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Right in the league!

Steven Means, who played high school football at Grover Cleveland before moving on to UB, was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today. Means joins another former Harvard Cup star, Mike Williams, who played at Riverside. Williams was the first city high school graduate in many years to make it to the NFL. 

Here's a column I wrote on Means before his sophomore season at UB in the summer of 2010.-

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Means aims to prove point for city kids
Jerry Sullivan
18 August 2010

Oh, yes. Steven Means has been paying attention. He watches the daily reports from the NFL training camps, and he is keenly aware that a kid from a Buffalo city high school is making a splash as a rookie receiver in Tampa Bay.

"Mike Williams!" Means said Tuesday on Media Day at UB Stadium. "Right in the league. Right now! I played against him."

Means laughed at the memory, marveling at the raw athletic ability Williams displayed in his days at Riverside. Means, who played for Grover Cleveland, was exultant that a fellow city star had overcome the doubts and obstacles and actually made the big- time.

City football players are expected to fail, right? Williams had well-publicized issues at Syracuse and was drafted late as a result. Buffalo kids rarely even make it at the Division I level, which is why it's so important for Means to succeed as a player and student at UB.

"It's more important to me now than it ever was," said Means, a sophomore defensive end for the Bulls. "It's more important than anything. I'm not out here just representing myself. I'm out here representing my family, the whole city, Grover Cleveland, everybody. Even the young players in the Harvard Cup who get all the negative feedback saying they don't have a chance.

"I'm here to let everybody know that it can be done," said Means, who said he has a 2.7 GPA. "You've got to put in the work, including academics. But it can be done."

He got his chance and is making the most of it. Two years ago, when Means sat out as a true freshman, you heard tales of his exploits in practice. A year ago, Means had five sacks as a redshirt freshman. This year, he is one of the anchors on a UB defense that is looking to make waves in the Mid-American Conference.

Means is seen as an emerging force, one of the MAC's breakout players. He was a raw pass rusher when he arrived at UB. He's still learning the nuances of defensive line play. Means has a chance to become an all-MAC player. Who knows? Maybe he'll follow in the footsteps of Trevor Scott, a late-blooming defensive end who went from UB to the Raiders.

"It's all up to Steve," said Jappy Oliver, the Bulls' defensive line coach. "He doesn't really know how good he can be."

Oliver said Means relied on his sheer pass rushing ability in the past. It's no wonder. Head coach Jeff Quinn said Means can't be blocked by a single offensive lineman. It's other aspects of his game, like shedding blocks and defending the run, that needed polishing.

Means is listed at 6-4, 235 pounds (he was an interior force as a basketball player at Grover). But Oliver said Means has trouble maintaining his weight.

"He has the height to get much bigger and stronger," Oliver said, "and once he's able to do that, I think he'll be a big-time Division I football player."

Oliver coached at Notre Dame before coming to Buffalo, so he knows what a major college end looks like. Quinn said Means plays hard from the start of practice to the end. A few days ago, Means got into a scuffle at practice. Afterwards, he apologized to the team and was applauded by his teammates.

So the makings are there for a breakout. There's no telling how good the UB defense could be if he has double-digit sacks and creates matchup nightmares for MAC offenses.

"Oh, I hope so," Means said. "I see it as a year for our team to break out. I don't see it as an individual thing.

"I thought I was at my peak in high school. Then I got here and they taught me a lot more technique. I'm learning a lot more this year. So I have no clue where my peak is, and I'm going to keep striving to reach it."

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The new coach gets his way

It should not have come as any surprise when the Bills went heavy on offense early in this year's NFL draft. History shows that when the Bills hire a new head coach, they lean toward the new coach's specialty in his first draft. That's been the case with every new coach since Marv Levy retired:

Wade Phillips took over for Levy in 1998 and the Bills nabbed linebacker Sam Cowart in the first round. Gregg Williams, another defensive guy, came aboard in 2001 and went for Nate Clements and Aaron Schobel with his first two picks. Mike Mularkey, an offensive specialist, arrived in '04. The Bills took Lee Evans with the first overall pick and moved up to grab J.P. Losman later in the first.

Two years later, it was back to Dick Jauron, a conservative defensive coach. Their first five picks, starting with Donte Whiter at No. 8 overall, went to defense in Jauron's first draft. Chan Gailey succeeded Jauron in 2010, determined to fix a sputtering offense. His welcoming gift was a dynamic new running back named C.J. Spiller.

Marrone is an offensive guy who wants to play fast and attack defenses with playmakers. His first pick was EJ Manuel, a quarterback with huge athletic upside. In the second and third rounds, he took speedy wide receivers, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.

Marrone doesn't like being pigeonholed as an offensive-minded head coach. But it's clear that he wanted to see immediate upgrades in his passing grade when he got his first NFL head job.

Bruce Smith, the Godfather

EJ Manuel, the Bills' newly minted first-round draft choice, has an intimate family connection to the Super Bowl teams. Manuel is the godson of Bruce Smith, the Bills' Hall of Fame defensive end.

Smith is a childhood friend of Erik Manuel, EJ's father. They grew up together in Norfolk, Va., and have remained close through the years. In fact, Bruce Smith is EJ's godfather. So it was a happy coincidence when the Bills selected Manuel with the 16th pick of the first round on Thursday night.

"We grew up together," Erik Manuel said of Bruce. "We're lifetime friends, good friends. I can't describe it. It's a blessing, that's all I can say. I'm just glad he's at this level. I'm just happy. The Buffalo Bills, man! I've always been a Bills fan since Bruce was here and Jim (Kelly) was playing. So it's a good thing."

