I. The Patsy
Super Bowl XXV, January 27, 1991: Tampa Stadium, Tampa Florida.
“Too tough for them, just right for us,” Marv Levy implored his players before his team’s first Super Bowl appearance, just as he had done before all others of vastly less significance all season. Soon enough, it was about to get a whole tougher.
In the blink of a bloodshot eye, we’re 25 years from that moment and 16 since the Buffalo Bills last went to the playoffs, the longest active drought in American professional sports. Buffalo, the beaten down, blue-collar Rust Belt town, gutted of both industry and over half its population since 1950, remains fiercely proud and hasn’t given up on itself or its beloved Bills. What Buffalo continues to prove to America is that when enough people continue to reach out for something, sooner or later they end up finding each other.
Who is the most famous man in American consciousness ever to put foot to ball? It’s not Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Beckham or Messi. The rest of the world has them. For millions of Americans who witnessed the dying moments of Super Bowl 25, it remains Scott Norwood.
If we could hop on a plane and fly back in time to that moment, anyone suffering from a bad case of nerves could still console themselves with a cigarette on a flight back to that January day in 1991, the last year it was legal to smoke on commercial airplanes. The Gulf War began 11 days earlier. Three weeks before, on Christmas Day, the USSR collapsed. Home Alone is atop the box office, Macaulay Culkin-cute. O.J. Simpson is on the sidelines after taking a break from filming The Naked Gun 2 ½: the Smell of Fear and still a few years away from not killing his wife and Ron Goldman.
And the previous week Joe Montana’s tenure leading the San Francisco 49ers came to an end after being blindsided and flattened by New York Giants linebacker Leonard Marshall, breaking my 11-year-old heart. It was the only time I ever saw my best friend cry. And the week before that, Bo Jackson put on his football uniform for the last time after suffering a career-ending hip injury against the Bengals.
With eight seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV, standing on the sidelines, there was nothing remote or abstract about Scott Norwood’s potential nightmare, the horror was entirely wedded to both its immediacy and specificity. The defining moment of his life would be witnessed by nearly 100 million people.
How narrow is the boundary separating his dreams from that nightmare? On that day the dimensions and geometry were perfectly clear to everyone watching: a horizontal cross bar elevated 10 feet off the ground, two perpendicular uprights reaching another 20 feet skyward, separated by 18 feet and 6 inches of air.
The New York Giants lead the Buffalo Bills 20-19. In just two minutes and eight seconds worth of playing time in the fourth quarter, quarterback Jim Kelly has marched the Bills nearly two-thirds of the field to the 29-yard line, just in range for a come-from-behind field goal and victory. There have been some missed opportunities for both teams—the Giants gave up a safety and the Bills had a drive stall deep in the Red Zone—but nobody in 59 minutes and 52 seconds of play has done anything so egregious as turn the ball over to the opposition. There have been errors of effort and calculation, not heart.
Now, everything rides on a successfully launched leather ball soaring 47 yards through the humid air delivered somewhere, anywhere between the uprights. Regardless of the contest so far, whatever the outcome of this final event, the role of scapegoat or hero has now irrevocably been cast, and his name is kicker Scott Norwood.
Norwood—his wife and relatives watching in the stands—steps onto the field having successfully kicked a 48-yarder that season—but not on grass. Norwood is in his sixth year playing in the NFL for the Bills. He entered the league in 1982 and was cut by the Atlanta Falcons. After signing with USFL’s Birmingham Stallions he blew out his knee and was let go. He moved back in with his parents but refused to give up. At age 26, the Bills invited him to try out and he made the team. Three years later he made the Pro Bowl and led the league with 125 points. Kickers in the NFL routinely have the lowest average annual salary of any regular player, even less than punters. As Norwood takes center stage at the Super Bowl, an instrument of fate, he has all the physical presence of an earnest high school hall monitor reporting for duty during recess.
Years later, Norwood says of that moment, “I had no doubts in my mind.”
Bill Parcells calls a timeout, presumably so Norwood can ruminate a few moments longer on the implications of missing this kick for the rest of his life. Maybe, if Parcells is lucky, the ghost of Bill Buckner and his error in the 1986 World Series will join the dog pile on Norwood’s psyche along with the millions of people either watching or hiding their eyes all around the country. Three and a half years later, only two weeks after the O.J. Simpson murders, Columbian defender Andres Escobar scored on his own goal during the FIFA World Cup and handed victory over to the United States. Five days after returning to Medellin, on July 1, 1994, he was executed in a parking lot for his folly with six bullets.
