(EDITOR’S NOTE: This NFL season marks the 30th anniversary of the Bills’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance. After the 1990 campaign, the Bills and Giants qualified for game XXV at Tampa. Come Sunday, the Chiefs and Buccaneers will play Super Bowl XLV in that same Florida city, but this time at Raymond James Stadium. Chuck Pollock covered XXV for the Times Herald on Jan. 27, 1991, and shares his recollections.)
By the time I started at the Times Herald in January of 1973, a seventh Super Bowl was about to be played.
Since one of my main tasks was covering the struggling Bills, it occurred to me that it might be awhile before they made it to the National Football League’s ultimate game. Sure enough, the next 15 years produced only five winning seasons, three ending with playoff berths, two of them one-and-dones.
But then, the 1988 season provided a tantalizing tease.
The Bills went 12-4, easily won the AFC East, and edged Houston in a divisional playoff at Rich Stadium. That earned them a spot in the conference championship game against the Bengals at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium with a berth in Super Bowl XXIII at stake.
Buffalo’s dream ended with a 21-10 loss.
TWO YEARS later it was different.
The Bills won their third straight division title and, with a 13-3 record, had home field during their playoff run.
First came a 44-34 win over division rival Miami followed by a much-anticipated meeting with the Los Angeles Raiders for the AFC Championship and a spot in Super Bowl XXV at Tampa.
The Bills were favored by a touchdown but L.A. fans would have needed 49 points to cover. Buffalo’s win was assured when it left the field up 41-3 at halftime.
In the press box, we Bills media members were frantically calling airlines for flights to Florida.
The reason for the urgency was that for only the second time in the 25-year history of the game there was only one week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.
A popular perception is that the schedule was tightened because of the Gulf War. But that wasn’t the case; the NFL released its slate the previous spring.
Still, the Gulf War had its impact … more on that later.
AFTER THE win over the Raiders, Buffalo’s media corps was offered an opportunity to buy two Super Bowl tickets for $150 each. As my mother was a Bills fan, mostly because her son covered the team, I bought one for her and sold the other to the late Ray Padlo, Olean’s iconic barber.
Mom and I got to Tampa on Tuesday, but it was a different atmosphere. Security was noticeably heightened and there were no league-sponsored parties or events.
During the day, while I did interviews and wrote, she soaked up the sun and swam in the pool at the media hotel. The nights before the game we spent going to seafood restaurants and making a visit or two to the dog track.
The game, being played at a stadium nicknamed “The Big Sombrero” for its crescent-shaped stands behind each sideline, was ringed with concrete barriers and vehicular traffic was restricted to a sizable distance away.
GAME DAY was unlike any before in my career covering the Bills.
We went through metal detectors on the way in, our credentials were meticulously checked and our bags were carefully searched.
Today, media bag-checks are routine, but back then it was a first.
Meanwhile, my mom waited in one of the long lines of fans undergoing similar scrutiny. Their reward was a commemorative seat cushion emblazoned with the game’s logo and several other mementoes. As it turned out, Padlo couldn’t get away for the game and sold his ticket to Angee’s Anthony Fratercangelo, and “Frats” sat next to my mother for Buffalo’s first-ever Super Bowl.
Given the patriotic mood in the country, the Star Spangled Banner was much-anticipated and the late Whitney Houston delivered. Backed by the Florida Orchestra, her heart-felt rendition was subsequently released as a single and incredibly rose to No. 20 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. It remains the most popular version of the national anthem ever recorded.
Most Bills fans prefer not to remember it.
Buffalo, at 15-3, was a 6½-point favorite over the New York Giants, with the same record, after upsetting formidable San Francisco, which had won the previous two Super Bowls, on the 49ers’ home field.
One reason the Bills were favored was that their lineup featured five Hall-of-Famers-to-be – Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton and Bruce Smith – plus coach Marv Levy. Five others – Kent Hull, Will Wolford, Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Steve Tasker – also made the Pro Bowl that year.
New York coach Bill Parcells had a basic strategy, establishing a time-consuming ground game that would keep the ball away from Buffalo’s potent no-huddle offense.
The Giants had the ball for 40½ minutes to the Bills’ 19½. Still, trailing 20-19, Buffalo, which managed 371 yards in less than a third of the game, drove 61 yards on its final possession to New York’s 29-yard line with eight seconds to play.
And though in the stadium, I never saw Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt slip 18 inches wide of the right upright in person. At the two-minute warning, Larry Felser of the Buffalo News and I headed for the Buffalo locker room. We stopped at a TV stationed outside the door and at first thought Scott’s attempt would hook a bit left, which it usually did.
But not this time.
Both of us rationalized, “they’ll be back,” and they were … the next three years.
However, little did we realize their best chance at victory was that one we had just witnessed.
And, after those four straight trips, it’s now been 27 years and Bills fans are still waiting.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)