Though he’ll be the first to so humbly tell you his name doesn’t belong on the same pedestal as that of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith or Andre Reed, Steve Tasker cemented his spot on that list of Bills greats somewhere between contributing to four Super Bowl runs and earning seven trips to the Pro Bowl. He’s an undisputed member of the tight-knit core of those 1990s squads.
Twenty-seven years ago last week, however, if you’d have asked Tasker what the odds were that he’d have a long, successful career playing for the Buffalo Bills, he might have laughed at you all the way from the Houston Oilers locker room.
Twenty-seven years ago this week, if you’d have asked him that same question as he listened to a voicemail from then Bills GM Bill Polian telling him to pack his bags for Buffalo, he might have laughed at you all the same. He thought he’d spend a season, if that, playing for the Bills, who were rolling off two 2-14 seasons and had just fired their head coach. Things were looking bleak for Tasker as he headed from one bad team to another further north.
But today, almost three decades removed from that fateful day, Tasker will tell you that on November 8, 1986, he won the lottery.
The eventual Wall of Famer’s unlikely journey to Buffalo was set into motion earlier that week 27 years ago when Marv Levy was hired as the Bills new head coach. Levy had a meeting with his staff and told them that while their offense and defense probably wouldn’t get much better by the end of that season, they could bring in some new special teamers to make advancements in that phase.
As Tasker’s name popped up on the wire, it was noticed by the Bills tight end coach Joe Faragalli who was fired the year before with the losing regime in Houston.
“Joe didn’t have any love loss for the Houston Oilers, and he saw my name pop up on the waiver wire,” Tasker said. “He took my name down the hallway and said, ‘Marv, you said Monday if we had any ideas about special teams, we should let you know. I was on the staff last year in Houston and we drafted this kid Tasker. He can play special teams. He can kick return. He likes to cover kicks. He’s a good kid.’ Well, Marv didn’t know me from Adam. Come to find out he just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘pick him up,’ and sure enough they did.”
Earlier in the day as Tasker’s Houston teammates and coaches learned that he was could be claimed off of waivers but would probably end up in Houston, they played a prank and told him Buffalo had claimed him. Though he found out shortly after that it was a joke, when Tasker heard the voicemail from GM Bills Polian, he wasn’t sure what to think.
“My wife and I were out buying groceries, and when we got back Bill Polian is on my answering machine,” he said. “Now, I had no idea who he was. It was too late to get a flight, so Saturday morning I came to Buffalo.”
One friendly face, John Kidd, Tasker’s college roommate and Bills punter, greeted him in Buffalo, and after a whirlwind day at the stadium, they headed for meetings at the team hotel where Tasker would be introduced.
“I’m 5’9”. I weigh a buck 80. I looked 10 years old,” said Steve, remembering his first moments with his Bills teammates. “I had to tell somebody I belonged in the room before they let me in. Marv says, ‘By the way, we picked up a new player. I want to introduce you guys to Steve Tasker.’ Well, I stand up, and they didn’t say it but you could see it. Those guys were looking at me going, ‘What? This short guy is a new player that’s going to be the new direction of this team? What the hell?”
“Who knew how great that was going to go.”
To stay effective in the NFL and become a part of that new direction of the team, Tasker changed his mindset from a wide receiver playing special teams on the side for the Oilers to a legitimate special teamer for the Bills. Levy, as a special teams minded coach, was on the same page.
“A couple weeks later we were getting ready to head out to play the Patriots and Marv kept me out after practice in a snowstorm and taught me how to block a punt,” recalled Tasker. “He said, ‘Here’s what I want you to do. Put your hands here, come in low, don’t close your eyes,' and all that technique. I ran through it and ran through it. That week I blocked a punt using that exact technique. As I was running off the field I pointed at Marv and we both kind of did the nod, and then I knew I was kind of his guy. I was one of the new players that he brought in and made an immediate impact on the game. “
With Levy’s help, a lot of hard work and a great team behind him, Tasker went from a seemingly inconsequential waiver wire pickup to a special teams ace, Pro Bowler, and true Buffalonian.
“I was on a great team and the guys were great, Jim and Thurman and Bruce. Those guys were great. It was a great, fun team. I won the lottery. We had a great locker room.” He paused, seeming to think of the impact this week 27 years ago had on the course of his life. “We had five children while we were living here in Buffalo and now it’s been 27 years. It’s crazy. I really won the lottery.”