I'll never forget the night my wife first heard my maternal grandparents speak.
I don't see my mom's parents much. They moved to Florida a decade or so ago, and they don't travel. We talk a couple times a year, and it wasn't until around my wedding -- maybe even after it -- that my wife and grandparents first spoke, by phone.
After the call my wife turned to me and asked, incredulous, "You're Southern?"
It's true. My grandparents grew up 40 miles apart in Eastern Kentucky. Look up rural in the dictionary and head southeast. I never spent long enough periods of time with them to adapt to their slower, country lifestyle but I do remember that a typical day with Grandma and Grandpa, who lived in Xenia, Ohio when I met them, was spent sitting on the patio playing board games and drinking lemonade. When we went out we didn't take a Metro to a museum, we took dirt roads to a petting zoo.
Maybe Bills fans of late have made the same stark observation about their football team. If you haven't, it's time: Your Buffalo Bills have been countrified.
The Bills speak with a drawl now. Their coach and general manager are both capable of a "dadgum". I'm guessing more than a few of these guys in the organization have the head of a dead animal mounted in their dens.
It might be a reach to say this reality speaks to how the Bills have a friendlier, gentler sound these days but to me it's not. There are a lot of nice guys here. Why does it matter? Well, I have an easier time connecting with a team that can articulate itself. On that front these guys are aces.
But it's more than that. As it happens, lots of football talent is grown in the south. And if the Bills, and Western New York -- with its many farms and fields that surround the city and inner suburbs -- appeal to that talent, that's a good thing.
It's already bearing fruit. Turns out the top free agent in football was turned on by the thought of having deer in his backyard. Ladies and gentlemen, Mario Williams. Kyle Williams told Bulldog and me last week that in talking about Buffalo with Mario Williams he mentioned how around here you can live any way you want. For Mario Williams of North Carolina that was in the hilly Southern outer-suburbs. As it is for Kyle Williams of Louisiana. And Jim Kelly of Western Pennsylvania. And Thurman Thomas of Texas. And Steve Tasker of Kansas. And so on.
Buddy Nix (hometown: Carbon Hill, Ala.,) and Chan Gailey (Gainesville, Ga.) are key players in this. The Bills right now are clearly and fully a Nix-Gailey operation. Ralph Wilson isn't around anymore. Russ Brandon and Jim Overdorf count the beans. Nix and Gailey are in charge, and they come across straightforward and sincere. Pass the biscuits and gravy.
When it comes to drawing players in, every sports team needs a hook. Some teams use their championship traditions as bait, others use glitzy new stadiums or arenas, and others can campaign through their popular coach or player as a draw. The Bills -- and the Sabres for that matter -- do not have these particular luxuries. So how do they do it?
Intentionally or not, the Bills are on to something. Come to Buffalo, where you can play in front of some of the sport's most loyal fans and then out of the office you can go hide, or hunt. Dallas and Washington and New England and New York each have a slickness to them.
As many of you know I'm not the world's biggest football fan. I like it, I don't love it. My portal into sports is by talking about and analyzing them, and I often find football talk lacking. But I don't find the sport's popularity surprising. It's played in short, manageable seasons; the big plays and big hits are thrilling; the field fits perfectly on a modern TV screen, making football easy to look at; and the emotions that ripple through huge crowds at massive stadiums are unmatched by probably any sport except soccer.
I loved football when I was a teenager though, and I was an NFL Films junkie. I can still recite from memory some of John Facenda's lines from the Super Bowl wrapups. Facenda, who died in 1984, is my all-time favorite sports announcer. Not only did he have The Greatest Voice Ever, he was known for meticulously editing his words and his cadences to best fit the footage, and in turn, do the best job possible in telling the story. Every detail mattered to Facenda, and the words were music to him. Facenda would actually use musical notations (staccato, legato) on his script to help him remember just the way he wanted it. I loved him.
I think the Facenda/NFL Films partnership peaked in the mid-70s. (What, you didn't have an opinion on this?) The 1974 year in review is one of my favorites, partly because the Bills made the playoffs that year and they're featured prominently in the show. It's not a Facenda line, but there's a quote from that show that has stuck with me.
We see the Bills drop a close one in Miami, 35-28, and we get a couple of clips from the losing locker room. Of course the Bills were on a losing streak against the Dolphins -- one we know that would last until 1980 -- and Miami was the two-time Super Bowl champ. Bills coach Lou Saban is asked a question about how his team can feel good about one of the game's positives, despite losing. Saban's response was beautiful:
"It was still 35-28, that's all I remember," Saban said. "We've got to beat these people one of these days."