Pacing around, head down, brow furrowed, Norwood doesn’t betray much of a reaction. Eventually he clenches his jaw and grinds his teeth into his mouth guard. Like a timid teenager working up the courage to ask a girl out to the prom, his squinty eyes mostly remain on the torn up grass before him.
Doubts or not, for his career, Norwood has only converted one of five field goals beyond 40 yards on grass. Now, 47 yards lie between where Frank Reich will receive the snap and spin it around, holding it upright with a finger of his left hand, and victory for the Buffalo Bills, hovering a long, long way down field between the uprights. Hold your hand out and spread your thumb and forefinger about three inches apart—that’s about how far apart the goal posts appear from 47 yards away.
Across both sidelines, hundreds of men, players and staff alike, hold hands as they kneel together, heads bowed, eyes vised in prayer, penitents, their desperate wishes invisibly ascending from the stadium for and against the kick. Nearly 74,000 fans in the stands silently or violently petition the football gods with their pleas. If God wasn’t tied up with other matters—maybe the Gulf War thing or the fate of the Soviet Union after the fall—and was paying attention, all He or She would have received was a mixed message. Nearly 80 million people in America are tuned in for perhaps the zenith of dramatic moments in Super Bowl history. With the Super Bowl continuing to be the most bet on event in American sports, more than a few of those prayers, presumably, belong to people with skin in the game: billions of illicit and legitimate dollars across the country ride on the outcome.
Norwood’s plight only highlights everyone’s helplessness to sway the outcome.
A whistle is blown. Twenty-one men assume their positions on either side of the line of scrimmage.
Norwood is the 22nd. He stands beside a kneeling Reich and reaches down to his left cleat to rid it of some dirt he then tosses away. He goes through the motions of one mock kick. He bows his head while his hands hang down at his sides. The expression on his face oscillates between earnest and stern. After glaring some more at the grass, he mops some sweat off his brow and absentmindedly bumps the ridge of his hand against the edge of his helmet. He matter-of-factly returns to his left cleat to nudge some more dirt loose. Finally, he briefly gazes down field at his remote target, 18 and a half feet reduced to three inches.
Suddenly Norwood seizes an enormous breath just before taking five paces back from his teammate and stepping once to his left. He’s finally alone as the last man back and the last hope for everyone who supports him. Once settled in, he braces himself for the moment at hand and leans forward, arms hanging limp, as unreachable as rescue ladders dangling from a helicopter over a burning home.
Five of Norwood’s teammates on the sidelines, along with their coach, are destined for the Hall of Fame. Together, they brace for the moment, each relieved or frustrated in his own way that the fate of the game lays elsewhere. Whatever games Jim Kelly has given up throwing interceptions, or James Lofton and Andre Reed have lost to dropped passes, or Thurman Thomas squandered fumbling away the ball, or Bruce Smith let slip away with a missed tackle, or coach Marv Levy lost with some failed strategy that cost his team victory—history will only remember their triumphs.
Even if Norwood splits the uprights, he’s probably not getting the games’ MVP trophy—that would likely go to Thomas, with 190 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. And Norwood’s not going to the Hall of Fame either. There are very few placekickers in the Hall of Fame and only one, Jan Stenerud, whom Marv Levy reluctantly cut after accepting a coaching position for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978, exclusively played kicker his entire career . Others, such as Lou Groza and George Blanda, played another positions. No, despite being stranded on a very fragile island in the football universe, kickers are never honored or remembered for the great kicks they make, only the vital ones they miss. Whatever successes they’ve enjoyed, after even one disappointment or failure, no one is on a football roster is more expendable.
The ball is snapped. Norwood’s life, before and after, receives a demarcation point barely a second long.
Scott charges forward to forever leave behind his past identity and embrace his fate…
II. The City of No Illusions
After a couple weeks in a warm place outside the country, on Jan. 2, 2016, I flew home to New York and then took a train from Penn Station eight hours north and west, to catch the Bills’ final regular-season game, this time against their division rival, the New York Jets.
