An Early Goodbye to ‘Bills Stadium’

Photo from buffalonews.com.

“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again”

Billy Joel from “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”

We are in the quietest month of the football calendar, but EVERY other sport is in full swing to keep us distracted until training camp. The big news from One Bills Drive last week was talk about a new stadium, presumably on or near the same piece of land in Orchard Park. Keeping up with the Jerry Joneses is a way of life in the NFL, and the NFL Homeowner’s Association requires a corporate palace for its product. Whatever it takes to keep the Bills in WNY, but I am going to miss the…..?

Yes, I still prefer the original name, Rich Stadium. I am not of fan of corporate naming rights, but if they are inevitable, the shorter the better. “The Ralph” wasn’t bad. “New Era” is a Buffalo based company and makes a great product, plus their timing did indeed usher in a new era of Bills football. Maybe I will get used to calling it “Highmark”, but not yet. It sure makes for a confusing obituary with all the name changes. Calling the facility “Bills Stadium” is probably the easiest way to go.

Being a back end baby boomer, my experience with War Memorial Stadium, better known as “The Rockpile”, is limited… but undefeated. I was ten when my dad took me to my first NFL game in 1972, the last season of the Rockpile. September 24, 1972, the Bills upset the 49ers and John Brodie en route to a 4-9-1 season.

Photo of OJ Simpson and Buffalo Bills from ojsimpson.co.

The first season of the Bills new home in 1973 featured OJ Simpson’s record-breaking 2003-yard season, and the first winning season since 1966. It was a long wait until the first playoff game at “Bills Stadium”. Buffalo defeated the Houston Oilers on January 1, 1989, and remained undefeated in home playoff games until 1996. It was an even longer wait for the next home playoff win over the Colts on January 9th of this year. The Bills home playoff record in Orchard Park is 11-1. From our lips to God’s ears, may the AFC Championship Game return to WNY this season.

I was in attendance for the two best days in the history of the facility, and I will get to those in a minute. Let’s talk about the concerts that the Bills Stadium has hosted: Lynyrd Skynyrd TWICE before the tragic plane crash in 1977, four visits from the Rolling Stones, two from The Who, the Fleetwood Mac Rumors Tour, Billy Joel and Elton John, and many more.

Looks like the Billy Joel tickets I bought two years ago will actually get used this August. The 2020 Rolling Stones tickets that Ticketmaster took my money for are still up in the air. My personal favorite concert at “Bills Stadium” was a triple bill on July 4,1986 featuring Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and the Grateful Dead. I have been lucky to see a slew of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members perform live, but that day was tough to top.

BUFFALO, NY – JANUARY 01: Goaltender Ryan Miller #30 of the Buffalo Sabres waits on the ice before his team take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Winter Classic at the Ralph Wilson Stadium on January 1, 2008 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images).

In talking about the nearly 50 year history of the Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, I also have to mention hockey. On New Year’s day, 2008, the Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL’s first Winter Classic. 71,000 came for the novelty of outdoor hockey, and the success here has had a lot to do with it being an annual event.

I was torn between the new stadium being in its current location, or in Downtown Buffalo, but I see the wisdom in the decision they made. I am hoping that like what happened when the new Yankee Stadium was built, the Bills can figure out a way to play in the current facility while the new stadium is under construction. The best idea I have heard is to use the land that one of the ECC Campuses currently occupies. A year or two of playing elsewhere during this new golden era of Bills football is not appealing.

I like to listen to WGR’s morning show, and one day last week Howard and Jeremy debated what was the greatest day in the history of “Bills Stadium”. I was blessed to be at both contenders. The first: Sunday, January 20th, 1991, the AFC Championship Game.

Photo of Thurman Thomas from billsgab.com.

The Los Angeles Raiders at the Buffalo Bills. A trip to Super Bowl XXV on the line, a first ever for the Bills. Very few things that have meant that much to me have ever come easier than Buffalo’s 51-3 victory that day. Kenneth Davis romped for three TDs, James Lofton caught two Jim Kelly TDs passes, and Darryl Talley added a pick-six. For those who like their winning stress free, it couldn’t have been a better day. Howard and Jeremy agreed on this as the #1 moment in Stadium history..

But…

They were not there on January 3rd, 1993. Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers vs. Frank Reich (subbing for an injured Jim Kelly) and the Buffalo Bills. My friend and I were sitting near the top of the end zone where eight of the game’s ten touchdowns were scored. Sitting in front of us was a small group of Oiler fans dressed in powder blue parkas.

The 1st quarter was rather uneventful, but the 2nd quarter was disastrous. Warren Moon added three TD passes to his first quarter TD pass. The score was 28-3 at halftime, with Moon 19/22 for 218 yards and 4 TDs. The outlook was bleak. It got much bleaker 1:41 into the 3rd quarter when a Frank Reich pass bounced off Keith McKellar into the arms of Bubba McDowell for a pick six. The score stood 35-3, with 28 minutes of the season remaining. From our lofty perch we could see the fans leave in droves. And Thurman Thomas left the game with a hip injury. The Oiler fans in front of us were giddy.

Photo from si.com.

We all know the rest of the story that day. You can read about the botched kickoff, the unplanned successful onside kick, the missed call on Don Beeb’s 38 yard TD, and the Henry Jones interception. There were the fans who had left climbing the fences to get back in, the 4th and five 18 yard TD pass from Reich to Reed, the go ahead TD pass, which was Reed’s 3rd of the game, the interception and game winning Steve Christie field goal in overtime.

You may have been lucky enough to see the blacked out game through some method that the statute of limitations has expired on. But to experience in person the emotion that gripped Rich Stadium that afternoon was once in a lifetime.. To borrow a word coined by Van Miller, it was “fandemonium”. I doubt that anyone who was there can put any other sporting moment they have witnessed over “The Comeback”.

I can’t wait for Billy Joel in August, and my next regular season game in Orchard Park this October.We have a few years to say goodbye to the old stadium May we and the generations to follow make as many happy memories in the new Bills Stadium.

Editor’s babble: So many happy memories. I’m also ‘meh’ on the name “Highmark Stadium”. Every time I see it written, I wonder where it is located :) Thanks, as always, to Joe Reagan for his great contributions to our blog.