No More Apologies : Bills Won't Give Up, and They're Driven to Make Critics Shut Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After each of their first two Super Bowl losses, the Buffalo Bills gathered on the steps of the weathered brick city hall and accepted condolences from a heartbroken city.

While thousands cheered, they shuffled to the podium, waved their expensively gloved hands and emphatically promised to do better.

The events could have been mistaken for a pep rally, but for the 93-foot obelisk that stands directly in front of those steps, obscuring the players' vision.

It is McKinley Monument, honoring William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States.

McKinley was not born here. Nor did he live here.

His only connection with Buffalo was that he died here during a visit, the victim of an assassin's bullet on Sept. 14,

1901.

It is not so much a monument as a marble and granite apology.

On the flight home after losing a record third consecutive Super Bowl in Pasadena last January, the Bills decided that they were tired of looking at the thing.

No more apologies, they said. No more wakes. They abruptly refused to show up at a third consecutive rally, and have been in a foul mood ever since.

"This last Super Bowl, it was like somebody had stuck their hands down our throats and pulled our hearts out," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "We knew right away, things had to change."

And so they have. While everyone else wonders why they don't simply give up, the Bills are wondering why everybody doesn't shut up.

In today's game against the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium, the Bills will be the only unbeaten team on the field.

The Bills already have scored a revenge victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

And the Bills don't much care what anyone thinks.

"We know nobody wants us to win," quarterback Jim Kelly said. "We know nobody wants to see us go back to the Super Bowl again. Everybody is sick of us. And you know what? We love it."

Kelly, who has thrown five touchdown passes in the Bills' two victories, said that wearing a sinister smile.

"We have one simple goal this year," he added. "Tick everybody off."

*

The Bills' approach to this season can be best explained in one of their final plays last season.

It involved no points and did not affect an outcome, but Don Beebe figures he will be hearing about it for the rest of his life.

"Look at this letter I got just today," he said last week, picking an envelope from a box of mail in his locker. "Not a day goes by that people don't remind me of that play."

The incident occurred in last season's Super Bowl after Leon Lett of the Cowboys picked up a fumble at midfield and ran alone toward the end zone for what appeared to be an easy touchdown.

But, as Lett was holding the ball at arm's length and strutting toward the goal line, Beebe caught him and knocked the ball out of his hand. It bounced through the back of the end zone for a touchback.

The saved touchdown meant nothing in a 52-17 game, but Beebe had come from 25 yards away to pull it off.

"At first, I didn't think anything of it, but then, a week later, I had hundreds of letters waiting for me," Beebe said. "Coaches, teachers, parents, a lot of people pouring their hearts out about how that play has inspired their children never to give up."

During the summer, the other Bills followed Beebe's lead.

"We couldn't listen to what people were saying because we would have gotten into a lot of fights," said Bruce Smith, an all-pro defensive end. "So we just worked harder."

Smith vented his anger on the club's exercise machines. He broke several, then bought new ones with his own money.

Nose tackle Jeff Wright, after moving back home to Tyler, Tex., ran the steps of a high school football stadium every day in 100-degree heat.

"Sometimes my head would feel like it was on fire," he said. "Sometimes I was so dizzy it was like I was in a daze. I wanted to learn to endure more."

Kelly found another way. After having consumed as many as eight peanut butter sandwiches a day for most of his life, he stopped cold turkey.

"Drove me absolutely crazy," he said. "It's hard to believe that I haven't had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for three months. I don't know how I did it."

By also giving up red meat and whole milk, Kelly lost 10 pounds and 4% of his body fat.

Talley reacted in an even more unusual way. John Butler, the Bills' director of player personnel, learned this one morning when Talley arrived for weight training looking tired.

"I had to close last night," Talley explained.

"Close what? " Butler asked, worried that Talley was talking about a bar.

"Close the McDonald's," Talley said.

Talley, hoping to become more focused on the field by becoming more focused in other parts of his life, spent the summer training to be an owner-operator of a McDonald's franchise.

He cooked, cleaned restrooms, took orders, everything.

"I attacked that place," Talley said.

Marv Levy, the English literature buff who coaches the Bills, spent the summer injecting the same renewal theme into his staff.

Levy, 65, is the oldest head coach in the league, and has six assistants 55 or older.

"I reminded them that the best coach, if he does not lose his enthusiasm, is the older coach," Levy said. "I told them that the worst coach, no matter what his age, is the tired coach."

By the time training camp began, even though the team had lost six veterans to free agency, Levy noticed the change in spirit. He is probably the only NFL coach to have begun the season by offering congratulations.

"I told them they were the most resilient people I have ever been associated with," Levy said.

He also mentioned the three Super Bowls during that meeting--"I told them to be proud of getting there"--but has not mentioned them since.

No matter. Kelly mentions it enough for everybody.

"He'll walk through the locker room saying things like, 'You see, nobody thinks we can go back. That's just what we like to hear, right?' " Beebe said. "And everybody will say, 'Yeah, right on.' "

Their swagger is not all learned. It is also a product of the backgrounds of their many stars, who come from such colleges as Alabama A&M;, Chadron State, Central Missouri State, North Dakota State and Kutztown.

The Bills, more than other teams, love players from the hinterlands because those players have had to fight even to get noticed.

Many teams test players strictly on speed or agility, but the Bills often visit a college player and never even pull out a football.

"You can tell a lot about a guy just by looking him in the eye," said Butler, a student of the late George Allen. "We try to find out if, during the toughest of the tough times, a guy will stand up and do it, and not rely on others, and not make excuses."

Butler added: "We will even take a guy with slightly lesser talent if we think we can count on him to get the thing done."

The players' final bit of backbone comes from the Bills' fans, who have filled 80,000-seat Rich Stadium in nearby Orchard Park for 20 consecutive regular-season games, despite chilling winter temperatures.

The support is such that a league-high seven players have their own weekly television shows, including a special teams player, Steve Tasker, and backup quarterback Frank Reich.

At a downtown shopping plaza, one of every four pedestrians is wearing some sort of Bill apparel.

"How about this . . . I went to my dermatologist the other day and he was wearing a Bills tie," said Lionel Lewis, professor of sociology at State University of New York at Buffalo and a Los Angeles native.

Lewis said that the Bills mirror the community, not the reverse.

"There is a resilience in this community--I could show you plenty of closed factories and steel mills to prove my point," Lewis said. "It's not just the Bills against the world, it's Buffalo against the world, Buffalo against all those jokes about spending nine months knee-deep in snow.

"Marv Levy takes this image and uses it with his players. And it works."

So today, when the Bills play the Dolphins, whom they have beaten in 12 of their last 14 meetings, many will still be surprised if the Bills win.

The Bills understand. But they figure that sooner or later, like it or not, the world is going to have to listen to them again.

"We've been knocking on the door for so long and nobody has answered," Bruce Smith said, not smiling. "Maybe now, we just have to knock the thing down."

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