It was yet another losing season for the Bills. They had already been knocked out of playoff contention. The game was another meaningless dead end. For the Jets, 10-5 for the year, a final victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium, named after the Bill’s beloved former owner, was vital to making the playoffs.
The Amtrak train was stuffed with Jets fans making the trek to suburban Orchard Park to support their team. With tens of thousands more fans bussing down south from Canada in virtual motorcades, the game would be a sellout.
When I arrived the night before at Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station, several inches of snow was on the ground from the first significant snowfall of the year. More was expected the following morning. The county was offering 10 bucks an hour to anyone who wanted to help shovel out the stadium.
I knocked on the passenger side of a cab’s window and startled an older, dozing-off, walrus-mustached driver. He waved me in.
“O.P.?” he asked.
“Orchard Park,” he said, and turned the engine. “You’re going to the game tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I need to find a place near the stadium and if you have any ideas about finding tickets I’d appreciate it.”
“Buffalo doesn’t roll out any red carpets to welcome outsiders, but we do have the Red Carpet Inn not far from Ralph Wilson. Game’s sold out but I’m sure if you’re willing to cough up some bucks the scalpers will help you out.”
Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” came on the radio and before I could ask to turn it down, the driver shut off the radio.
“You hear about that asshole trying to buy the Bills and move them?” he said, referencing the singer from New Jersey. “Pissed a lot of people off. Every bar in Buffalo swore off playing that asshole. I even heard on the Twitter they created a hashtag ‘#fuckBonJovi.’ Serves him right.”
“If they black list Billy Joel, too, I might have to move up here in solidarity.”
“Bon Jovi deserved the flack he got. They’re the heart and soul of this city. Really are. I mean, everybody else just comes up here for Niagara Falls. Every time I take a fare over to Niagara Falls, it just makes me wanna take a leak. You’re a Jets fan?”
“I hate the Jets.”
“The Bills aren’t going to the playoffs, so why the hell you come all this way on a train to watch a pointless game in the freezing cold?”
“Working on a story about Buffalo 25 years after Norwood’s kick.”
“I worked security for the Bills during their heyday and all those Super Bowls they went to. When the Cowboys thumped them that second time at the end of their losing run at the Super Bowl was my last year on the job. It’s those damn Canadians that are the real menace at games. Twenty or twenty-five thousand of those jokers come down for most games. They’re a menace.”
“They burned down the fucking White House 200 years ago,” I added, keeping my own Canadian heritage under wraps. “Violence is just in Canada’s nature.”
“Unless it’s supporting us in Nam.”
“Iraq, too,” he lamented gravely.
“When Trump’s elected, he’ll give Canada what they’ve got coming to them.”
“Oh, they love the tailgate though. They’re drunk out of their minds before sunrise on Sunday. All they come down for is just the action in the parking lot. Word around the league is we have the drunkest fans in the country. I don’t think it’s the Buffalonians so much as the Canadians that drink like that. They just drink until they black out. I hit one of those poor bastards a few years ago with my cab. Just jumped right in front of me on the highway.”
“How’d he make out?”
“Thumped his head right on my windshield. Died a few days later when they took him off life support.”
Time to change the subject.
“I’ve never heard of a team getting a parade for losing.”
“It’s as close as we’ve gotten to a winning team. It’s unfortunate, but you know, I wish we did have a winning team. At least once. Once in my life time would be nice.”
“Think it’ll ever happen?”
“I wouldn’t bet on a better team than we had back then. But you know, Jim Kelly, when he was in his prime, was a total asshole.”
“Why do you say that?”
“There’s a nice café where we’re going in Orchard Park, Danny’s, all the Bills people used to go there. When my boy was 5 years old, my kid went up to him for an autograph and Kelly blew him off. Ever since then I just couldn’t forgive him. Total asshole. He’s gotten religion and had cancer and really mellowed out in his middle age—like we all do—but you don’t do that to little kids unless you’re a world-class asshole. That’s my memory of the guy.”
“You see Norwood around town much?” I asked.
“His wife is from here. So he visits the in-laws.”
“Do you remember what you were doing when he missed that kick?”
“I wasn’t watching, I was at home with the game on prayin’ behind my couch. Forty-seven yards on grass isn’t an easy kick for anybody. He didn’t have a great boot. But goddamnit, he tried. It was wide, but he sure as hell didn’t come up short.”
“How hard was it after he missed?”
