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Live Chat With Sully

Welcome to another chat. Plenty to talk about today. Thanks for chatting. We'll do it again next week, just before the Bowl.

Bill Polian

Bill Polian grew up in Brooklyn, same as his father. His dad was a huge fan of the Dodgers in their glory days at Ebbets Field. But like so many fans of that time, the elder Polian swore off the Dodgers when Walter O'Malley moved the team to Los Angeles. He became a Mets fan. Bill rooted for the Yankees.

"He always referred to him as 'that goddam Walter O'Malley," Polian told me Thursday. "Years later, I was going through Dodgertown and talked to his son, Peter O'Malley. I told him about my dad and he laughed like hell. He said, 'It's a hard burden to bear.' Every October, my father and I would have lively discussions about who would win the World Series."

Polian has read "The Boys of Summer", Roger Kahn's retrospective on the Dodger teams that Kahn had to good fortune to cover as a young baseball writer in the 1950s. In fact, he has read it twice. I told him I'd read it three times. It was the book that made me want to become a sports writer. "Now you know who to blame," I said.

Polian has gotten to know former Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine while running the Colts in Indianapolis. Erskine, who settled in Anderson, Ind., was one of the subjects of Kahn's book, which revists the Dodgers as they grow into middle age. The Dodgers of that time were seen as beloved losers -- a supremely team and ill-fated group of personalities who suffered repeated disappointments in the World Series (before finally beating them in '55)

"I've likened those Bills teams to Roger Kahn's book," Polian said. "A great team that had a great
relationship with the town in which it played."

Polian has fond memories of the Super Bowl years. He put those teams together and was the general manager for the first three. He wishes they had one more timeout at the end of Super Bowl XXV. He wishes they had one more dynamic wide receiver. People forget that Don Beebe was injured and didn't play in Tampa. But mainly, Polian remembers that Buffalo loved its team, in the same way Brooklyn loved its Dodgers when they were losing to the Yankees.

"It was a very, very unique time and a unique team," Polian said. "They were very close, and they remain close today. They were the last team to really play together for a long time. Free agency came and broke things up. There hasn't been a team like that since, maybe for 49ers, although they were changing then, too.

"It's kind or ironic. This is the 20th anniversary of the first one for us. You probably have two franchises in the Super Bowl (Green Bay and Pittsburgh) whose relationships with their cities most closely epitomize the way it was with Buffalo and the Bills."
 

Kenneth Davis

Kenneth Davis was a terrific backup running back during the Super Bowl years, the ideal complement to Thurman Thomas. People remember Thomas leading the NFL in combined yards four years in a row. It's amazing that his backup could be so productive. Davis rushed for 624 yards in 1991, then 613 in 1992. He scored 20 regular-season touchdowns in the four Super Bowl years. He had three TDs in the 51-3 rout of the Raiders in the AFC title game the week before Super Bowl XXV.

Davis, who finished his career with the Bills after the 1994 season, went on to be a coach and teacher in his native Texas. For the last seven years, he has been the athletic director at Bishop Dunne, a co-ed Catholic school with 682 students in Dallas. Davis coached the football team until three years ago. He won one district championship at Bishop Dunne.

He misses coaching. He misses being a Bill even more. Davis loved being a Bill. He came here from the Packers in 1989. Davis re-signed with the Bills when he became a free agent before the 1993 season. He had no interest in testing the waters, even though he might have commanded a much higher salary on the open market.

"We were family, man. I'm telling you," said Davis, who was one of 12 children. "It was a special group. You find out you want to be part of something. You could just feel it. When I was in Buffalo, it was in the air.  It was just a great opportunity for me. I never knew I could play with so many great athletes. Look how many of them are in the Hall of Fame."

Davis, speaking from his office in Dallas, began mentioning his teammates by name. Jim Kelly, bringing everyone together. Bruce Smith, with "an ego as big as the world", but a gentle giant when you got to know him. Thurman Thomas, the volatile team cutup. Steve Tasker, such a dynamic talent.

"To put those kind of athletes together, and all those personalities. Ooh!" he said with a chuckle. "Coach Levy, I don't know how he did it. Maybe he should have his own TV show, like Dr. Oz."

I told Kenny he seemed emotional just talking about it.

"It is emotional," he said. "I never had a bad day in Buffalo. I don't care if it was practice, training camp at the college, Rich Stadium or on the road. I never had a bad day. I was excited to come to work. I was up early every day. I ... loved ... coming ... to work. It didn't matter if it was summertime or the middle of the year. It was because of the cohesiveness of the organization, the attitude. I'm talking even the people who cleaned up for us, the people who fed us lunch, the ones who cleaned up the stadium."

