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Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

But Sunday’s opener offered a ray of hope

It was nearly halftime, with the Buffalo Bills still in the fairly early stages of pummeling the visiting Seattle Seahawks, when the day’s biggest news broke in the upper deck of Upstate Taxpayer Stadium.

A burly young man wearing a blue jersey emblazoned with Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny’s name and jersey number, 51, clasped his hands over his headphones and hunched forward for several seconds, as if straining to comprehend frantic Morse code over the low roar surrounding him.

Then he stood, turned to the guy sitting next to him—clad in an identical replica jersey—and yanked Posluszny No. 2 into a semi-upright position, spilling a bit of the second man’s $9 beer in the process.

Before he could object, his apparent friend told him, in a rising voice blending joy and disbelief, pausing after each word, “Brady…is…(expletive deleted)…hurt!”

Then, in a rush reminiscent of the heroine in a date movie telling her BFFs that her elusive hunk finally proposed, “He broke his foot! He broke his (same expletive deleted) foot!”

Well, not quite. As it turned out, New England quarterback Tom Brady had left the Patriots’ game against Kansas City after absorbing a hit to the knee, a collision that caused a season-ending tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Details aside, there was no denying, and little resisting, the passion caused by the injury to Brady. The Posluszny brothers embraced warmly, looking for a moment as if they might just kiss.

Sensing the awkwardness, the communications officer stepped back and offered up the obligatory high five, then proclaiming his new prediction for a suddenly altered season.

“All the way, baby,” he said, then delivered a hand slap that sounded like it may have broken skin.

THE SEATS: Having missed the pale imitation of professional football presented by the Bills and the Detroit Lions in the exhibition finale, we got our first taste of our home base for the 2008 season.

Pommy and I settled in shortly before kickoff, three rows from the stadium’s top rim. Our seats are near the 30-yard line at the tunnel end of the stadium, but their height provides a terrific perspective on the entire field, letting you see each play unfold. It’s a bit like the old electric football game I and every other American male between 35 and 50 grew up futilely trying to master, except the players are not made of plastic and do not vibrate in unpredictable patterns when each play begins.

You also get a wide perspective on the crowd, with about 70,000 people in various states of sobriety and excitement spread around you. Clearly, a pair of binoculars are in order for the rest of the schedule.

So, too, is proper gear. Emboldened by the warmth and sun of early Sunday, we were caught totally unprepared by the rain. Luckily, the late-summer warmth made the thorough soaking we endured easily bearable. I’m not expecting this to be the case come November.

THE FANS: I was just about to crack wise to Pommy about the group of guys wearing matching uniforms—blue jerseys, most paying tribute to linebacker Paul Posluszny (who is remarkably adored considering that Sunday was his fourth NFL game) cargo shorts and baseball caps—when I realized he and I were wearing identical “Council of Trent” shirts produced by our friend Mark.

Our duds were, of course, cooler, as they bore an obscure religious allusion. And were free.

Mark was handing out the shirts—which reference Trent Edwards’ first full season as Buffalo’s starting quarterback and a series of three meetings held over an 18-year span in the mid-16th century at which the Roman Catholic Church condemned Protestant heresies—at the tailgate party we attended, in the parking lot of a motel near the stadium.

“You remember the Council of Trent, right?” he asked one woman.

Judging from the look on her face, she did not.

THE GRUB: Fare at the motel parking lot where the same core group of friends, including Mark and Pommy, have congregated for years has evolved far beyond the charcoal-burnt frozen hamburgers and thick-skinned hot dogs the uninitiated may associate with tailgating.

The first course was Patsy’s homemade pizza, featuring sopressata he had made the day before.

“You put it under the mozzarella,” he said sagely. “That’s the key.”

Then came Joe’s exquisite Italian sausage patties, which completed a perfect foundation for the game, and the season, ahead.

THE WEEK AHEAD: Before the win over Seattle, it was easy, even sensible, to look at the schedule and write off Buffalo’s visit to Jacksonville, where the Bills got mangled last fall, as the year’s first loss.

But given the thorough dismantling of a perennial playoff team widely expected to again win the putrid NFC West, the return of star offensive tackle Jason Peters after a summer-long holdout and a spate of injuries that has the Jaguars facing a suddenly imposing defense anchored by mammoth defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, the defeat that so recently looked inevitable would now qualify as a rather significant disappointment.

Then comes a home game against the Oakland Raiders, the worst team in football with the possible exception of the St. Louis Rams, who Buffalo visits on September 28.

Not that we’re getting ahead of ourselves, or anything.

In many, the phrase “torn anterior cruciate ligament” induces a wince, if not one as pronounced as, say, “twisted testicle,” the unfortunate fate of former New York Knicks guard John Starks during the 2001 NBA playoffs. (Starks, to his credit, returned to play 66 more games for Utah the following season.)

But Buffalo fans accustomed to watching their team toyed with by this decade’s Greatest Quarterback Ever and tired of his humble-superhero-who-dates-a-supermodel persona seem more than willing to cope with Brady’s pain.