“Every year afterwards it was just, the Bills are there again? We just couldn’t get over that hurdle to win. Look outside your window, there’s our stadium. We’ve got a winter storm watch for tomorrow.”
“Will the tailgate still happen?” I asked.
“Those idiots will tailgate in anything. Seriously. Blizzard. They’re like an armed encampment, pretty much. Even the Bill players, from time to time I pick them up from bars and they throw up off the side of my cab. The NFL isn’t the same anymore. There used to be a real camaraderie but now it’s just about the money.”
I saw the ruby-glow of the Red Carpet Inn’s sign glazing the ice along the highway. There was a big sign about having sold out rented spaces in the parking lot for tomorrow’s tailgate.
“Listen, don’t plan on going far out there in this cold, you’ll freeze your nuts off before you end up as road kill with the way people drive around here on the ice. Especially at night, it’s treacherous. There’s always somebody getting hit.
III. Willy Loman
And after one and a half seconds of hang time, even 25 year later we all know Norwood missed. My cabbie was right — the kick was more than long enough, but wide right by about a dozen or so inches.
“A blur,” Norwood recalled of that moment to ESPN cameras last month. In the quarter century since the kick, he’s rarely granted interviews. “I almost relate it to some kind of accident where you try to—it’s almost a shock—the magnitude of it not working out.”
Above his lone crossbar, as he watched his missed kick veer off, behind Norwood’s narrow eyes you could almost see the cruel Gordian knot devilishly being tied inside his heart. Head down, Norwood gravely wanders off and circles free of teammates seeking to console him, unable to acknowledge the pleadings of his friends. He finally removes his mouth guard and lifts off his helmet, exposing the torment on his dejected face. It gives every indication he’s the loneliest man on earth.
“I get choked up thinking about it,” Norwood sighed. “It goes wider—the sidelines, organizational level, to the city. The city of Buffalo is nothing but a winning city and it deserved it.”
Winning city? Buffalo native Harold Arlen, the world-renowned composer most famous for composing “Over the Rainbow”—voted by the Recording Industry Association of America as the 20th Century’s greatest song—once grimly proclaimed of his hometown, “Suicide in Buffalo would be redundant.” The city once had the eighth largest population in America and thriving industry in both steel and manufacturing. With most major factories shut down, it’s been gutted on all fronts, the population plummeting from 580,000 in the years after the war to only 260,000 today, and still dropping. It makes the news every winter only because it’s buried by an average 110 inches of snow and frigid, wind-driven cold. The Buffalo Bills haven’t won a postseason game since 1995, and last made the playoffs in 1999. They’re the NFL equivalent of a car wreck rusting away by the side of the road, only two seasons over .500 since the millennium.
Winning city? What could Scott Norwood, according to many the patron saint of football losers, possibly be talking about? Wasn’t his entire life ruined by that kick? Isn’t he just a sordid punchline from a tired joke of a battered Rust Belt city?
Maybe. But maybe not …
Whatever urge Norwood felt after the game to run and hide, he felt a larger responsibility to his teammates and the city of Buffalo to stand his ground in the locker room. He did so before he even had a chance to be consoled by his family. After all of his teammates had fled the area to mourn their loss, Norwood remained for a couple hours under siege from reporters and cameras, patiently and earnestly answering every last question put to him before taking time for himself to embrace his wife and father. The scene conflicts a great deal with the popular notion—peddled endlessly in the world of sports—that winners show more character than losers. Even the Giants’ victory wilted under the shadow of Norwood’s narrative.
Contrast this defining moment of Norwood’s career with, say, Michael Jordan’s notoriously bitter, tone-deaf, and thankless Hall of Fame acceptance speech, which felt like the ending of a Godfather movie as Jordan opened both barrels on everybody. How could someone like Norwood, branded across the country as the perennial choke artist, demonstrate such decency, character and grace while Jordan—who mesmerized me and everyone I knew growing up with his transcendent ability and resolve—shocked the world with an incredible monument to bitterness despite his legacy of triumph? There are differences in men.
Most of us aren’t aware of the most important moments in our lives ahead of time, or even notice when they actually happen. It’s even more remarkable how little we act at these moments since, so often, there’s no one to perform for. Yet Scott Norwood knew. His entire life was irrevocably going to change and be defined forever with this one action that likely could never be redeemed, at least on the field.
