The Bills couldn't win a Superbowl, but their comeback against the Houston Oilers was a game and family event that I will long cherish. "The Comeback," January 3rd 1993 is one of the greatest memories I'll have as a Bills fan and a member of the WGR/97 Rock Bills production team.
The game was a seminal event on many levels. I was at the game with my sons, now adults. Like most fans, when the Bills were down 28-3 at halftime, we thought about leaving. But we decided to stay. "The parking lot will be jammed with people trying to get out of here, let's wait." It was a pretty decent day. Temperature in the 40s. Pleasant for early January, especially by Buffalo standards.
Minutes into the third quarter, the Oilers picked off a Frank Reich pass and made the score 35-3. Things looked grim. We packed up our seat pads and talked to the few remaining fans in our section. We were dressed warmly, and there was no urgent need to leave, so we took our time. I remarked, "Warren Moon's played a helluva game, he's a decent guy, I guess this is their year." My oldest son said, "let's see if the Bills score a TD, then we'll go." My younger son was a Redskins fan. "Fat chance," he said. We unpacked the seat pads.
The Bills scored. One of us said, "the comeback is on!" The woman sitting with her husband in front of us laughed. She was a teacher. At the game with her husband, she correcting homework papers. (A good way to stay occupied during a dreadful first half.) "It's a nice day to get out of the house," she said. After the Bills scored the third touchdown, you could feel the electricity in the stadium. Seriously. Something was in the air. The teacher stopped correcting papers and got into the game.
It recalled the time I was at a Mohawk Valley Comets (EHL, Utica) hockey game. The Comets were down by six goals going into the third period. Most fans had left. So did I. But in the parking lot, I found my car had was blocked and I couldn't leave. It was a bitter cold night, about 4 degrees, so I went back into the auditorium where I'd at least be warm. There I witnessed one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports. The Comets scored seven goals in the third period and won the game. The 937 fans who remained or returned to the arena were euphoric.
As the Bills closed within striking distance of the Oilers, fans could be seen streaming back into what was then called Rich stadium. It was a remarkable sight. Funny. We were sitting in a section (30 yard line, about 35 rows up, home team side, scoreboard end) that was elevated enough to allow us to see fans climbing over the chain link fence. Shortly afterward, security personnel opened the gates, probably wanting to avoid and prevent injuries. The stadium didn't exactly fill up, but there were more people in the lower bowl in the middle of the fourth quarter than the third quarter. Maybe some people from the upper decks moved down.
The place was buzzing. The emotion was palpable. Even if the Bills didn't win, it had turned into a competitive game and the fans that remained were lovin' life. Andre Reed was sure-handed, catching three TD passes; James Lofton and Don Beebe made incredible catches. The guy throwing the football was back-up QB Frank Reich. He was having a miserable day until lighting struck. Then, it seemed he could do no wrong.
The defense, which had been lethargic in the first half, came to life and stopped the Oilers in critical down situations. Luck played its part too. Beebe scored a TD that should have been disallowed. He'd stepped out of bounds, then back in bounds. In the fourth quarter the Bills went ahead by a field goal. The fans went berserk. It was as if the Bills had won the Superbowl. Maybe that's the closest they'll ever get to it. The Oilers then tied the game and it went into overtime.
Being a Bills fan, you know what emotions followed. "Wide right" is seared into our brains. But this time it didn't happen. My kids and I joined the rest of the people in our section saying, "The Bills are gonna win this game." Overtime. Reich holding for Steve Christie and the winning field goal.
"It's up, it's long enough, it's good! The Bills have won it, the Bills have won it!" Fandemonium. It was one of Van Miller's finest game calls. "The Comeback." Van could have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on this game alone.
After the game, I went home, then went to work at WGR and 97 Rock. If ever there was a time when the craetive production juices were flowing, this was it. The place was crazy. Much of the staff was coming back to radio station just to be a part of the event. TVs were on, as we scanned the networks for the highlights. The game was blacked out locally, but we wanted to see and hear what the rest of the sports world was saying about Buffalo, the Bills and the historic game.
It was like the tribe being summoned by the beating drums. Everybody wanted to be a part of the event, the emotion, the jazz. This was live radio at its best. People on the air at both stations "bringin' their A game." Listeners doing the same. News-Talk-Sports radio shines at times like this. It's almost untouchable. 97 Rock was soaring as well. In the hallways, people were laughing and high-fiving. The newsroom was buzzing and nearly fully staffed. The post game show was a party. There may have been open beer bottles in the control room. I can't recall (wink, nod.) Callers were weeping, laughing, incredulous.
Tom Burns was the game day producer. He and his crew had stacks of highlights on reel and carts for air and production. It's probably the closest I'll ever come to a "national production state of mind." I went to work on a Bills promo and legal IDs for WGR that must have played every ten minutes. I used PBP soundbites of Van Miller and backed it with the J.Geils Band lyric from the song "Comeback" to accent the production piece.
Tom Donahue produced an award winning promo with Frank Reich's "In Christ Alone." The sports staff was all over the game in the locker room. The players' reactions and live sound sounded like a New Years Eve party and everybody was invited. The sports and news packages and wraps that were produced on that day ate up almost all of our carts, and believe me, that was one facility that was well stocked (BTW, we used ScotchCarts and Fidelipac GolCarts packed with high output tape.)
At the time, Chuck Finney was the PD of WGR, consulted by Critical Mass (Randy Michaels & Company.) Everything was made bigger than life. The place was a hype machine, in its best and worst way. That day, it was one of the best. Finney seized the game for everything it was worth. We lived in the moment. It was almost overkill. Hell, it was overkill, but it was fun.
If you've ever had the pleasure of working on a sports production, high school college or pro sports, you know how crazy things can be on game day. You're always one step away from disaster. You work with a team of professionals and count on each other to get the job done. You're always ready to help a teammate if something goes wrong. Most of the time, because you've planned properly, things go right. Sometimes things go stratospherically-crazy-right. That was the comeback.
If the energy in the stadium was electric, the mood at WGR and 97 Rock was atomic. Mark Stout was involved in the games and knew most of the players. He was euphoric. He came back with tape from the locker room that was priceless. I can't count how many times people said "I can't believe it. This is great. I've never seen anything like it."
The Bills. The comeback. I'll never forget it. WGR and 97 Rock. It was a great place to be. One of the best moments I've experienced in that building with very good, decent, hard-working and talented people.
When people on this board occasionally rip local radio and live radio, some of us get defensive, probably because we've had great experiences and been part of some very good staffs. We take our craft seriously and perform our jobs proudly and professionally. Pardon the rant, but there's nothing in radio like professional "live and local." Savor the day. They go fast.