By Greg Bates
Marv Levy and Andre Reed make eye contact from a couple hundred feet away. The two make their way toward each other.
The 92-year-old coach and his former star wide receiver embrace. It’s heartfelt.
Not too far away, Thurman Thomas enters the room. It was a Buffalo Bills reunion of sorts at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, Ill., in July.
“We always make sure that we see each other,” said Thomas, who played running back for the Bills from 1988-99. “We’re a very close-knit group and we love coming to events like this, especially knowing that other players are going to be here.”
Along with Levy, Reed and Thomas, Bruce Smith and James Lofton were among the 16 autograph signers on the final day of the National. The previous day, Jim Kelly was signing for fans.
The former Bills players and their spry coach haven’t competed on the same field together for 25 years, but they still get to see each other quite a bit.
The guys still have a tight bond. That’s not surprising since the five players and coach went through so much during their illustrious careers. All six are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But what undoubtedly links them as one is their amazing postseason run that has never been matched by any team before or since: four straight trips to the Super Bowls. The Bills won the AFC title each year from 1990-93 to represent the conference in the big game. Conversely, the Bills are also the only team to lose four straight Super Bowls.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with no other guys than those guys,” said Reed, who was on the Bills from 1985-99. “I think our nucleus and our core was the reason why, and then everybody around us just fed into what we were doing. And they were great players themselves.”
Even though it’s been 25 years since the heart of their Super Bowl stretch, the guys have so many memories of some of the best years of their football careers.
“While I don’t think about it too often because there are other pressing issues in life, occasionally it’s nice to reminisce when you find people that appreciate it and what we tried to bring to the table as a team,” said Smith, one of the all-time best defensive ends who finished his career with an NFL-record 200 sacks. “I think when you reflect upon it and get around those who really appreciate the effort, the makeup of the team, the leadership, the coaching and playing in the adverse conditions, it puts a smile on my face.”
Levy, who now lives back in his hometown of Chicago, enjoyed a 47-year coaching career. He coached the Bills from 1986-97 and was the team’s general manager from 2006-07.
“Just the people I was able to associate with,” said Levy about what made the run so memorable. “It started with our owner Ralph Wilson, fantastic general manager Bill Polian, and the two of them and I agreed that we would only bring aboard players with high character. We didn’t confuse it – some were extroverts, some were quiet. But they worked hard, they showed up for work, they were good citizens, they were team orientated.”
Reed said his fondest memories are just the way that it was done.
“Everybody always counted us out,” Reed said. “Marv always talks about that word resiliency and that’s really what we were about. During that time, nobody was going to outwork us. I’d say by the third Super Bowl we were so tired and we were just worn down physically. I’m not saying that’s a reason why (we lost), but it’s one of the main reasons. We played in a lot of games and we were physically worn down.”
Said Lofton: “The memories when I just see the guys come back in droves, and you just think of all the good times. Andre Reed and I were roommates when we traveled on the road, a lot of fun there. And watching Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas and those guys play. Even after I was gone, to watch them continue on to have great careers was a lot of fun.”
Lofton was part of the first three Super Bowls before leaving for the Los Angeles Rams in 1993. He was part of the Bills from 1989-92, playing a supporting role as Reed’s right-hand man at wide receiver.
“For me, I think it was really unique because I’m joining a team that’s already pretty good,” Lofton said. “In 1988, they played in the AFC Championship Game against the Bengals. I join the team in ’89 and we lose in the playoffs to Cleveland, but we kind of experimented in that game with a no-huddle offense. Then we employ that the next couple years and it just takes off.
“So, it was really special to play alongside so many good, young players and to get rejuvenated during the course of the season. And to listen to a lot of Marv’s war-time stories on Saturday night before a big Sunday game, those were always special.”
The Bills advanced to their first Super Bowl in club history in 1990 after a 51-3 thumping of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Buffalo heartbreakingly lost to the New York Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 27, 1991. Kicker Scott Norwood missed a last-second field goal that would have given the Bills the title.
Lofton felt playing in Super Bowl XXV was the most special Super Bowl because his dad had died earlier that year. The two had a special football bond and had attended Super Bowl I together.