We all lose. There’s no escape. All victories are few and fleeting. Life is a process of enduring loss, one of the more cruel lessons existence imposes on us. The longer we stick around, the more familiar with loss we become. Loss ensnares us with big and small hooks. Whatever dent we leave in the world, the vast majority of us are lost footnotes in history. We’re periphery, faces in a crowd, clutter in a subway or an airport or a supermarket or a line at Starbucks, or even to our neighbors in modern life. Yet we all dream of leaving our mark on the world in some meaningful way, of making a difference or at least mattering after we go.
Scott Norwood, only 30 years old, stepped onto the field with eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV knowing anonymity and insignificance would never again be an option for himself, his family, or anyone who cared about him. One way or another, he was going to remembered. And while Norwood’s canvass was as large as you can get in American sports, his moment was as personal and intimate as a single brushstroke. All that was required of him was doing what he’d always done so brilliantly since childhood with his father’s assistance and loving devotion: kick a ball.
Instead of kicking the game-winning field goal to win the Super Bowl, he instead booted his narrative into two immensely successful movie scripts: 1998’s Buffalo 66 and 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. In Buffalo-native Vincent Gallo’s indie classic, also featuring Christina Ricci and Anjelica Huston, Norwood became Scott Wood, reimagined as the bloated, shirtless strip club owner of Scott Wood’s Solid Gold Sexotic Dancers. Gallo’s character, after losing a $10,000 bet on the Bills’ Super Bowl loss, then hunts Wood down to kill him. Gallo even approached Norwood to appear in a cameo and offered what he described as a “large sum” of money. Norwood declined.
In Jim Carrey’s star-making vehicle, Norwood was reimagined as a kicker named “Ray Finkle,” institutionalized after missing a Super Bowl winner for the Miami Dolphins. He then murders a woman and assumes her identity, living as a deranged transgendered psychopath hell-bent on exacting on revenge against Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino.
Scott Norwood did none of these things, not even close. Fiction has to make sense, but reality doesn’t. The real Scott Norwood played one more year of professional football and then remained in Buffalo with the wife he’d recently met there. In his last game as a Bill, in the 1992 Super Bowl against Washington, he made the only field goal he tried, this time from 21 yards, to make the score 24-3 in Buffalo’s eventual 37-24 loss. For the playoffs that year, he was a perfect 5-for-5.
He retired after overtaking O.J. Simpson that year as the Bills’ career-scoring leader, and the team went on to run their streak of consecutive Super Bowl losses to four, but never as gallantly or as painfully as in 1991. Yet Norwood wasn’t bitter or vindictive about his career. He never blamed anyone. He quietly left Buffalo, ducked reporters as best he could, then sold life insurance back in his home state of Virginia, close to his family.
But before the Bills and professional football cut him loose to work as a salesman, driving around in a Chevy Prizm with a cracked windshield, cold calling unsuspecting people in his native Virginia, Norwood first had to return to Buffalo immediately after Super Bowl XXV, seemingly in disgrace. The city, buried under snow that froze a million tears, did something so counterintuitive and contrary to American values that the surprise was so overwhelming to Norwood, he could not face it. After the loss, after having their teeth kicked in and their dream denied, Buffalo chose not retribution, but gratitude.
And most of that was reserved for Norwood. At a post-Super Bowl rally in the heart of Buffalo at Lafayette Square, 25,000 people (or maybe twice that according to Marv Levy’s memory) endured the frigid temperatures and snow to reserve their loudest cheers and chants … for Scott Norwood, professional football’s biggest loser.
“Scotty! Scotty! Scotty!” it began, Norwood hiding behind his teammates, out of view from the masses.
But the mob continued with even more ferocity and urgency and finally Norwood relented and peeked out to show his face.
Now, 25,000 Buffalonians roared louder, demanding his brief cameo would not be sufficient under the circumstances. So Norwood gave in and took the stage, snow stinging his face, standing alone before the crowd at the podium. The cheers erupted and the chants altered immediately to “We love Scott! We love Scott!”
“I’ve never felt more love than right now,” Norwood’s voice cracked, wiping the corners of his eyes.
IV. The City of Good Neighbors
What other city in America would stage a parade in the bitter cold to celebrate the losing team? And then reserve the loudest cheer for the man blamed for the loss? It was the closest the Bills ever came to winning and over the next three years were famously blown out of one Super Bowl after another. And they still haven’t won a Super Bowl or, from the looks of things, anything else.
