Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bills' ''Comeback for the Ages" remains one of my all-time favorite sports moments

Yesterday marked the 19th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary sporting events I’ve covered – the Bills Wildcard playoff victory against the Houston Oilers in a game known simply as “The Comeback.”

Everybody remembers where they were when JFK was shot and when man first landed on the moon.

Same goes for western New Yorkers who were at the stadium formerly known as Rich that overcast January day nearly two decades ago.

It was one of those indelible, transcendent moments.

Do you believe in miracles?


The funny thing is that roughly half the crowd departed by halftime.

And I couldn’t blame them. I would have left, too, had I not been working.

With Buffalo trailing by 25 at intermission, we ink-stained wretches began writing obituaries for the 1992 season. And when Houston’s Bubba McDowell returned that interception for a touchdown early in the third quarter to make the deficit 32 points, we figured our stories were safer than the President of the United States in the underground White House bunker.

Well, you know what happened next.

Quarterback Frank Reich, who had authored the greatest comeback in major college football history while at the University of Maryland, marched the Bills to a score to cut it back to 25.

Then, they scored again.

And again.

And again.

And, faster than you could say “Fandemonium,” we stopped typing and started paying attention.

Steve Christie put the finishing touches on the most dramatic comeback in NFL history with his overtime field goal to give the Bills a 41-38 victory that helped propel them to a third consecutive Super Bowl.

After the field goal sailed through the uprights, I hit the delete key on my story.

I had plenty of company along press row.

In the post-game presser, coach Marv Levy was asked about the odds of his team coming back from 32 points down in the second half. “About the same as winning the New York State Lottery,” he answered. More than a million-to-one.

A few years ago, when I collaborated on a book with Steve Tasker about those glory years, the Bills special teams demon reflected on what Marv told his players at halftime.

“All he said was, “Don’t ever let ’em say you gave up,” Tasker recounted. “There was brilliance in his simplicity. He didn’t berate us for crappy play, and he didn’t try to give us some rah-rah speech, which would have come across as disingenuous and phony. We had been to two straight Super Bowls, and he appealed to our pride. It wound up working. We chipped away and kept playing hard, and a miracle occurred.”

Aware of Reich’s heroics at Maryland, injured Bills starting quarterback Jim Kelly told Frank that “Maybe lightning will strike twice” as Buffalo prepared to receive the second-half kickoff.

Reich never stopped believing and neither did receiver Andre Reed, who had several huge catches as Buffalo climbed out of the crater it had dug itself.

I remember what a madhouse the Bills locker room was afterward. Guys were singing and jumping up and down. It was surreal.

And I also remember the funereal atmosphere of the Oilers locker room.

“Everywhere I go, I run into people who claim they were there that day,’’ Tasker told me. “If they are all telling the truth, our attendance should have been about a quarter of a million (rather than 75,141) for that game.”

I’m happy to report that I was there that day. And have my press pass and newspaper clips to prove it.

It was one of the most remarkable sporting events I’ve ever witnessed.

A day in which a journeyman backup and all-around good guy named Frank Reich won the football lottery and made us believe in miracles.


Jack Biemiller said...

Thanks for the memory. the game was blacked out in Rochester so two of us drove down to Bristol Harbor to watch the game. Black ice on the way down, clear ice while there, and Thank you very much, no ice on the way north.

Bob said...

I remember that day and I still get chills when I think about it. I was one of those fans who thought about leaving if the Oilers scored first after half-time. Even though they did, since I had flown up from Dallas to see the game, my brother and I decided to stick it out. And were we glad we did.

And when it went into overtime, I had to call my wife and tell her to fly back to Dallas by herself if I didn't make it to the airport. Our course I missed my flight home that night, but it was worth it!

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