In 14 meetings since a then-unknown scrub took over for the seemingly legendary Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Bills beat the Patriots exactly once, by way of a fluky Opening Day blowout in 2003.

Brady and New England avenged that 31-0 loss again and again and again, never more emphatically than last season.

In the third game of the year, Brady threw four touchdown passes, two of them to Randy Moss, in a 38-7 pasting. The Bills lost then-quarterback-of-the-future J.P. Losman in the process and continued stumbling for the next few weeks, getting off to a 1-4 start.

They turned it around for a while, winning four straight before hosting the unbeaten Patriots in a game moved to Sunday night, part of the National Football League’s effort to put the most intriguing games in prime time.

And it was—if you find a python-mouse matchup interesting. This time, Brady threw five touchdowns, four to Moss. It was 35-7 by halftime and, though the Bills lingered on the fringes of contention until the season’s final weeks, it was difficult ever to take them seriously again.

Even after New England was proven beatable by the New York Giants in last year’s Super Bowl, only the most fervent fan could contemplate Buffalo winning the AFC East, or upsetting the dreaded Patriots.

With Brady suddenly gone, banished to an autumn of crutching around with paparazzi in pursuit, the ridiculous becomes possible.

For one afternoon, at least, the Bills looked plenty capable of winning an abruptly wide-open division, slapping Seattle around in every aspect of a 34-10 pasting.

It didn’t start out that way. Disjointed by a steady rain, Trent Edwards threw the ball all over the place on Buffalo’s first few possessions, bringing back bad memories of his weather-related struggles in late-season losses to Cleveland and New York.

Even as Edwards missed on five of his first six throws, Buffalo’s defense and special teams slowly shortened the field for the offense. When Edwards finally connected with Lee Evans, the 32-yard strike set up the day’s first points.

After a couple of futile efforts by each offense, Roscoe Parrish delivered the game’s signature play, a smashing blow from which the Seahawks never came particularly close to recovering.

Taking in a punt just more than halfway through the second quarter, Parrish juked, cut, spun, and dashed his way to a 63-yard touchdown that looked more like a Harlem Globetrotters routine than an NFL play.

The trickery continued in the third quarter, with punter Brian Moorman throwing a touchdown pass to Ryan Denney on a fake field goal, the first such score of either’s career, giving the Bills a 27-10 lead.

By that point, those around us who knew about Brady, and those oblivious to much of anything going on around them, were beyond giddy. Even the sensible patrons who bothered to look at a forecast, or even the gathering clouds, before heading in from the parking lots were drenched. And no one seemed to mind.

A dominating win, particularly when combined with the naturally occurring optimism of a season opener and the sudden disappearance of a longtime nemesis, will do that for the spirits.

The elements can also work against you, though.

On the first Sunday of the 1979 season, my father and his friend took me and his sons to see the Bills face that decade’s equivalent of the Patriots, the loathsome Miami Dolphins.

Miami’s winning streak had reached a record 18 games, with Buffalo’s last victory coming in 1969, when both teams were still in the American Football League.

Buffalo’s defense, led by rookies Fred Smerlas and Jim Haslett, harassed hated Miami quarterback Bob Griese and kept fullback Larry Csonka, hero of the Dolphins’ two Super Bowl wins earlier in the decade, from taking over the game.

The only points of the first half came on a 76-yard return of a blocked field goal by Buffalo cornerback Charles Romes. It was pretty easy to imagine Buffalo’s decade of suffering ending and the goal posts in front of us coming down in the resultant frenzy.

Then, in the third quarter, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. So hard that it was difficult to look at the field, or think about much except how hard it was coming down, how wet you were getting.

Somehow, the Dolphins managed a field goal in the third quarter. And in the fourth, they gave it to Csonka, who had only just returned after a lengthy exile in the extinct World Football League and with the putrid New York Giants.

Csonka was old and slow, but he plodded up the middle again and again, finally crossing Buffalo’s goal line to give Miami its first lead.

Few things are sadder for an 11-year-old than seeing your team lose a game so winnable, especially one so important—at least in your mind. The Bills had done nothing on offense all day, and there was little reason to think much-maligned quarterback Joe Ferguson could get anything going with the clock running out.

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Keith Moody, that decade’s answer to Parrish, returned a punt to Miami’s 35. Buffalo’s best drive of the day, covering all of 17 yards, put the Bills in field goal position.

Tom Dempsey, the rotund half-footed kicker, trotted out to win the game for Buffalo. The man who still holds the record for the longest field goal in NFL history, a 63-yarder for New Orleans in 1970, couldn’t miss.

And yet he did. The ball appeared in front of us, seemingly headed for victory. But it kept drifting and drifting, slicing just outside the goal post directly in front of us—the original Wide Right.

We trudged out, none of us saying much until we came to a drainage ditch in the parking lot. All you could see of the man submerged therein was his mournful face, eyes closed, and his right hand, which held a beer can.

“Sometimes,” my father solemnly told me, “people drink too much.”

There was no such scene on the way out after Buffalo completed its 34-10 romp on Sunday. Just people rejoicing over the win, Brady’s injury and the possibilities presented by both.

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