After I checked into the last room available at the motel and navigated through the arriving vehicles that had stocked up on beer, I went in search of a warm meal under a starless night. All the sidewalks were buried under a foot of snow, so I schlepped up the side of the highway to Abbott Road and turned off toward the looming hypothermic mass of Ralph Wilson Stadium opposite the barren, dimly lit winter-scape of parking lots and piles of snow. It was apparent, after a half-mile and being questioned by two separate police cruisers, I was likely the only pedestrian in all of Buffalo.
A handful of Go Bills! converted “Want some candy?” kidnapper-style vans and rusty school buses were out there in the distance, bonfires illuminating small cabals of fans already pining for game time. “Where else would you rather be?” was written on the back of one vehicle. After the wind kicked up and dismantled any feeling in my body, I finally got to a corner with some habitation and lights on. Just beyond a couple residential houses with ghostly Bills flags fluttering beneath the American flag, the Big Tree Inn bar sat next to three crude totem pole-like carvings of Chris Berman, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed standing guard out front. I kept walking. A little further on was Danny’s South restaurant. Both of these establishments were Buffalo Bill landmarks I’d been told to stake out.
Once you get inside Danny’s foyer you’re greeted by stadium seats pulled out of the WPA-era War Memorial Stadium that was demolished after the Bills moved to Ralph Wilson in 1973. Go a little farther and a shrine dedicated to Jim Kelly—framed autographed photos, cereal box, clippings, the works—is piled up against the wall next to the entrance of the bar. Another sign informs customers of Magic Mike Seege’s weekly magic act, “Buffalo’s best table side magician,” and “Kids eat free.” In the dining area, none of the New Year’s decorations or Christmas trees had been taken down yet. Local sheriffs were clustered by the television eagerly filling their bellies with Danny’s famous Buffalo Chicken Wing soup.
Lumbering over to a table in the corner I took off my gloves and blew some feeling into my hands. The dining room walls were covered with a strange assembly of framed photos of Hollywood celebrities of the 1980s and ’90s in their most famous roles, and Bills players in their prime. The window overlooking the parking lot featured cartoonish illustrations of Bills players frosted onto the glass, including O.J. Simpson beaming in his pads, helmet off, his head gargantuan and a smile frozen on his face.
A wiry, cheerful blond waitress in her 50s wearing a Bills T-shirt rushed over with a smile and a raised pot of coffee. I flipped over the cup on my table.
“You’re shivering love,” she said in an English accent, filling my cup. “Drink this up.”
“What are you grinning at?” she asked, rubbing my shoulder affectionately.
“Just that O.J. Simpson was allowed to stay on your window.”
“Right after the killings, every morning in fact, when we’d come to work and open up, the first thing we’d have to do is remove the knife people would tape into his hand and clean up all the ketchup they splashed against the window.”
Some of the sheriffs looked over from their table and shook their heads.
“Well,” the waitress said, handing me a menu. “If you walked here at this hour of the night you can’t be from here. Can I get you some of our soup?”
“Sure. I came up from New York City to do a story on Buffalo and the Bills 25 years after Scott Norwood’s missed kick.”
She tensed up and more of the sheriffs looked over to see if something was wrong.
“I’ve got something I’d like you to put in your story. Do you have a notebook?”
“Yep,” I laughed nervously, bracing myself for the set up and punchline. I took out my notebook and pen. “Shoot.”
“I came to Buffalo 25 years ago from England and started a family here with my husband. I’ve worked at Danny’s the whole time. Seven years ago my daughter was hit by a tractor-trailer on Route 63 after she was studying all night for a paper. She was exhausted and stepped onto the road without looking. Lindsay died four days later from brain injuries. It was a terrible accident. I hate the man who did it but we didn’t sue him. We could have, but it was just a horrible accident. She was only 19 and a sophomore at Geneseo College.
“There is no town America that could have supported me through that unspeakable tragedy like this one right here. What this community offered my family after the worst day of our lives still makes me cry. Whatever else you find out about Buffalo, the Matthews family would appreciate if you could include that.”
“You just trivialized anything I could ever find out about Buffalo.”