The promising 2012 Bills season opens September 9 against the Jets, a team that has won five straight and seven of eight against Buffalo. The most recent meeting, last November 27, was a game the Bills should've had. They blew a late lead and squandered great chances on their last drive en route to another defeat from Rex Ryan's Jets.
The start of this season of optimism is wrapped up by that game and Saban's old quote. There's your chance, Bills, to show that things really are different. Things that matter in football aren't won in March, or at the draft. They're won in the fall and winter. It's fine if writers power-rank you ahead of the Jets. What matters is beating them.
I've been fired up for that game since well before the schedule even came out. As soon as last year ended I was saying that I wanted to see Bills-at-Jets Week 1, 2012. No better way to show you've moved ahead. This isn't beating Kansas City last year, a fluky division winner, or Seattle, or Houston, or any of the frauds the Bills have taken out in openers recently. The Jets aren't great but they outrank you until show different.
Beat the Jets and take it from there.
I'm tired of forcing compliments on our teams simply because I get sick of being negative. I want the Bills and Sabres to earn the praise. It shouldn't be that hard to know good from bad. They do keep records in these sports. I don't want Ryan Fitzpatrick to be good for a seventh-round pick, I want him to be good. To mix metaphors with my favorite sport, baseball, I don't want the Bills to be fast for a catcher. I want them to fly.
Off-season optimism is fun, and it beats the alternative. But you've got to beat these people to truly impress. You've got to beat them.
I love rankings. I can't get enough of them. I want to rank everything -- even where it's inappropriate. When I told my wife a couple years ago that I wanted to establish a Friends Hall of Fame in our basement, she laughed. I was incredulous. You mean posting pictures of our favorite friends would be rude? How? What about the others, she said.
Ah. The others.
I've been a tennis fan as long as I can remember. I love the sport for its underrated physical demands without requiring you to be some athletic beast, and its way of exposing who can handle pressure and who can't. Like golf, it's just you out there. Unlike our team sports, there's no misreading who's better than whom. Is such-and-such a quarterback only great because of his coach, offensive line or defense? Would such-and-such a basketball star have been a champion without his great supporting cast? In individual sports you have none of these quandaries.
You of course do have never-ending conversations about who the Best Player Ever is. It always was a bit of a disappointment to me that when Roger Federer eclipsed Pete Sampras' record for Grand Slam titles it seemed to settle the issue. That's it, they said. Federer is the greatest of all time.
Maybe. I've had two issues with that sentiment, one of which has grown since that win in 2009. One is that it downgrades the great Rod Laver. Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 and was then disallowed from playing in the "majors" for six years because of his turning pro. Then in the advent of the so-called Open Era, when pros were allowed back in, Laver won the Slam again, in 1969. He was the best player in the world for six years yet played in none of the sport's 24 "majors". Conservatively, I'd say he'd have won eight of them. That would give him 19, more than Federer.
Secondly, Federer has two contemporaries that have beaten him down in the biggest of matches. Rafael Nadal is 18-10 against Federer and has beaten him in finals in three of the four Slams. Novak Djokovic doesn't have Nadal's career edge over Federer head-to-head, but he'd beaten him in the majors four out of five times.
Then came along Wimbledon 2012. Nadal lost early, and Federer took out Djokovic in the semis en route to winning the title. To me, this victory is huge for Federer's legacy. It had been three years since he'd won a major and he'd been flattened too often by his top rivals, begging questions about his superiority. But he won this one, and he beat the world's top player along the way. Federer, who played at a very high level in this tournament, especially late, deserves full credit for the achievement.
But I say he's still not the best ever. Laver is. Nadal's years of burying Federer in finals stands out. I do agree with most analysts that Federer is capable of shot-making that no other player in history was. (Part of this is attributable to advances in equipment.) And there is no joy in watching tennis quite like when Federer solves a seemingly impossible angle.
This Wimbledon win to me doesn't add a postscript to Federer's candidacy as the sport's preeminent player, it re-opens it. And really, the conversation is all I want.
Let me say this right up front: I'm optimistic about the Sabres. As has long been the case, I like most of Darcy Regier's moves. Like most of you I just wish there were more of them. I get bored easily.
This weekend (so far) has been pretty typical, I'd say. A neat little draft move gets made to change the Sabres' positioning, to keep us honest, and the results are intriguing if not exciting. But I'm still left wanting. Where's Bobby Ryan? Why is Derek Roy still here? Where's the real roster change?
I'm at the same time impressed and disappointed, if that's possible.