Erik, who was in town Friday for EJ's live introduction to the Buffalo media, said it would be helpful to have his son play in the same city where his godfather terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 15 seasons. "Right. Of course," he said. "But I think EJ's foundation is enough. You always have that to lean on. So I think he'll do well. EJ is solid, a solid guy."

Erik Manuel is a military man. He said it wasn't as if his children grew up in a overbearing, strict environment. "No, no," he said. "You can have boundaries with liberty. So you have fun, but there's always boundaries."

The Manuels have an extremely close relationship, more like best friends. Erik Manuel was a fixture at his son's games at Florida State. He would often be seen in the back of the interview room after games, the ubiquitous proud father. He said it was an emotional scene at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, when EJ went 16th to the Bills. It was especially so because his wife, Jackie, was there. Jackie is recovering from breast cancer surgery.

"I cried," Erik said without hesitation when asked to describe his emotions at the draft. "Yeah. I'm probably going to cry some more later."

Memories of Larry

 Thought I'd pass along this email from Tom Koller, the senior associate director of athletics at Buffalo State. Koller worked for a decade as a sports writer at the Niagara Gazette and served as sports information director and assistant AD at UB.  Koller has fond memories of Larry Felser, who passed away on Wednesday. Niecy is Larry's daughter.
 

"Good morning, scribes.  I’m saddened today with the passing of Larry and felt a need to write.  Let me applaud you, Mark and Jerry, on your pieces reflecting on his wonderful career. Personally, he was a mentor to this cub reporter, always taking time to answer a “rookie” question or just sharing a “pre-game meal” in the press box prior to a Bills’ home game (do they even feed you anymore?). He wrote, as Mark beautifully noted in today’s piece, “with finesse. He censored with a scalpel, never a rusty knife.”   For me, coming back to cover my hometown football team, Larry was the one I looked up to, read, gushed over, learned from. You’re right, Jerry, thank God we don’t use typewriters anymore because I, for one, could never carry his.  When I was the SID at UB, I was blessed to have Niecy as an intern (she later married one of our football players).  Niecy never stopped talking about her dad because, well, I wouldn’t let her.  She was Larry through and through – soft spoken, intelligent, and herself a great writer. I was thrilled when Larry would call the office to talk to her, always asking “how ya doin today Tommy?”  Sounds corny, but what a rush I felt, hearing my idol ask me – me! – how I was doing.  We lost a legend, but most importantly, we lost a gentleman.  

 

Larry Felser, a gentleman

It was a little over 24 years ago when I got the job as the second sports columnist at the News, replacing Donn Esmonde. I was still living in Brooklyn, finishing my time at New York Newsday, when I got a phone call from Buffalo. It was Larry Felser, calling ahead of time to welcome me to the News.

I was a little intimidated, I must admit. Felser was a sports writing icon, I knew that from an early age. His wrote an AFL column in the Sporting News when I was a teen-ager. The Sporting News was my Bible back then. Discovering it at 14 years old was the first event that inspired me to be a sports writer. All the columnists were legends to me. They were the first thing I read when the paper arrived in the mail. 

I distinctly remember Larry saying one thing over the phone that day: "There's plenty of stories to go around. "He wanted to put me at ease and not feel as if I would be intruding on his turf. Over the years, I've seen a lot of petty behavior by out-of-town sports writers and columnists when a new guy showed up in town. That would never be the case with Felser. He wanted me to feel welcome. He was always there with advice and insight. He never once uttered a mean or disparaging word to me. He couldn't have known how much that meant to me.

Of course, it wasn't until I arrived in Buffalo that I realized just how big he was there. Everyone knew him. He was a legend who had covered the Bills from the very beginning, who knew Jack Kemp and O.J. Simpson and went to lunch with Ralph Wilson, who had covered every Super Bowl. But even more so, it was the stature he had achieved as THE local writer, the guy all the young sports fans turned to first before devouring the sports page as kids.

Larry always made me feel welcome in Buffalo. There was never any sense of rivalry between us. Readers would occasionally say, "You're no Larry Felser." I would laugh and think, "No kidding!" I was just happy to be in the same town, on the same paper, allowed to write about the Bills. No way could I measure up. I knew that. Larry Felser WAS Buffalo sports writing. He was the chronicler of the town's beloved Bills from the very start. The best I could do was try to live up to his standard the best I could.

Chuck Knox once said of Larry, "They don't make them like him anymore." That was so true. He was one of a kind, the product of a kinder and simpler era in sports journalism. He carried himself with a quiet dignity. Athletes trusted him. So did readers. At a time when people tweet their thoughts without filters and everyone wants to be the smartest guy in the room, it would be wise to remember Larry and journalists like him, who spent a day reporting and polishing a column that people read as if it were gospel.

Rest in peace, Larry. We all looked up to you as a role model. Not as just a great writer, but even more important as a great guy.

 

 

Live chat at 1 p.m.: Sully on Sports

Live video at 10 a.m.: 'Bucky & Sully Show'

Ralph shooting for home opener

Mary Wilson, the wife of Bills owner Ralph Wilson, said Friday that her husband is doing well and is hoping to attend the team's home opener in September.

"He's doing really well," she said. "He's great. Today is Friday, so he's going to work out with his trainer. Our goal is Opening Day. Ralph wants to make the home opener."

Continue reading "Ralph shooting for home opener" »

Live chat pushed back to 1:30

I'm pushing the chat back a half hour today (to 1:30) because of an interview that came up at the last minute. I promise to go at least an hour. Talk to you then.

Live chat at 1 p.m.: Sully on Sports

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