“They started a benefit to help us with all the medical bills. There’s an annual run in my daughter’s name to raise money for a couple of scholarships in her name. Without this town and the girls I work with in here and everybody, I couldn’t have gotten through that. She was that special. But so are these people right here for what they did.”
I dropped the pen and fell back in my chair.
“Well? Aren’t you going to write that down in your notebook?”
“Yes. I’m just struggling to process what you’ve told me.”
“It’s easy,” she smiled, wiping the mascara from the corners of her eyes. “These are the most decent people on earth. I’ll grab you your soup.”
A couple minutes later the waitress returned with a beautiful older lady, also wearing a Bills T-shirt. Her nametag read “Linda” and she had served at Danny’s for 40 years.
“Karen told me you’re working on a story about our town and the Bills. We used to serve the Super Bowl team here all the time. Bruce Smith and his wife were always such an elegant couple. Thurman Thomas was always Karen’s favorite. But both of us adore Marv Levy.”
“Oh my god,” Karen gushed. “I love him. Every time he would come in with his wife they’d request us. One of the finest men you would ever meet. A true gentleman. I have goose bumps right now thinking about him. And his wife. Very fine, refined people.”
“Ralph Wilson used to come here all the time,” Linda laughed. “Always ordered—”
“—the same thing!” Karen elbowed Linda.
“Tuna Melt. We named our Tuna Melt after him, he ordered it so much.”
“I’m from England,” Karen shrugged. “I’m not even a fan of American football. But the camaraderie between those players back then was incredible. And it really infected the town. Maybe the town infected them. It’s that feeling that makes me love football here. I love all of it—except the drunks.”
“Too much alcohol. That’s the only downfall of Sundays in Buffalo. Too much drinking. They spend so much money to go to the game and I simply can’t imagine how you can enjoy anything when you’re that drunk.”
“I work doubles on Sundays here because we serve a brunch,” Karen explained. “The tailgating and everything, it’s too much. We don’t serve alcohol until noon, so if you’re here tomorrow and look out the window with O.J. Simpson smiling and see our parking lot, the drinking is beyond description.”
“It’s one of the reasons all these cops you see here? They all dine here for free. Always have. We look out for them, they look out for us. That’s another thing you can put in your notebook. It’s why our town is known as the City of Good Neighbors.”
V. Game Day
January 3, 2016: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park New York
The next morning, before heading over to all the pre-game festivities, just for fun, I called Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada to see if Orenthal James Simpson cared to share any remembrances about his tenure with the Bills. No luck. Maybe he was sleeping in.
Outside my motel room’s front door, pigeon-shit sky above, 25 mph bone-chilling winds howling toward me through the icicles hanging off the roof, the festivities had already been going on for hours, greasy smoke from one of a dozen grills already clogging the air from roasting platters of sausages. Hundreds of people in Jets attire were already finding inventive ways to consume beer in ungodly quantities.
Making my way through the snow toward the stadium, the tribal commitment to alcohol exhibited by thousands of people huddled around bonfires and outside campers made last summer’s week-long bender during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona seem like an effete winetasting. Yet something about the good cheer and camaraderie everywhere I looked felt as if the whole morning was soundtracked by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Seriously underdressed, I was freezing my ass off and noticed some discount, late-season Bills paraphernalia was being sold out of a tent along the side of Abbott Road—which the police had long since blocked off—so I loaded up for the afternoon at hand—gloves, hat, hoody—in full Go Bills!-carpetbagger mode. The parking lot opposite Ralph Wilson was receiving the last of a convoy of Canadian tourist buses coming in for the game. Next to a Bills school bus a handful of men were trying to knock over bowling pins with a football while others merrily played catch.
I asked someone nearby standing guard by some parked vehicles next to the tent about finding a scalper to buy tickets, and he asked if I wanted the last ticket he had available for the end zone, home of the rabid “Bill’s Mafia.” I took it, asked him a few questions, and then got to Norwood.
“You wanna hear the saddest thing about Norwood you ever heard?” he asked, shaking his head. “I was at Tampa for that Super Bowl when he missed. That was no easy kick. I know a few people who know Scott’s wife. She’s from Buffalo. After that kick he went back to Virginia to the same high school field he was first practicing on with his daddy. The both of them went out there again and in 100 kicks from the same distance he missed in Tampa, he split the uprights each and every time. That next year with the Bills, he hit a couple from over 50. Won that playoff game for us. Hell, he won us some close ones that year leading up to Tampa. Still, he could never shake missing that big one and after the Bills let him go, nobody else bothered to pick him up because of the stink on him. He was a helluva good guy. His dad died in a car wreck some years back. That musta hit him really hard.”
