappointing losses in the past three weeks, I still believe they can make the playoffs. But it’s not going to be easy.

I think 10 wins earns them a berth, which means they will have to go 6-4 the rest of the way. Looking at the remaining schedule, here’s who they are going to have to beat: Washington in Toronto; the Jets at home; the Dolphins in Orchard Park and Miami; Tennessee at home and Denver at home. That’s daunting, but not impossible.

In order to do that, the Bills are going to need to get healthy. Football is a game of attrition and the injuries have been adding up. They need to get Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman and Donald Jones back ASAP. The bye week obviously came at a good time.

Buffalo’s defense, which is still relatively young, has to become stouter and find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. The Bills yielded several long drives against the Giants and were unable to force a turnover, at times giving Eli Manning enough time in the pocket to read his stock portfolio.

As the season progresses and the weather becomes more challenging, the ability to run and stop the run become more important.

As far as running the ball, I’m not worried, because Fred Jackson – with four, 100-yard rushing performances already this season – has proven he is ready to carry the load. Versatile Freddie is putting up numbers the likes of which we haven’t seen since Thurman Thomas during the Super Bowl years.

The Bills have proven they can play with – and beat – anybody, but they remain a work-in-progress. Which is a lot better than being a work-in-regress, which they’ve been for much of the past decade.

Two late field goals are all that separates them from a 6-0 record. Which leads to another thing they have to do a better job of down the stretch – close out games.


Further proof these Bills are legit: Their two close losses have come against teams that are now 4-2, the Giants and Cincinnati.


Some are grumbling that Chan Gailey should have played it closer to the vest, and worked to get into position for the go-ahead field goal instead of trying for a touchdown pass that resulted in an interception. Baloney! Gailey make a great call, Stevie Johnson got separation from the defensive back and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a bad pass. The decision to go for the touchdown was on target. Unfortunately, Fitz’s pass was not.

As someone who covered the ultra-conservative Bills of Dick Jauron, I applaud Gailey’s willingness to take calculated risks. You play it safe the way Jauron always did and you’ll finish 7-9 every season. Again, good, aggressive call. Poor execution.

Monday, October 10, 2011

These Bills deserve to be where they are - 4-1 and tied for the divisional lead

Bill Parcells, the two-time Super Bowl-champion coach, liked to say, “You are what your record says you are.”

Well, right now the Buffalo Bills are 4-1 and tied for first in the AFC East.

And that’s what they are.

A good football team, not a mirage.

A playoff contender, not a pretender.

And it’s about time we all start acknowledging that.

And for those who still want to claim that the Bills are lucky and could easily be 1-4, I offer another sage quote, this one from Branch Rickey, the innovative general manager best known for signing Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier: “Luck is the residue of design.”

Coach Chan Gailey and his players have worked hard and smart to make this good luck happen.

And, in the process, have proven skeptics like me dead wrong.

I predicted a 7-9 record and thought I was being optimistic. Well, the bar has risen. Ten wins and a playoff berth are not out of the question as long as they are able to avoid injuries to key players.

There’s so much to like about this team and this story. To see all these guys who were overlooked and underappreciated for so long contribute to this revival has been truly heart-warming.

There isn’t a better story in the NFL than Fred Jackson, the unwanted running back from tiny Coe College (Marv Levy’s alma mater). He led the charge once more in the Bills’ 31-24 victory against the Michael Vick-led Philadelphia Eagles Sunday at the sunny, soldout Ralph. Twenty-six carries produced 111 yards and a touchdown. Six receptions produced an additional 85 yards. The scintillating, all-purpose performance prompted serenades of “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” from the appreciative throng of nearly 70,000 – a hardy bunch who have remained loyal and hopeful despite so many false starts by this franchise during the past decade.

With all due respect to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s been marvelous this season, the true MVP of this team – and perhaps the league – has been Fred Jackson, who’s on pace to rush for more than 1,500 yards and catch more than 60 passes. We talk a lot about this being a quarterback-driven league – and it is. But running backs are still important cogs, especially versatile, gritty ones like Jackson.

Another guy who’s been under the radar for so long has been safety George Wilson. Like Freddie, he was undrafted and unloved and picked up off the scrapheap by the Bills. Yesterday, he was a man possessed, setting the tone immediately for a defense that intercepted Vick four times.

