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John Murphy: Van Miller a worthy Wall of Famer

Posted May 18, 2014

Bills play-by-play man John Murphy recalls the career of Van Miller upon the announcement of his Wall of Fame induction.

It’s an overdue honor for Van Miller. My longtime broadcast partner is a worthy inductee to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame. After all, by my count, he’s already been honored by four other Halls of Fame for his amazing broadcast career.

The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, the Chautauqua County Sports Hall of Fame, and the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers have recognized Van Miller’s achievements in the industry. And in 2004, the Pro Football Hall of Fame honored Van with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, for longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in Professional Football.

I was there in Canton in August 2004, when Van was honored as one of pro football’s all-time greats. The Pete Rozelle Award is given out the night before the actual Hall of Fame Enshrinement ceremony. A jam-packed Canton Civic Center convulsed in laughter as Van accepted his award and brought down the house with his unique standup comedy style. Grown men, fully grown football Hall of Famers, were wiping tears from their eyes they were laughing so hard. One of Van’s classic jokes is still ringing in my ears from that night.

“I was quite a football player at Dunkirk High School, “he told the audience in Canton. “In fact, I put three people in the hospital - all of them in the maternity ward.”

After the ceremony at the Civic Center, at a private reception at a downtown Canton hotel, I stood by Van as  John Elway and Barry Sanders, Hall of Fame inductees that year, came up to him to tell him how funny he was in his speech. “You belong on the stage in Las Vegas,” Sanders told him.

Like most Bills fans growing up in Western New York, my first exposure to Van was on the radio, listening to the games. I recall heading to Orchard Park for the season opener in 1978. Just out of college, I had purchased season tickets with a couple of friends. Driving to the game, listening to the highlights of a the preseason game the week before, my friend turned to me and said, “That’s what Bills football sounds like—Van Miller’s voice.” Van was back on the Bills broadcast after a too-long hiatus when he was going NBA Braves games.

For years, I kept a tape of Van’s play by play of Nick Mike-Mayer’s game winning field goal to beat the Rams at Rich Stadium in December, 1980. It was the famous overtime game that ended with Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett and several others dancing a chorus line in the tunnel end zone.

Van’s play call of that field goal, and the setup of that field goal, was a masterpiece. I would play that tape at parties with my friends when it came time to bring down the house. It never failed.

RELATED: Van Miller's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team

In 1984, I was pressed into service to work alongside Van on the Bills radio broadcast. I had been hosting pregame and halftime shows, but this was the big time, and I was especially nervous. As always, Van knew exactly how to break the tension. He put up hand-lettered signs all over the press entrance to the old Busch Stadium in St Louis, where the Bills were about to play the Cards. The signs read “John Murphy-Road Rookie.” And the signs directed me from the press elevator, through the press box, right to our radio booth.

Once there, moments before we went on air, Van did his usual pre-game routine for first-time visitors to the booth. He put his radio headset on the side of his head, with one ear cup on his forehead, the other on the back of his head. He turned to me and said, “I want you to know you’re working with real professionals today.” That was the first time I heard that line and I heard it every time we had a new visitor to our broadcast booth.

Van’s humor was legendary and it was quick. In Cincinnati one Sunday, we had been assigned a spotter to help identify names and numbers, a spotter assigned by the Bengals PR staff. The elderly gentleman had sunglasses on which was odd, since it was a cloudy, blustery day at Riverfront Stadium. The spotter struggled through the first quarter and at the commercial break at the end of the quarter, Van asked him what his problem was—why was he having trouble identifying names and numbers?

The spotter took off his sunglasses to reveal a full eye patch over his left eye. “I just had surgery,” he said, “and I can’t take this eye patch off. I’m seeing double.”

To which Van replied “Well just look at the jersey numbers and divide them by two.”

Van Miller as a broadcaster was uproariously funny. But he was a lot more than that. His energy level and enthusiasm for every game was infectious.  Working by his side, it was impossible not to get carried up in his emotion and interest in the game. He didn’t just call touchdowns, he felt them. Game-winning field goals were cause for over the top elation. Playoff berths, AFC Championship game wins, Super Bowl losses, all of them are marked indelibly in our memories with Van Miller’s voice providing the soundtrack.

SEE ALSO: Ten years later, Van Miller hasn't lost passion for Bills football

It’s impossible to calculate the impact Van Miller had on my broadcast career. Working by his side, I had a front row seat for Hall of Fame caliber play by play. I learned how important it was to be upbeat and enthusiastic about the game. I learned how significant each of the sixteen games in an NFL schedule is, and how much they mean to the listeners. And I discovered how critical it was to keep everything in perspective.

Van kept a small notepad by his side during his football broadcasts. And although I’m sure he went through hundreds of these notepads during his 37-years on the Bills games they all had the same message scrawled on the back of the pad. He would flip it over to show me and the others in the booth when things got a little hairy on the field.

“It’s all B-S,” it said.

Perspective. Humor. High energy. That’s what Van Miller brought to the Bills games on the radio. That’s what puts him on the Bills Wall of Fame this year.