I roamed around the tailgaters for a couple hours reveling in the post-apocalyptic artic splendor of the parking lot. Some jokers practiced beloved WWF maneuvers, suplexing their friends into old furniture. Somebody brought out a can of gas to up the stakes of doing a somersault off the back of a truck into a table set on fire. This in turn set him on fire. Howls and laughter rang out amidst the frigid dystopian backdrop, something like Buffalo’s answer to spring break in Miami Beach.
Over at the sold out Ralph Wilson, not long after kickoff, the Bills, despite 18 players on injured reserve, got off to an early lead against the Jets with a quarterback sneak into the end zone. By the second quarter, they were up by 13 after a second rushing touchdown. The crowd was excited about denying the Jets entry to the playoffs but equally braced for the other shoe to drop.
Then Buffalo’s kicker, Dan Carpenter, missed an extra point and moped off to the sideline only to slam his helmet with both hands against the ground. It bounced back up and ricocheted off his face. Everybody recognized the bad omen. Soon after the Jets finally scored in the second quarter, a few of their fans sitting a couple rows in front of me jumped up and roared in the direction of the Buffalo Bills marching band that was readying for their halftime show.
“Hey, Mohammad?” someone behind us chimed in. The tone was bizarrely warm and cheerful. A friend of his?
The standing Jets fans incredulously looked back in their direction.
The Jets fans weren’t white, but that was as close as I could get to their ethnicity. Most of the Bills fans in our section were clearly white. I didn’t like the looks of where this was going.
“Mohammad! Hey, you can sit down now. Sit down Mohammad. Just sit down Mohammad.”
No one joined in and no one spoke up, leaving only a strange, queasy standoff before everyone’s attention turned back to football.
After that uplifting moment in American race relations and a missed field goal by the Jets (wide right) going into halftime, New York came back in the third quarter only to have Ryan Fitzpatrick throw three heartbreaking fourth-quarter interceptions. That sealed the Bills’ 22-17 victory in the final game of their season, and sent the Jets and their fans back home where there would be no parade.
After the game, when Bills receiver Sammy Watkins, the hero of the afternoon, jumped into the loving arms of the Bills Mafia, none other than Vincent Gallo’s mother was there in the flesh to embrace him. Then she went a little further. True to form, Janet Gallo, the basis for his horrifying fictional mother in Buffalo 66, so ferociously devoted to the Bills that she famously laments ever having given birth to her son because it caused her to miss a Bills game, did not let the opportunity pass. Despite now being in her 80s, like a wolverine, she shrewdly seized the moment to peel off one of Sammy’s gloves as a souvenir.
With my train leaving early the next morning, late that night I returned to Danny’s South and grabbed my last bowl of traffic cone-orange Buffalo Chicken Wing soup. Karen wasn’t working, but Linda, the 40-year veteran waitress, was just finishing her shift. I sat down at the table next to The Juice’s beaming smile frosted against the window.
“You’re still here?” she laughed, bringing over the last of the night’s coffee.
“Leave in the morning.”
“Did you have a chance to speak to Marv Levy yet?”
“Over the phone,” I said. “Perfect gentleman, exactly like you and Karen described.”
“What about Norwood?”
“The Bills publicist said he’s not really inclined to talk much anymore.”
“You can understand why,” she smiled consolingly, grabbing a bowl of cream packets from another table and sliding it over. “But if you’re not going to talk to him, I’ll make a guilty confession.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I was working here that Super Bowl night 25 years ago. The place was packed as you could imagine. People were holding their breath when Norwood got on the field with eight seconds left. The entire staff had some money riding on it and the way our pool worked out, by the end of the game, the score being what it was, I stood to make $4,200 if Norwood missed that kick. I felt so terrible about wishing this great guy would miss and our team would lose that I had to go outside in the snow and pray. But I went out there and prayed to God, ‘Please make him miss. Please. Please. Please.’ So when I heard everyone inside gasp and that awful collective moan, I was out there doing a victory dance. I still feel terrible.”
“You kept the money?”
She laughed. “Are you kidding?”