The year was 1973. A boy, all of fourteen yeas old, would be going to his first ever football games that year. It was the year the Buffalo Bills first played in what was then called Rich Stadium. He'd never seen any games at the old War Memorial Stadium, affectionately referred to as "The Rockpile" because he and his father had had a close call there some summers ago. They'd gone to see a baseball game at the Rockpile on what turned out to be the very night before the race riots broke out in the summer of 1967. The boy's father, somewhat shaken about how close they'd come to being in the middle of the tumult (they were originally planning to go the night the riots actually started, but for whatever reason, the father decided to go one night earlier) had sworn that he'd never go back to the stadium because of the risks involved.
For that reason, the closest the youngster got to watching football was on television. Which he did, every Sunday. When the Bills were away, he'd watch them. When they played at home, he'd listen to the game on the radio, or if a more interesting matchup was on TV, he'd watch that game, sometimes with the sound down low so he could listen to the Bills game at the same time. Even at that early age, the boy was hooked on football. He'd been bitten by the football bug as an eight year old, when he watched the first Super Bowl with his dad. The pageantry of the game, along with the event that it was, hooked him immediately.
The boy began reading everything he could get his hands on at the local library about football. Whether it was players, coaches, or strategies, he digested everything he read as if he were ravenous. He just couldn't get enough of the game. He began to learn all he could about the individual teams, especially the star players. He observed coaches, too, sometimes not sure what he was looking at, or for, but he somehow inherently understood that the coaches were ultimately responsible for all the aspects of the teams. Whether they were passing offenses or ones who ran the ball most of the time, or if the defenses were traditional, or gambling with the blitz, he watched to see what worked for them and what didn't. Then he'd try to find out why. His father explained as much as he could to his son, but when the questions became more complicated, he'd tell his son to try to find the answer at the library. So he did, learning much about the game he loved in those books.
As the boy's knowledge about the game grew, he began to make observations based upon what he knew, especially in terms of what teams were favored to win and why. As things usually go, he'd be right some of the time, and wrong on other occasions. When the Vikings were huge favorites to beat Kansas City in Super Bowl IV, he asked his father why they were favored by twelve points. His father patiently explained how good the Vikings defense was. The boy was unimpressed though, and told his dad the Chiefs were going to win because their defense was bigger and better than the Vikings. When he turned out to be correct, hid father asked him how he'd known. "Well," the boy said, "the Chiefs defensive line is bigger than the Vikings offensive line, so I didn't think they'd be able to move them to run the ball." But that wasn't the best thing that happened to the boy in 1970.
Early in the year, the Bills announced plans to break ground on a new stadium in Orchard Park. Excited, he asked his father if they could start going to games and get season tickets when the stadium opened. His father, probably knowing he'd hear about nothing else with the Bills moving from the city, agreed.
Fast forward to 1973. The Bills begin the season with two consecutive road games, beating New England and losing to San Diego before coming home for their home opener against the New York Jets. But that wasn't the only big story for the Bills at that time. The Bills star running back, O.J. Simpson was making news of his own. Big news.
Simpson had begun the season in New England by abusing the Patriots for two hundred fifty yards and two touchdowns. The two hundred fifty yards was a record for most yards in a single game at the time. When Simpson added one hundred three yards against San Diego in week two, he was way out in front of all the other backs in the league.
The boy realized however, that the Bills were not a great team, despite Simpson's heroics. He never expected Simpson to be able to keep racking up that kind of yardage, and that he probably wouldn't get to see anything like that. Even at that, he couldn't wait for that Sunday to arrive, because he was finally going to his first ever NFL game.
When the day finally arrived he could hardly contain his excitement. He and his dad got to the stadium and began to make their way to their seats. He was so in awe of everything, it all seemed so huge to him. His head was literally on a swivel as he tried to take the entire experience in. Everything seemed so big!
As the game began, the boy watched intently, trying to watch everything at once. From their seats in the end zone, he had a great view of the plays developing when the teams were at his end of the field. At the opposite end, it was much easier to follow the ball by watching the quarterback through his binoculars. The view was much different from watching the game on television, but he didn't care. He simply loved just being there at the game live. He wasn't able to have up to the minute statistics on how many yards Simpson had, but the sheer joy of watching the game right there in front of him more than made up for that.