The next season, the Bills won 13 games like the previous year and downed the Denver Broncos 10-7 in the AFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl, Buffalo was downed by the Washington Redskins, 37-24, on Jan. 26, 1992.
In the 1992 campaign, the Bills nearly didn’t make it back to the conference title game. In a wild-card matchup against the Houston Oilers, Buffalo trailed 35-3 in the third quarter before backup quarterback Frank Reich led a second-half offensive flurry. Known as “The Comeback,” the Bills won 41-38 in overtime to cap off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. In the AFC Championship Game, the Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins, 29-10. Buffalo held an early 7-0 lead in Super Bowl XXVII, but the upstart Dallas Cowboys scored 31 of the next 34 points en route to a 52-17 thumping on Jan. 31, 1993.
The Bills entered the next year striving for an unprecedented fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. Buffalo won 12 regular-season games and took down the Kansas City Chiefs 30-13 in the AFC title game. The Cowboys once again had the Bills’ number in the Super Bowl as Dallas won 30-13 on Jan. 30, 1994.
“There were so many great things that happened for the city, for the team during those four years,” Thomas said. “Winning the AFC Championship the first year against the Raiders 51-3; then the following year, having the greatest comeback. There’s a lot of great things that went into trying to accomplish that goal of winning a championship. It didn’t happen, but the stories, the players and the things that happened with that run were still pretty special to us.”
Dynasty is a common noun used to describe the Bills’ greatest during their four-year Super Bowl run. But some of the players classify their feat differently.
“I just always called it one hell of a run, and just kind of leave it at that,” Thomas said. “Obviously, things would have been different if we would have won four in a row, then you talk about dynasty.”
Said Reed: “I think when you say dynasty, you always think of teams that have won, like the 49ers and the Steelers, the Cowboys and, of course, the Patriots. I think we were a dynasty in our own different way. We win one or two of them, we’re in the same sentence as the 49ers and we’re in the same sentence as the Steelers of the ’70s, and the Cowboys and the Patriots of now. It just didn’t happen that way. I don’t think we were a bad football team, we just weren’t the best team on that day.”
“I just think it was a remarkable body of work,” said Smith, who was with the Bills from 1985-99. “Obviously, the fans played a huge role in that. Giving that era of sports fans in western New York something to cheer about.”
Levy agrees that the fans in Buffalo and around the world played an important role in the Bills’ magical run.
“Our fans were unbelievably supportive in Buffalo even when we’d lose those Super Bowls,” Levy said. “They contributed to us getting back there, so supportive and not critical. It was a great community.”
The Bills players still get to share their special seasons with their fans. The organization holds an annual alumni weekend where the guys travel back to Buffalo.
Along with seeing each other at team gatherings and the occasional autograph sessions, Levy, Reed, Thomas, Smith, Lofton and Kelly hang out about 10 times per year, according to Thomas.
“We cherish the moments in which we can get together, whether it be at a golf tournament or a special occasion up in Buffalo or having the opportunity of going to different birthday parties – when Thurman turned 50 a year ago,” Smith said. “It’s just nice to be able to be blessed and be in a position to be able to enjoy each other’s company.”
“It’s always a pleasure to see them and recall briefly, but we don’t get to visit long enough,” Levy said. “But there are several reunions every year back in Buffalo, usually at one of the games. Andre Reed is hosting one this year at one of the games, a tailgate party, etc.”
Lofton would like to see his former teammates more often.
“Andre Reed and I live all of 15 minutes apart from each other in San Diego, so we run into each other around town,” Lofton said. “Every once in a while, we get together and play golf. But when you were with them for years on a daily basis and you don’t get to see them, you get to turn the clock back immediately when you do get to see them.”
At 92, Levy is still as sharp as a tack. He loves every opportunity to see the guys he coached for so many years.
“Marv is such a jokester,” Reed said. “He’s like, ‘Well, we’re still standing, aren’t we?’ I go, ‘Yeah, you’re right, Marv.’ We were a family, man. And we’ll forever be connected with each other on the field and definitely off the field.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.