I have a secret.
It’s a dark secret. But I think it’s a secret most of us share. I hate the Buffalo Bills. Same goes for the Sabres. But yes, I love them too.
I have a picture of Marv Levy framed and autographed, hanging in my home office. He brought a certain sense of sophistication and charm to the sideline, quoting Shakespeare while whispering offensive plays into his mic. In a league, full of frat boys and deliberate dolts, Marv Levy stood out as a gentleman and a scholar—literally.
But Marv lost 4 Super Bowls. Yes, I know. We are supposed to love the Bills for making the Super Bowl four straight times and forgive the losses. But I, for one, just can’t totally do that. How could you not win? At least once! And although it pains me as much to write this as much as it probably pains you to read it, it’s even harder for me to forgive Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and the rest of the members of those teams than it is Marv after all the stories of parties and pre-game shenanigans.
I could probably get over the four Super Bowl losses if the Bills had even come close since. When I think of all the hours I spent watching, listening, and even freezing in that glorified high-school stadium in Orchard Park (that should have been built downtown) . . . it feels like nearly twenty years of futility. Flutie gave us some fun, I guess, but that’s really been about it for a long, long time. It’s been mostly frustration and desperation since Norwood’s cursed kick veered right. And the Sabres have not been much better since the Dominator left and Brett Hull planted himself in the crease.
But I still watch. I still listen. And I hope.
Sports can’t (or it shouldn’t) be all a community defines itself by. It’s overvalued in our society. Football might not even be around in 30 years. After all, horse racing was the most popular sport in America not so long ago. And E-sport (video games) championships had higher ratings than the Stanley Cup Finals last year! Things change. More remarkable, from Roycroft to Wright—Buffalo’s artistic and cultural legacy far exceeds its sports legacy.
But undoubtedly, a healthy local sports scene is part of healthy community. We cheer, we jeer, we mourn and scorn . . . together. Rich or poor, suburbs or city, if you’re from Western New York you probably root for the same guys in blue and red spandex and blue and gold polyester.
And I know it’s not just about winning. When I was overseas and I missed my hometown, the Bills and the Sabres meant even more to me than they do today. I had this knit Buffalo Sabres cap that I wore on the Seoul subway. I treated it like a sacred totem from another world, wearing it in the winter until it became threadbare. And when I couldn't sleep, I’d stream WGR55 Sports Talk Radio. Something about those Buffalo “r’s” and flat vowels humming on my laptop in China made me feel a little closer to friends and family who were so far away.
My friend, Mike Schopp
My favorite show was “Schopp and the Bulldog.” I liked the Bulldog, because that’s who he was, Mr. Likable. He reminded me of guys I knew growing up, guys who drove broken down Chevys and knew way too much about fantasy football, but who spent every Saturday with their kids and fixing other people’s water heaters and transmissions for free. Schopp was more of the Marv Levy end of the sports spectrum; erudite, thoughtful, polished. He had this great voice and a way in which he carried himself that professionalized Bulldog’s homey charm. It was a great combo, but these were not real people to me, just disembodied voices, floating into my apartment magically though my laptop speaker from across some impassable veil.
Then I came home, and oddly enough I met Schopp, Mike Schopp. And I met his lovely wife and beautiful children. He’s a proud Islander, born and raised. Interestingly, as I’ve gotten to know him better, his voice haunts me from time to time. I’m often startled thinking, “Wait, this guy sounds an awful lot like that guy from the radio.”
Over the last year, Mike has taught me a lot
Mike has been in the public eye for over 15 years. I have been in the public eye for about a year. We both enjoy a limited local exposure (in my case, very, very limited) but I’ve learned that even this level of public recognition can be a burden. Like the time I was leaving Tops recently and a guy came over and put his foot in my door and would not let me go as he explained every opinion he ever had about nearly every stop sign on Grand Island. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to speak with anyone when you see me out. But please remember, my wife is not so understanding when I have a car full of groceries.
For Mike, it’s worse, much worse. He has to endure more than a few crazy Town Hall meetings and some nonsense from a disgruntled councilman or resident now and then. He has to endure the combined rage of millions of disappointed Buffalo Bills and Sabres fans on a daily basis. They go at him for every slight misstep or perceived misstep—sometimes by sending Mike 5,000 word essays on how he misunderstands the Sabres goalie situation or some other esoteric morsel from the world of Buffalo sports. And Mike also must deal with the multi-million dollar players, some of whom get their feelings hurt every time he mentions their name without a list of glowing adjectives.
I asked Mike, “How do you handle all that?” He shared with me a piece of very sage advice. “Remember,” he said. “You’re in the chair.” In other words, I don’t need to put out every fire, address every criticism, or right every wrong on Facebook or Twitter. I’m in the chair. There is good and bad that comes with that. And the effort I’m going to use trying to convince someone that they’re wrong (or have been lied to) about something I said, have done, or will do—is sometimes just not worth it.
Mike said something even more profound. Mike, a West River resident who is, by the way, excited about the bike path, told me, “Hate only works, if you hate them back.” There is great power in that sentence. You can write it off as trite or as suburban Zen babble, but it’s not. Mike lives by what he says.
I recently spent an afternoon with Mike at the Golden Age Center where he was kind enough to host a roundtable session on the Bills and Sabres. Unfortunately, one angry woman made a few distasteful comments about the skin color of some of the players. Mike, like he does on the radio, calmly but firmly cautioned the woman, “Ma’am, my children have brown skin too”, he said. You see, like me, blue-eyed Mike’s two children don’t look exactly like a lot of the other kids on the Island. It’s an issue we are both increasingly cognizant of as our kids come of an age when other kids notice those subtle differences and some kids repeat things (stupid uneducated things) that they might hear at home.
Red faced and embarrassed, the woman who made the uneducated comment retreated. Mike, however, thoughtfully smiled at her in a way that sort of winked at her mistake without humiliating her in front of her friends.
Perspective. I’m picking my battles going forward
In 2017, I’m going to take a page out of Mike Schopp’s book. I can’t change who I am. I’m passionate. I’m a fighter. But I must remember, “I’m in the chair.” I will undoubtedly continue to get attacked because of it. So, from now on, when a councilman makes some ridiculous statement, or a fellow resident comes to a Town Board meeting and curses me out, I’m not going to fight back as much. Watch for the hidden ‘wink’ that I learned from Mike. Oh, there will still be times when the gloves must come off, but not every misinformed letter to the editor or off-putting Facebook comment will be a must win. As Marv Levy put it before a Super Bowl once, “This is not a must-win; World War II was a must-win."
I agree Marv, but couldn't just one have been a must win? Jeesh . . .
With highest regards,