After the game, all he could talk about was how much he loved it, and how he couldn't wait for next week to come back, as the Bills were at home against Philadelphia. One of the best things was just spending the day watching the football game at the stadium with his father. It was also pretty neat that when they got back to the car and turned on the radio, they found that Simpson had rushed for one hundred twenty three yards.
As the season went on, the boy couldn't wait for home game Sunday's to arrive. His father went out and bought a small grill so they could tailgate before the game. The sights, smells, and sounds of being in the stadium and the parking lot were overwhelmingly exciting for him. Even sitting in the rain for a couple of games and the snow in one didn't temper his enthusiasm one bit. After all, he was watching his favorite football team, live and in person. Nothing could could be better. There was one other thing too. O.J. Simpson was having a season for the ages.
December came and along with it, the final home game of the season. The boy knew that he'd been watching something truly special develop right in front of his eyes. With only two games remaining in the Bills season, Simpson had rushed for fifteen hundred eighty four yards. He needed only four hundred sixteen yards to go where no back had ever gone before, two thousand yards rushing in a single season.
To the boy, it sounded impossible. Even though Simpson's staggering totals thus far would have seemed implausible at the start of the season, that he was so close was miraculous in itself. But to average two hundred eight yard in the last two games? One of which, the last home game of the year, would be played in the snow? No way. It just couldn't be.
As the final game approached, he got more anxious by the day. He couldn't wait to go out to the stadium in the snow and watch the game. Game day came and he got up and dressed as warmly as he could. He and his dad got to the stadium and he could feel the electricity in the air. No one knew what was going to happen, but the level of excitement was higher than for any game that season.
Simpson ripped through the Patriots defense for two hundred nineteen yards that day. With one game left to go, Simpson needed one hundred ninety seven yards against the Jets next week to get to two thousand. It seemed to be an impossible task to the boy, who figured that Simpson would fall short of the mark.
That week seemed to drag for him. He couldn't wait to watch the game on Sunday to see if Simpson could do it. On game day, he watched intently, sitting next to his father on the couch. He wanted Simpson to hit the mark so badly. He knew he'd watched something special take shape right in front of his eyes that year.
By the fourth quarter of the game against the Jets, Simpson was getting closer and closer to the goal of two thousand yards. The announcers were counting down with every run Simpson made. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he did it! Two thousand yards rushing! The boy was ecstatic. He knew he'd seen history happen that year, in front of his very eyes.
The boy and his dad kept their season tickets four the next three seasons. Then he went on to college, and keeping the tickets didn't seem workable. But he and his dad still went to a few games that year, and every year thereafter, until he left Western New York.
The boy grew up, and became a man. But his love of football remained. As the years went by, he realized he'd seen some special players through the years. Hall of Fame players. He'd also seen some great teams. The Miami Dolphins, the Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, with their powerful Steel Curtain defense. He realized he felt very fortunate to have seen history from the very first time he went to the stadium.
He returned to Western New York as a man in 1990. That year, he made it to a few games when he had the chance. But his dad really wasn't able to go along, as he was finding it harder to get around. He got season tickets for the 1991 season with a friend, as his father was unable to come along. But as good a time as he had then, especially with the Bills winning ways, there was a part of him that felt like something was missing. He enjoyed the company of his friend, but missed being there with his father.
Sunday's, when the Bills were away and he could get away, he would go to his parents home to watch the games with his father. They would watch the games and reminisce about the games they'd gone to together, and some of the history they'd seen, both in terms of teams and players. Both father and son enjoyed these occasions immensely, and looked forward to the next time they'd be able to get together to watch the games. The son made a point of making sure that his father knew how much he appreciated the love of the game that his dad had passed down to him. Somehow, he knew his dad knew, but he wasn't going to let it go unsaid.
The son, having become a man by then, watched as his father grew old. One summer, the father went into the hospital, and his son spent an entire night there with his father, not wanting to leave him. Two days later, his father passed away.
If you haven't guessed by now, I am that son. I write this today because it is thirteen years ago today that my father passed away. I write this this also both as a tribute to him, and to thank him for introducing me, some forty four years ago, to the game that I still love to this day.
Thanks, dad. Thanks for passing your love of football down to me. It may be the greatest gift a father has ever given a son.