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John Murphy: 1990s the golden age of Buffalo sports?


When you start talking about sports in Buffalo in the decade of the 90s, you first have to convince me that it wasn't just the other day.

It seems like it.

It seems like the Bills Super Bowl run, the Sabres move into a new downtown arena, and all the other significant events of the 1990s in Buffalo sports just happened. In my role as the Sports Director at WKBW-TV in Buffalo during that decade, I had a front row seat for some of the most memorable moments in the city's sports history. And it wasn't just about the Bills.

The Sabres traded for future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek in the 90s and he led them to a string of playoff appearances. The May Day goal, the four overtime thriller against the Devils, and of course, the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 made the decade special for the hockey club.

Canisius College's basketball team made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 29 years during the nineties. And the World University Games coming to Buffalo in 1993 was another milestone event in the city's sports history.

I had a front row seat to cover all of those events. But the best seat in the house during the decade was wherever the Buffalo Bills were playing.

The prelude for the Bills decade of excellence was the disappointing end to the 1989 campaign, a heartbreaking playoff loss in Cleveland. The following year, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and the rest of the Bills were in the prime of their careers and the team finished the regular season 13-3. The AFC Championship game that year, the 51-3 demolition of the Los Angeles Raiders, stands as one of the greatest days in franchise history. There was a sense of disbelief that the Bills could dominate the Raiders the way they did, and even more disbelief that the team could finally, at long last, be ready to play in the Super Bowl.

But there was little time to reflect. Super Bowl XXV was scheduled one week after the AFC title game. The night after the win over the Raiders, I jumped on a media charter that left Buffalo for Tampa. After arriving in Florida around 2 a.m., we got to work the next day scheduling live shots, covering the media events, and doing all the other media work that goes into Super Bowl coverage. Channel 7 sent a contingent of about 20 reporters producers, and photographers to the game. We had special satellite live shots from Tampa every day of the week and the days ended when the 11 o'clock news ended at night. Long days and nights, with the Super Bowl hype overshadowed by the war updates from the Middle East.

The game was dramatic and gut-wrenching. And afterwards, I had to do a live TV interview with Scott Norwood, who had missed his chance at becoming a Super Bowl hero moments before. In his calm, quiet voice, Norwood explained all the technical issues that went into his missed 47-yard field goal. He was his usual analytical and unemotional self. I didn't choke up—neither did he. But I was close. It was far and away the most memorable interview I've ever conducted.

The Bills Super Bowl run continued the next three years. I spent 10 days in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul in January 1992, with single-digit temperatures and long, cold workdays. Each day ended with a late night visit to Mickey's Diner in downtown St. Paul, where I got together with the late John Butler, then the Bills Personnel Director, and A.J. Smith, who ran Buffalo's Pro Personnel Department. Over scrambled eggs and coffee, we talked late into the night about the Bills, the upcoming game against Washington, and our families.

In Pasadena, we chased down wild stories and reports, like the one about Darryl Talley slugging it out with Magic Johnson's body guard at a Los Angeles nightclub. That one came out just after we signed off the air at 11:30 p.m. Buffalo time. It made an already long work day even longer.

While the Bills were on their way to turning the ball over nine times against the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII, the agony of another loss began to settle in around halftime. With the sun setting over the San Gabriel Mountains, I spent halftime on an outdoor deck just outside the Rose Bowl Press Box, while Michael Jackson played on the field. The Bills were toast by halftime, and we knew it. I never smoked a cigarette a day in my life, before or after. But on that day, standing on the outdoor deck with John Butler, I grabbed one of his smokes and puffed away. Out of frustration.

The second half of the decade was a period of transition for the Bills, and those of us covering the team were around some pretty memorable characters. In Wade Phillips' first season as head coach, 1998, the team started 0-3. The unbeaten San Francisco 49ers were coming to Orchard Park in week four. I spent a lot of time talking to Wade two days before the game. His upbeat temperament and normal good cheer convinced me the winless Bills had a chance. I went on the air on Channel 7 that Friday night and predicted a Buffalo win - my co-workers thought I had gone off the rails. But Wade and the Bills bailed me out with a 26-21 win over the Niners, enroute to a 10-6 season and a playoff appearance. One of the many reasons I grew to appreciate Wade Phillips as a coach and a man.

Buffalo's final season of the 90s ended with one of the most unforgettable finishes in franchise history-Home Run Throwback. Van Miller and I watched with open mouths as Kevin Dyson ran 75-yards with a kick return to win the game for the Tennessee Titans. The desolation in the Buffalo locker room was unlike anything I've ever seen, even the Super Bowl defeats. Marcellus Wiley was inconsolable, openly weeping. You could not only hear a pin drop—you would probably hear it fall from your fingertips.

It was clear that the loss marked the end of an era in Bills football—Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed, all Hall of Famers, were released a few months later. The 90s were over for the Buffalo Bills, but the memories of great highs and lows remain more than 20-years later.

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