The image of the Sabres certainly has changed since last February when Terry Pegula signed on. No longer are we left to question whether every single thing they're doing or not doing has more to do with money than anything else, as had been the case for the prior, oh, forever.
But is it enough?
Pegula said the day he bought the Sabres that money would no longer be their obstacle. But the question remains, is money the sole hindrance he thought they had been facing all these years? Most acquisitions they've made since he bought the team (Boyes, Ehrhoff, Leino) would not have been made pre-Pegula. But by my measure there has yet to be a so-called signature move, a move that screams what Pegula said famously on the day of his coronation, that the reason for the franchise's existence now is to win the Stanley Cup.
I don't think they've backed that statement up. If they had, top young players would be moved in the name of veterans and past winners. Brayden McNabb and Marcus Foligno would be on other teams. Your coach and general manager, 14 years on the job with no Cup to their names, probably would have been dismissed. There would eminate a ruthlessness that Pegula and company have not yet shown.
I don't really object to their preferred methods. I'm not a fan of ruthlessness, in general. I like having McNabb and Foligno to look forward to. I like a sports team that grows its own garden, brings up young players through the system and, ideally, wins with them. (That last part has been the catch.) I'm starved for a championship around here, but if you ask me if I'd take a Cup with nine years in the basement instead of 10 years of consistently contending, I'm not sure what I pick. I want the Sabres to always be at least pretty good.
I think that's what Pegula really meant the day he took over. Not exactly that winning the Stanley Cup would be their "sole reason for existence", but rather to try to win within a framework of pre-determined ideologies. Be loyal to your people and treat them well. Make them want to win for you. Loyalty through luxury, if you will.
If that had been the mission statement -- do the best you can do with people that you like and respect -- then they're doing great. And frankly, in an NHL where no team stands above the rest and where such a system of parity exists, that's the way I'd run my team too. I wouldn't want to be compared with George Steinbrenner. That's "win or else". It lacks for honor and grace and even style.
The Sabres have to win before any of us go giving them credit for having the right idea. It's been long enough. Another team this year sipped from the Cup for the first time. It's got to be our turn someday.
Still trying to keep my feet attached to the Earth given the upside-down nature of the hockey playoffs. You come to think that the universe has rules, laws of nature. Then an 8-seed that finished 29th in regular-season goal scoring rips through the NHL and wins the Stanley Cup.
What does it mean?
No team ever seeded so low won it all. Was it a matter of time? Many hockey fans for a while have been saying yes. Philadelphia, a 7-seed, came close in 2010. Edmonton as an 8-seed came closer in 2006, losing a tight seventh game to the Team that Won't Be Spoken Of.
Given their capable roster of forwards, it's hard to figure how the Kings finished with such a paltry ranking on offense this season. But they did. And for all the insisting I have done for years that a Cup champion need be strong offensively, this team wasn't.
While the Kings in some ways make sense within commonly held beliefs about championship hockey teams -- they're big enough, their goaltending was outstanding and, well, that's about it -- I am inclined to think that they owe a great amount of their success to luck. Games are close. Many goals are scored on good bounces. And you don't have to beat everybody in these tournaments, only four teams. Had the Kings not lost two overtime games in the season's final weekend they would have opened with Chicago and not a wobbly Vancouver team that was missing Daniel Sedin, a team they played tough in last year's playoffs.
Were the Kings fortunate in that respect? For me, it's either that or they suddenly were just flat better than the rest of the league. And I just refuse to accept that. LA was 16-4 in the playoffs. I want the Kings to have to play 20 more games against random NHL opponents. Maybe they'd go 12-8 or so.
On second thought, hockey season is long enough.
Whether or not this underdog run was to be predicted, for me it isn't a good result. We all strive for fairness in life, for the idea of an ultimate meritocracy. This is a binding American principle -- work hard, do your best, and you will succeed. Not "might" succeed, will. But is it true? Not all the way. You have to be lucky. Every success story has some luck in it.
This point would be no different for me if New Jersey had won it all, or even the New York Rangers despite their top-seed status. The differences between these teams and some others were so slight that it seems building premises or drawing conclusions on the construct of these clubs is doomed to be faulty. Jersey was very lucky to get past Florida, the worst team entering the playoffs, in Round 1. In 2011, Boston was similarly fortunate to win its first-round series. Two Cup finalists, one a winner -- a bounce either way and instead you're looking at two seasons considered failures.
I want to think in sports that a knowledgable fan can tell good from average, and great from good. In this sport that's as hard -- and seemingly futile -- as ever to do. Whose goalie is good? They're all good. Whose coach is good enough? All of them probably.