Holiday times always bring some measure of nostalgia as we look back with fondness on days and times gone past. Almost everyone yearns for a return, no matter how temporarily, to moments in their childhood when things were seemingly less complicated and more authentic and enjoyable.
As a youth growing up in North Buffalo I remember plenty of good times, but none more enjoyable than the January birthdays I spent in the park. In middle school my best friend and I had birthdays within 3 days of one another and since we had the same close circle of friends, we would combine birthday parties into a single spectacular event in mid-January. On Saturday evening we would have a party with everyone – co-ed – because by middle school somehow you started gaining interest in those previously thought to be icky. After the party a group of a dozen or so of the boys would sleep over (if you call being awake almost all night, talking, telling jokes, and playing Atari “sleeping”), and in the morning we’d go to Delaware Park for the centerpiece of the festivities – football in the snow with the guys.
Yes, if we were lucky, there would be plenty of snow on the ground, plenty of open space and plenty of players to play the football game we could almost never otherwise have. At home you had to play in the street with just a handful of guys (lamppost to lamppost, naturally) and at school you had to play tag football and let the girls play if they wanted (truth be told, the best QB we ever had was a Polish girl from South Buffalo named April).
There was something magical about playing tackle football in the snow with the guys for as long as you could take it. You’d get snow all over you, get wet and eventually get cold, but man it fun getting there. When you’re a kid in Buffalo, this is what you do – play in the snow.
Sunday’s snow bowl in Orchard Park sure was a trip to the past. When I tuned into the game you could barely see the field during the pregame and I was never so happy that the Bills had elected to wear all red for a color rush game – and to see the Colts turn even more invisible in their all white uniforms.
Just as in the park, there was loose snow everywhere, with a few key lines marked out but foot, shovel or blower. As guys ran and fell snow flew everywhere – small fireworks going off everywhere. But for the fact that everyone was 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds with professional equipment, it sure did look like those games I played with schoolmates.
Sunday’s game may become the defining Buffalo Bills game for the sporting public – it is everything people think about Buffalo and football. Snow coming down so hard you can’t see anything. Crazy fans in the stands without shirts sitting next to someone who has a fresh 4” of snow accumulated on their hat and shoulders. Players having to kick out snow patches to the turf to place the ball for kicks. Tackles made where players disappear into an explosion of powder. Footballs that land on their point and stop, half buried in the snow. Ask anyone who has never been to Buffalo how they would envision a winter NFL game in Buffalo and you would probably give you one or more of the images I just described – now there are pictures and video to solidify those images of Buffalo for years to come.
From the beginning you knew the weather was going to make this game different from any other you had seen – both teams would rely almost exclusively on the running game, few if any field goals would be attempted and when a team passed midfield it was likely four down territory. Indeed, the early part of the game looked like something out of the leather helmet days before the forward pass came to be – 5 yards and a cloud of snow.
The Bills took their opening drive past midfield but turned the ball over on downs. The Colts took their first possession down to the Buffalo 15 yard line and learned the hard way that even short field goals weren’t going to be an option when Adam Vinatieri missed from 33 yards out. From that miss until just before the half both teams toiled in futility in the snow, moving the ball a little, then turning it over on downs or punting – unless you’re a weather fanatic or get as excited as Jim Cantore about thundersnow, there was little to cheer about.
Finally, with 31 seconds to play before the half, the Bills broke the scoreless tie with a beautiful 8 yard Nathan Peterman to Kelvin Benjamin touchdown. Coming from Carolina, Benjamin’s first touchdown as a Buffalo Bill was about as Buffalo as you can get – catch the ball and disappear into a snowbank that is the end zone – iconic. With the extra point it was only seven points, but that seemed like it could be an insurmountable lead.
Buffalo’s lead was almost insurmountable – until the two minute warning. After 58 minutes that left players and grounds crew alike completely gassed, the Colts finally punched in a touchdown with a nice play to Jack Doyle. Given the futility of kicking in the conditions and the exhausting nature of the game, I was not at all surprised when Indianapolis decided to go for the win with the two point try. Sure enough, another seemingly easy catch and score by Doyle and it looked as if Buffalo was going to lose the most Buffalo of games – the snow bowl in Buffalo, to a 3-win dome team – completely humiliating.
And then the unexpected. Much like the Grinch having a change of heart, things suddenly went Buffalo’s way. The officials threw a late flag and called a late penalty for offensive pass interference that negated the try and backed the ball up. I’m not sure if the Bills will ever get another call like that – I can certainly think of a certain team that runs that play all the time and never gets called for it (cough, New England, cough) but hey, I’ll take it. The Colts lineup for a long extra point kick and Vinatieri kicks the strangest extra point you’ve ever seen (seriously – if you though the home run throwback defied the laws of physics you ain’t seen nothing). Overtime, here we come.
The Bills won the coin toss (it landed and the ref had to wipe the snow from the coin to see how it landed) and drove down to the Indianapolis 41, but elected to punt rather than try and convert 4th and a yard. This was a head scratching move with just over 4 minutes to play – for a team fighting for its playoff life it certainly looked as if Seam McDermott was happy to play for the tie – I don’t think too many Bills fans were impressed.
In a case of “when it works out in the end you’re the hero”, the Bills actually held the Colts to 15 yards on 5 plays and actually got the ball back with 2:25 left to go. With two minutes left to go Joe Webb hit Deonte Thompson for 34 yards. Three plays later LeSean McCoy ran for a 21 yard game winning touchdown in the snow and the stadium (and my living room) erupted – it was a game and a win for the ages.
Sunday’s game will likely go down in Buffalo lore as the snow game – the game with a paid attendance north of 35,000, but 100,000+ fans will swear they were there in person. Webb may fade into oblivion, but he’ll always be that guy – the guy who got it done in the end when he stepped in for two injured quarterbacks. We’ll all have memories, just as I have memories of my snowy football days – nostalgia is a wonderful thing to keep you warm on a snowy winter day.
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