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The Comeback Game

Can you believe it? Tomorrow is Jan. 3, the 20th anniversary of the Bills' historic comeback win in the wild-card game against the Oilers. The News will commemorate the event with a seven-page spread in Thursday's sports section. It'll seem almost as if the game had taken place the day before.

Over the last few weeks, I've been interviewing key figures from the Bills' 41-38 win. It's been a welcome relief from the grinding despair of the current Bills. It's good to remember a time when the Bills were a great and relevant team in the NFL, at a time when you expected them to pull out close games.

Here's a few excerpts from my interview with Bill Polian, who built those Super Bowl teams. The comeback game was his final home game as general manager of the Bills. Polian told me he had already been told by Ralph Wilson that he would be fired at the end of the season.


"I'd almost forgotten that they tied it at the end of regulation, and we had to win it in overtime. You sort of lose sight of things in the heat of the moment. Two things in particular stick in my memory, as starkly in my mind as if it happened this morning.

"One, after we scored to make it 35-10, we called an onsides kick. You could see Marv (Levy) and Bruce (DeHaven). I turned to Bob Ferguson (the team's pro personnel director at the time) in the press box and said, 'If we get the onsides kick, we're going to win the game'. He said, 'You're crazy!' I said, 'I'm telling you, the tide will turn if we recover.'"

Polian's words rang true when the Bills recovered and scored again. "You could just see it when we recovered, he said, "by the way the Oilers reacted."

"The other thing was this ... I sat in a front press box in a temporary booth, an auxiliary radio booth. There was no glass. We had fans in front of us. It was outside. Toward the end of the first half, a group of guys in front of us started saying some derogatory things. It was sort of funny, actually (he insists he wasn't tempted to fight them.). You didn't want the season to end that way.

"Since I knew I was leaving at the end of the season, it would have been a bad way for my Bills career to end. John Butler (then the college scouting chief) was getting upset. They were saying, 'This team stinks, we've had it, we've had enough. Let's go.' And they left."

"Now, the comeback occurs."

Many fans had left by that point. Polian, who controlled all aspects of the team operation, said there was a rule against fans' leaving and coming back inside. They didn't want people to consume booze and return.

 "We got a call," he said. "Ed Stillwell, our director of security, was in there with me. The security people were calling. They said, 'People are storming the gates, it's getting crazy out here!' We had a little confab. We said, 'OK, open the gates. Let them back in'."

"Well, the same group of guys came running back up the aisle. Lo and behold, boom, we score. They turn around, they're high-fiving each other, saying this is the greatest team ever. Those are the two things I remember most."

Polian said he didn't think any other team could have accomplished such an unlikely comeback. That Bills team was a rough, resilient, group that had come back many times before. They loathed losing. They hung out together and created a strong, sometimes volatile bond that made them hard to beat.

"They were very hard on each other," Polian said. "When you think about it, in terms of Marv Levy, this was his greatest victory, a vindication of all he had done in his program. He taught them to deal with adversity, to play smart, to play together, to be level-headed, and to never give up."

"(The comeback) was the ultimate personification of that. Plus, we had damn good players with a lot of pride and competitiveness. In many ways, it was the antithesis of the teams that had preceded them."

"I don't think there will ever be a team like that one. It was the good old days. The skies are blue, and it's always sunny. It was the right group of guys at the right time. Marv always said, if you get the right people, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

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