Davis said he never felt much separation between the team and the fans in Buffalo. He felt a kinship between a blue-collar team and a blue-collar community. He remembers how it felt on a cold Sunday on game day, seeing the smoke coming out of tailpipes in the cars, the smell of barbecue as he walked down the tunnel. He seemed ready to run out and hit someone as he spoke. By the time he was done, I was ready to run out the tunnel with him. 

"To walk out there and see those fans with their beer helmets on, their wool caps, drinking their beer and the smiles on their faces. It made work better for them when we won. It was exciting to walk out and see them up there. You'd see the team on the other sideline and want to kick their butts. There was no feeling quite like it. Man, Buffalo is just a wonderful place."

Bruce Smith

I got in touch with Bruce Smith yesterday for my retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Super Bowl XXV. Smith had just gotten out of a meeting at his offices in Virginia Bech. He owns a real estate development company. Bruce said he enjoys being a businessman, though "it's not that immediate gratification I'm used to getting with a sack."

Smith says he looks back fondly on the Super Bowl years, and mainly the relationships with his former coaches and teammates. The Hall of Fame defensive end says he talks to Darryl Talley and Thurman Thomas on a weekly basis. He talks with Jim Kelly, Marv Levy and many others.

"I don't think when we were actually going through it, we didn't realize at that age how much the experience would impact the rest of our lives. I wouldn't trade any moment of my NFL career for anything. Things happen for a reason. It makes you a better person, It opens your eyes and makes you realize there are more important things in life than whether you win or lose."

I wasn't fond of Smith's self-serving manner during his playing days. He seems a lot more mature now, more mellow and philosophical, like most of his old teammates. They were in their 20s back then. A lot of pro athletes are overgrown little boys in their playing days (sports writers aren't immune from that, either). They grow up. In retrospect, they have a greater appreciation for their time in Buffalo and the support of the fans.

Smith called back after our initial conversation. He wanted to make sure I knew about some of the humanitarian work he'd done recently. Bruce went to Kuwait and Iraq two Christmases ago on a USO trip to visit the American troops. That's the same trip that Andre Reed, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas went on last month, the one where Reed tore his Achilles.

"It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life," Smith said. "We were actually shot at by insurgents with rockets. We were at a pep rally and a gentleman came over the loudspeaker and said 'Incoming!' We had to hit the ground. This was New Year's Night. I encouraged Jim and Thurman to go. I said,it will be the most fulfilling trip you ever take. But I'll be honest. I was scared to death for a while."

Smith also volunteers with Operation Smile, a charity that helps repair cleft palates and other facial deformities of children and adults. Bruce said one of his Hall of Fame events raised a half million dollars for Operation Smile. He recalls carrying an 8-year-old child to surgery in his arms in Africa.

"We sit here and think about the score of a game," he said. "When we get older, we understand you can have more of an impact on someone else's life by doing some of these things and being a positive figure, rather than someone remembered for a sack."  

Ray Bentley

It won't come as any great surprise to hear that Ray Bentley has written a novel. Bentley was the most literate character on the Bills' Super Bowl teams. He wrote Darby The Dinosaur children's books back in his playing days. Bentley wrote columns for The News during the first Super Bowl. He hosts his own sports talk radio show in Grand Rapids, Mich. Bentley also does work for ESPN and the NFL Network.

"I actually have a 500-page novel," Bentley said. "It's all about football in Buffalo. That's the backdrop. It's the 2012 season. There's a Super Bowl. The Seneca Indians put up a new stadium in Buffalo. It's called the Wigwam." Bentley said he has a publisher and is polishing the book right now.

On Super Bowl XXV: "We didn't play our best. I blame it on our third-down defense (the Giants were 9-for-16 on third down). You look at all those situations we had and couldn't get them off the field. That's why they had such good rushing numbers. We had opportunities but didn't tackle.

"I never blamed Scott Norwood. I don't think most of the guys did. We knew that we had multiple opportunities to win that game. I tell you one thing. My most vivid memory is when Bruce (Smith) tackled (Jeff) Hostetler in the end zone. I should have had half a sack. I'll never forget watching Bruce's right hand slide down Hostetler's arm, and instead of continuing with the slide and knocking the ball out, he locked on his forearm. I was ready to pounce. I was going to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and be immortalized. The blitz we ran was called 51 Bruce Double Darby, after me."


Jeff Wright Reflects

I spoke with Jeff Wright on Friday for my upcoming retrospective on the 20th anniversary of the Bills' first Super Bowl. Wright was terrific. He was one of the more underrated talkers in those days. Wright was an undersized nose guard who got the most out of his ability and had some of his best performance in the biggest games. He was one of the better Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

Nowadays, Wright works on a cattle ranch in Tucson, Arizona. The ranch belongs to the family of his fiancee, Jennifer Wilson.

"Her dad's name is Ralph Wilson, believe it or not," Wright said. "We actually have poems and letters here from Buffalo Bill Cody. They have coins, too. Buffalo Bill Cody actually stayed on the ranch here at one time. The ranch has been here since 1888, before Arizona even became a state."