Wilson finished with 11 tackles, an interception, three pass deflections and one quarterback pressure. Not bad for someone who supposedly was going to be exploited by the Eagles speedy, game-breaking receivers.

The Bills defense is more generous, yardage-wise, than last year’s bottom-ranked unit. But this year’s “D” also is more opportunistic, as evidenced by its 12 interceptions – one more than it managed in 16 games last season.

Interestingly, despite all their success, they haven’t gotten overly giddy. They remain a grounded bunch, still motivated by the memory of last season when they stumbled to an 0-8 start on the way to a 4-12 record.

And that’s a good thing because they have a tough schedule remaining, with just two games at the Ralph over the next seven weeks.

But it’s foolhardy to look at that schedule, beginning with Sunday’s road game against the New York Giants, and think that the Bills can’t manage it.

Heck, who, before the season started, expected this team to beat both New England and Philly.

As Parcells says, “You are what your record says you are.”

And what the Bills are right now is a first-place team that’s won 80 percent of its games.


You can read and watch more of my commentary about the Bills at Channel 8's website, www.rochesterhomepage.net. Or listen to me on the Bob Matthews Show on WHAM AM-1180 Monday nights from 7-8 or on The Bills Brothers Show on WHTK AM 1280 & FM 107.3 on Thursday afternoons from 3-4.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fifty years ago today, Roger Maris homered to cap the most special baseball season of my life

Baseball didn’t appeal to him until the summer of ’61. Then, one day that June, the peach-fuzzed, 6-year-old from Rome, N.Y. saw these two guys named Mantle and Maris hitting balls into the stands. Looked like fun. So the boy and his friends got a wiffle ball and a bat and headed for a nearby playground. They used their bikes as outfield fences. The 6-year-old would pretend he was in Yankee Stadium. He even provided play-by-play when he stepped up to the plate. He would play ball from morning ’til night, breaking only for lunch and dinner. After he went to bed, he would pull out the transistor radio that he had hidden beneath his pillow and listen to see if the M&M Boys had hit any Ballentine Blasts. He would never make it past the sixth inning. Rizzuto’s voice would drone on, and the 6-year-old would be fast asleep, playing baseball in his dreams.


The wiffle ball and bat and the innocence are long gone. And so, too, is Roger Maris, a victim of cancer 26 years ago at age 51. The memories of that glorious summer, though, remain vivid despite the ravages of time – ’61 was quite a year.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Maris’ historic home run – the one that landed in the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium before taking up permanent residence in Cooperstown. Only 23,154 people showed up that crisp, autumn day to see Maris hit his 61st and surpass Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927. The radio call from Phil Rizzuto was filled with enough “Holy Cows” to stock a barn. The Scooter never talked about the torment Maris had been under. He never mentioned the tale of two seasons, how ’61 had been the best of times and worst of times for Roger Maris.

“People don’t understand the pressure Roger was under,” late Yankees third baseman and Maris teammate Clete Boyer told me in a 1991 interview. “Every day the press hounded him, and some of it was just plain vicious. I don’t think many athletes have ever faced the kind of pressure he did.”

Maris never wanted to be a Yankee in the first place. It didn’t matter to him that they were perennial World Series participants or that the stadium in the Bronx included a short right-field porch tailor-made for his home-run swing. Fargo, N.D. has been the home base of his youth, and the introverted slugger with the Midwestern values was quite content to remain in Kansas City, playing for the A’s.

But the Yankees needed a left-handed power-hitter to add the finishing touches to what would become one of the greatest teams of all-time. So, at the end of the 1959 season they traded a busload of players including World Series perfecto pitcher Don Larsen to the Athletics in exchange for Maris. These were the days before free agency, leaving Maris with only two options: play in New York or don’t play at all.

Reluctantly, he signed with the Yankees and wound up winning the MVP award after batting .283 with 39 homers and 112 RBI in 1960.

On his way to St. Petersburg, Fla., the following spring, his car broke down and there was some concern that his wife, Pat, had suffered a miscarriage. Those fears were allayed, but the strain of the ordeal may have contributed to Maris’ slow start in ’61. In mid-May Yankees General Manager Dan Topping called him into his office. Maris was batting only .210 at the time with just four home runs and the Yankees were only two games above .500, already trailing Detroit by five games. Maris figured the Yankees were going to trade him, but that wasn’t the case. Topping told him to settle down, to swing for the fences and not worry about his average.

