Local fans often debate the most heartbreaking moment in Buffalo sports history and two events usually rise to the top – “Wide Right” and “No Goal.” Nights of tossing and turning in bed while trying to reinvent history leads to self-induced insomnia. Eventually a tired reality seeps back in for a championship-starved city.
“No Goal” of course refers to the 1999 Stanley Cup where the Sabres were beaten by the Dallas Stars and those sometimes foolish men in striped shirts with whistles dangling around their necks. It was during triple overtime in Game Six when Brett Hull slapped the game-winning puck by legendary Buffalo goaltender Dominik Hasek even though Hull’s skate was clearly inside the goal crease.
Eight years before that travesty, “Wide Right” was playing out in Super Bowl XXV between the Bills and the New York Giants. Definitely in the discussion of football’s all-time greatest games, the contest and the events surrounding it were the inspiration behind author Adam Lazarus’s 2011 book, “Super Bowl Monday.”
I’ve probably watched this game on DVD at least 20 times over the years and feel confident enough that I have a fairly solid grasp on what occurred during those four quarters. Lazarus – a member of the Pro Football Writers of America – reminded me of the many fascinating stories that led up to the game and uncovered many I didn’t recall.
This was a Super Bowl that nearly wasn’t played. Then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was under a lot of pressure to cancel the game due to the ongoing Gulf War and the involvement of the United States in Operation Desert Storm just weeks prior. Lazarus noted that Tagliabue’s predecessor, Pete Rozelle, went to the grave thinking he made the wrong decision in having football games played just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Luckily for football fans all over the world, including those serving in the Gulf that watched the game on closed circuit television, Tagliabue realized the Super Bowl needed to be played at all costs. Heightened security in and around the stadium kept many on the edge of their seats as did the action on the field.
With the tragic death of Whitney Houston last weekend still fresh in our minds it was with sadness that I read the author’s account of her singing of the National Anthem that January 27, 1991 day.
Lazarus writes, “Dressed in a white sweatsuit with a touch of red and blue fabric, Grammy Award-winning singer Whitney Houston stood atop a small wooden platform. And over the next one minute and fifty-five seconds, Houston delivered the most graceful, inspiring, goose bump-inducing rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” of all time.”
It will always be my most lasting image of Houston.
Many expected the game to be a blowout, especially with the way the Bills had marched into the game following a 55-3 win over the Los Angeles Raiders in the A.F.C. championship game. The Giants crept into the game with a 15-13 win over the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49‘ers in the N.F.C. title game. Kicker Matt Bahr accounted for all of New York’s points with five field goals.
Buffalo’s K-Gun (hurry-up) offense versus New York’s vaunted defense led by Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks. Marv Levy, the Harvard-educated Bills coach who recited poetry during team meetings, versus “The Big Tuna” Bill Parcells and a young defensive wizard named Bill Belichick.
The game really had everything, including five lead changes. The one thing it was lacking and it makes me wonder if this will ever happen in a Super Bowl again was turnovers. There wasn’t one turnover in Super Bowl XXV – truly amazing.
What didn’t work in this book was the way Lazarus recalls specifics of game action in this contest, but then diverts the reader’s attention to other great moments in the Super Bowl history that don’t always connect with the main subject matter. For example as part of his Super Bowl Flashback sidebars, the author talks about Super Bowl XVII and one of the game’s heroes, John Riggins of the Washington Redskins. The running back reflects on his experiences in that win over the Miami Dolphins, but I’m not sure I see the connection with the Bills-Giants game.
Later in the book, Lazarus uses this same flashback technique with Baltimore Colts kicker Jim O’Brien talking about his team’s win in Super Bowl V. Here it works because O’Brien booted the game-winning field goal with seconds remaining while Scott Norwood didn’t in Super Bowl XXV, so there’s a direct correlation between the lives of those two players.
Which takes us back to Norwood’s “Wide Right.” I still remember Lynn Swann interviewing the kicker outside the losing Buffalo locker room after the game and feeling so bad for the guy. Lazarus writes about how all the Bills players and coaches defended him following the miss. Lazarus writes in detail of how even in defeat, 30,000 Bills fans made it to Niagara Square in subfreezing temperatures to cheer on their team a few days after the game.
Lazarus writes, “The rally, scheduled for 3 p.m., was just about to commence when a new chant – “We Want Scott, We Want Scott” – started then billowed into a full-fledged deafening roar.” This is the antithesis of how Boston Red Sox fans treated Bill Buckner following the 1986 World Series. It would take a couple world championships for the Beantown faithful to forgive him.
“Super Bowl Monday” is a good read for football fans, especially those that root for the game’s two combatants. If you’re old enough to remember the game, it will bring you back to another time and if you’re too young, this is your chance to read up on one of the best ever. Now if you’re a Bills fan, sleepless nights surely await you.
Eric DeGrechie’s column appears every Friday and he’s stocked up on sleeping pills. For comments and suggestions, he can be reached at EJDeGrechie@aol.com and follow him on Twitter @EJD23.