Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Old Glory: Long Live the Bills

Illustration for article titled Old Glory: Long Live the Bills

Here's a good one for you—Ben Austen's 2012 story for Grantland, "The Glorious Plight of the Buffalo Bills":

Consider the team's first Super Bowl defeat, against the Giants in January 1991. In the AFC championship game the week before, the Bills, with their explosive no-huddle offense, had overwhelmed the Raiders, 51-3, sparking a week of unrelenting partying in Western New York. As a city, Buffalo had pretty much hit bottom in the preceding years. Bethlehem Steel, Westinghouse Electric, and Trico, the world's largest maker of windshield wipers, were among many companies to shut down production in the area in the 1980s. One of the city's two daily papers, the Courier-Express, ceased operations. The population had fallen from a peak of 600,000 to about 300,000, and has since dropped to 260,000. The city could hardly even boast anymore of being a working-class, blue-collar town, since for the first time in its existence more people held low-wage trade and service-sector jobs than worked in manufacturing. Buffalo had once roamed among the world's industrial powerhouses, owning one of the nation's largest economies. In 1901 it hosted the Pan-American Exposition and a World's Fair, and, yeah, President William McKinley was assassinated there, but many of the monuments remained. Frederick Law Olmsted himself had traveled up to Buffalo to design the city's parks and interconnected parkways. Because Buffalo had fallen so far, it clung all the more to its football team — a last vestige of its former prominence as a "major league" town. At least for 16 games a year, the city remained part of a national conversation. And then there suddenly was a chance again to be on top. The Bills offered a possibility of redemption.

In the Super Bowl, the Bills were down 19-20 to the Giants with eight seconds left when the team's kicker, Scott Norwood, lined up a 47-yard field goal. He missed, of course, and the phrase "wide right" instantly turned into a mantra, a declaration of the city's decay. I heard natives refer to it as "our Cuyahoga moment," a reference to the burning river that came to symbolize the demise of Cleveland, another Rust Belt catastrophe. In Buffalo '66, Vincent Gallo's comically grim 1998 film about the grotesques of his hometown, the sallow-eyed Gallo plays Billy Brown, who bet $10,000 on the Bills to win the Super Bowl. After a prison stint he serves to pay off his debt, Billy returns home to kill "Scott Wood," the field goal kicker who ruined his life. First, though, he visits his parents, Bills zombies who have plastered every square foot of their bungalow with team paraphernalia. Asked to bring out pictures of little Billy, his mom returns with a photo album filled only with images of Jack Kemp, O. J. Simpson, and other players. At one point Mickey Rourke's gangster tells Billy, "If Buffalo ever makes it back to the Super Bowl, bet against them. Now get the fuck out of my sight."

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