Relieved to learn that he wouldn’t be sent packing for the third time in four years, Maris went on a tear, clubbing seven more homers in May and 15 more in June to raise his total to 27. That put him slightly ahead of Ruth’s pace and two in front of teammate Mickey Mantle.

“Watching those two was like watching two thoroughbreds go neck-and-neck,’’ Boyer said. “Roger would hit one, then Mickey would hit two. Then Roger would hit two and Mickey would hit one. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to watch those guys play their own game of home run derby.”

In the book, Roger Maris at Bat, Maris alluded to the friendly rivalry between the M&M Boys. “It was becoming pretty obvious that Mickey and I were helping each other to hit home runs . . . It was like having someone pace you as you tried to break a record.”

There was no question that Mantle’s presence in the order helped Maris. Incredibly, with Mickey batting behind him, Roger didn’t receive an intentional walk all season.

Maris and Mantle shared an apartment in Queens, and became good friends. But the rapacious New York tabloids (more than a dozen papers covered the Yankees in those days) kept writing that the two didn’t like each other.

“Nothing could have been farther from the truth,” Boyer said. “Why would they share an apartment if they didn’t like each other? I mean, come on.”

By the All-Star break in July, Maris had increased his homer total to 33, four ahead of Mantle. The questions about whether the Babe’s record was in danger increased and it became obvious who the majority of the fans were backing.

“A lot of people didn’t want to see the record broken, period, but if it was going to be broken they wanted if done by Mickey because he was Mr. Yankee and Roger was considered somewhat of an outsider,’’ Boyer said. “The guys on the team were pulling for Mickey, too. But it wasn’t that we didn’t like Roger. Heck, the guy was like a brother to me. We had just seen all the injuries that Mick had endured through the years. He had carried our team so many times. We thought he deserved it more.”

Many of the writers covering the team agreed. They thought it sacrilegious that Maris, a lifetime .270 hitter, was challenging Ruth. Their bias was reflected in their coverage.

“The deeper we got into the summer, the tougher it got for Roger,” Boyer recalled. “More and more writers were jumping on the story, and Roger grew irritated answering the same questions over and over and over. And some of these writers acted like they didn’t have a brain. I remember one guy asking Roger if he fooled around on the road. Roger looked at him in disbelief and said, ‘No.’ The guy said, ‘Well, I do.’ And Roger said, “That’s your business. I’m happily married.’ “

The heat grew more intense in late July when Commissioner Ford Frick, a close friend of the Babe’s, decreed that Maris or Mantle would have to break Ruth’s mark in 154 games, otherwise an asterisk would be placed next to his name in the record books. Most columnists thought the ruling was fair because the schedule had been expanded that season from 154 to 162 games.

Many of Ruth’s contemporaries jumped on the anti-Maris bandwagon, the most hurtful comments coming from Hall-of-Famer Rogers Hornsby, who said: “Maris couldn’t carry the Babe’s jockstrap.”

It got to the point where Maris couldn’t please anybody. If he went homerless, they would boo him, and one drunken fan in Detroit went so far as to fling a beer bottle at Roger from the third deck of Tiger Stadium, striking the Yankee rightfielder on the arm.

“Who wouldn’t start to get surly after all that stuff,” Boyer said. “You could see Roger becoming more and more tense. He was smoking three, four packs of cigarettes a day. And down the stretch, patches of hair the size of half dollars started falling out of the back of his head. It was the damndest thing.”

Which makes what he accomplished all the more remarkable.

“I feel sorry for Roger because he never really was given an opportunity to fully enjoy it,’’ Boyer said. “He wasn’t a guy who liked the limelight. I think he sometimes wished he’d never done it.”

Although his record was surpassed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, many of us believe that Maris remains the true single-season record-holder because those three sluggers benefitted from the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Regardless what the record books say, Maris’ feat remains remarkable and ’61 will always be one of the most special seasons in baseball history. That was the year the M&M Boys launched baseballs into the seats at an unprecedented pace and got a 6-year-old from Rome, N.Y. hooked on baseball.


The photo above is from my book Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt Award and shows Roger Maris with 12-year-old Ray Hickok Jr., who presented the Yankee slugger with the award, which recognized the top professional athlete of the year.