"Once in awhile, we'll be going out and Jennifer will ask me to wear one of my (AFC championship) rings. I'll throw it on and wear it. It takes me back. I wish I had a Super Bowl ring. But I look back on those days with pride. I have no shame in any of that. I feel we were part of history. A lot of the things we did, no other team has done to this day. It was a very special group.

"I rmember Leon Seals and I were warming up before the game in Tampa. The planes were flying over. I said, "Holy sh--, I can't feel my legs! There was so much adrenaline in my body. It was such an emotional time because of the war. It was our first time there. We wanted it so much for Buffalo. Hell, I remember the very first play, I picked up (Giants center) Bart Oates and drove him 3 yards back into O.J. Anderson. But Darryl Talley was offsides."

Live Chat With Sully

Time to chat. We'll hold it to two hours today.

Thanks for chatting. Talk to you next week.

Chat

A reminder that I'll be chatting at 1 p.m. today from The News offices. I might start a little earlier, depending on technological issues. I will have to keep it to a mere two hours today, because I have an interview with ex-Bill Cornelius Bennett at 3:15. I'm doing a retrospective on the Bills' first Super Bowl. Bennett is also the representative for the NFL's former players in labor negotiations. I never thought of Biscuit as the type of guy who could wind up in that sort of position, but he's matured a lot over the years and it'll be interesting to see what he has to say. Considering some of the rippings I gave him through the years, it's a little surprising he'd agree to talk to me!

Wannstedt

According to published reports, the Bills will hire Dave Wannstedt to be their assistant head coach. If so, it's a good move. Wannstedt is one of the best defensive minds in the business, and it can only help to have another veteran coach working with a defense that struggled mightily a year ago.

Wannstedt was a college head coach at Pittsburgh last year after a long career in the NFL. He was head coach with the Bears and Dolphins. He was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys when they beat the Bills in the two Super Bowls. George Edwards is the Bills' coordinator, but I have to assume Wannstedt will oversee the defense while working with the linebackers. That's a great thing, too, because the Bills desperately need someone to coach up their young and unproven linebacking corps.

Having coached for six years in the Big East, Wannstedt has seen many of the top players in college, too. So he'll be another voice at the draft, which is another critical one at One Bills Drive.

According to Fox Sports, this makes ex-Bills head coach Dick Jauron the frontrunner for the vacant defensive coordinator's job in Cleveland. Jauron is believed to be up against former Arizona defensive coordinator Billy Davis. Jauron worked with Browns president Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. Jauron is also a candidate for Philadelphia's vacant defensive coordinator's job, but Fox Sports says he could accept the Cleveland job as early as today.

Maybe Donte Whitner, an unrestricted free agent who is almost certain to play elsewhere next season, will consider signing with the Browns to play for the man who was his first head coach in Buffalo. Here's what Whitner told me about Jauron before the start of the season:

"You could never question Jauron's character," Whitner said. "He was a really nice guy. He looked out for everybody. He would never throw anybody under the bus. But I guess when you're that nice a person, you can't be a head football coach sometimes. You're probably better off as a position coach or a coordinator."


Super Bowl Retrospective

Over the last few days, I've been reaching out to members of the Bills' first Super Bowl team to get some of their memories about that game. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Super Bowl XXV, which was played on Jan. 27, 1991 in Tampa. In case you missed it, the Bills lost, 20-19.

Sometime in the next two weeks, we'll be running stories that look back on that first Super Bowl experience, drawing mainly on the memories of the men who played and coached in it. Along the way, I'll put some highlights of the players' interviews on the blog: 

Almost to a man, the players say among their most vivid memories were the fighter planes going over the stadium and Whitney Houston's rendition of the national anthem before the kickoff. The game took place at the height of the Gulf War, remember, and patriotism was very much in the air that evening.

Darryl Talley:

 "Yeah. Our country being at war, the planes flying over ... the hair stands up on my arms to
this day when I think about it. I guess, I'm such a patriotic person, I believe in this
country. We're in a war and billions of people are looking in on the game.

"It gives me goose bumps. I'm getting them right now! You've got people fighting for our rights and wait a minute, I'm playing a football game? Then Whitney Houston nails the anthem. There was nothing left to see or do. You look in the stands and they're all red, white and blue. It goes back to Marv saying, 'Where would you rather be than right here, right now?' The biggest game on the biggest stage. Red, white and blue colors. Apache Tomahawk helicopters. Twenty years ago. Can you believe that?

"Neither can I."

***

As Western New York prepares to mark 20 years since “Wide Right,” The Buffalo News wants to hear your memories of Super Bowl XXV.

Whether you went to the game, the pep rally the next day or just watched it at home, send us your stories to [email protected]. We’ll post readers’ stories on buffalonews.com and may even use some in our special coverage of the game’s anniversary.

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