A living Bills legend spends time at McFadden’s

To most Buffalo Bills fans, he epitomizes the Bills’ glory days and the franchise’s preeminent, most exciting teams. To me, and others my age, Coach Marv Levy is the Buffalo Bills.

We all remember Coach Levy prowling the sidelines in his red, white and blue Bills jacket; his “Levyisms;” his insistence on the importance of the kicking game; his propensity to quote Winston Churchill to the press (which, we’ve learned, he still enjoys doing); and our ability to live vicariously through him as he chewed out incompetent refs with rather colorful rebukes as well as gems such as, “you over-officious jerk!”

When Coach Levy retired, a huge piece of Buffalo’s football personality left with him. We all still love our Bills, but no head coach has endeared himself to the city of Buffalo or the legion of Bills fans across the country like Coach Levy.

The proof of Levy’s legacy was more than apparent last Tuesday at McFadden’s. Hundreds of fans showed up for a chance to meet the man who made Buffalo football legendary and receive a signed copy of his New York Times Bestseller Where Else Would You Rather Be?.

Football fans may associate Coach Levy with four consecutive Super Bowl losses, but Bills fans remember him as the man who gave us something to cheer about. He coached a team that was able to pick itself up year after year and continuously strive to be better, no matter the disappointment that haunted the city from the previous season. As a kid, it seemed odd for me to think of the Bills not going to the big game every January. Talk about a spoiled childhood.

I first obtained a copy of Levy’s autobiography in the hour before the Bengals game in December. I found myself running down Second Avenue decked out in my Jim Kelly jersey and a Santa hat, desperate to get my hands on the last two copies in all of New York City.

Who knew that a book written by the greatest coach in Buffalo Bills history would be such a hit in a city with two rival teams? The NYCBBB staff was starting to truly understand the phenomenon that co-founder Matt Soreco had known since his childhood in Yonkers: the Bills fandemonium bug had spread far across the state and beyond.

Our quest to get Coach Levy to McFadden’s began in early January when co-founder Matt Kabel e-mailed one of his Bills contacts, Denny Lynch, director of archives. Lynch put us in touch with Coach Levy himself, who expressed interest in coming to New York City for a signing, but he informed us we’d have to go through his publisher, Sports Publishing, LLC. Our contact at the publisher seemed hopeful that he could set an event up with us, but made no promises immediately. Then, on Jan. 18, he informed us that Coach Levy and his wife Fran would be in New York the following week, and could come to McFadden’s for a signing on Tuesday, Jan 25.

That left us one week. One week for the staff to gauge if there was enough interest among the Backers to come out on a Tuesday, and then organize the event with each other, the Levys, the publisher and McFadden’s. Not to mention promotion. And the fact that we all have full-time jobs (except Ryan, who’s been busy adding the word “Esquire” to the end of his name). Needless to say, we were up to the task. Probably the biggest name in Buffalo Bills history had agreed to come to McFadden’s, our NYC house of Bills worship, to meet his fans. Little Buffalo was about to be officially christened by the man who wrote: “There are no fans anywhere like Bills fans. Their loyalty and hardiness are unparalleled.” We weren’t about to prove him wrong.

The day of the signing, Kevin, our tailgating commander-in-chief, and I had the honored duty of picking up the Levys from their hotel and driving them back to McFadden’s. Kevin and I were thrilled, but mid-town traffic certainly didn’t seem to care. “I’m on my way to pick up a Hall-of-Famer!” Kevin bellowed from behind the wheel as pedestrians jaywalked in front of his Jeep.

We inched across town until I eventually climbed out of the Jeep in the middle of 46th street so the Levys wouldn’t be waiting alone in the lobby while Kevin battled the seemingly immutable congestion on the roads.

Thanks to some grace from the traffic gods, we were still able to make it back to McFadden’s on time. Although, neither Kevin nor I really would have minded if we were stuck alone with Coach Levy for a little longer than planned. As it was, I was doing my best “I’m not over-anxious to talk to you” impression as I explained a little about NYCBBB and the Backers organization. Being so close to a Bills legend who also happens to be a talented and articulate writer, my brain was going into hero-worship overload.

Walking into the side door of the bar, I felt like an impostor on a red carpet. Hundreds of eager faces and camera flashes met me as we escorted Coach Levy inside. At least one held up a cell phone, not to take pictures, but so that whoever was on the line could hear the commotion in the bar and Coach Levy as he began to speak in front of several large stacks of his books. The excitement in the bar was as palpable as it was at any game this season while Coach Levy told the crowd how happy he was to be there with us.

In true form, he introduced his lovely wife Fran as his offensive coordinator, quoted Churchill as part of a joke, and assured us that there really was no other place that he’d rather be, “right here, right now.” Levy’s heartening closing gave the Bills fans in the room something to cheer about. He assured us that he has been watching the team and thinks it is on the verge of greatness again. The room erupted, and cries of “Alright, Coach!” emerged from the back. Bills fans are as addicted to encouraging words about their team as they are to Canadian Beer. And there is no sports pundit out there that fans would rather have believe in the Bills than the man who once led the team to greatness.

With the 1992 Houston Oilers comeback game on every television, Levy began signing books and greeting fans, who patiently waited their turns in the crowded bar. We had ordered several hundred copies of Where Else Would you Rather be? and nearly sold out as many fans bought several books to be signed.

Shortly into the signing, Fran Levy asked if I would crouch next to the coach for the rest of the night to help him hear in the loud bar. I was more than happy to oblige (Where else would I rather be?). Witnessing almost every interaction Coach Levy had while signing that night, I saw firsthand his genuine interest in each person’s story of why they love the Bills. He was surprised not only by how many fans were transplanted Western New Yorkers, but how many were actually from the tri-state area. “The Bills are the only real New York team,” was an assertion made several times throughout the night.

Fans also came in for the evening from several other areas. Two fans from Albany had only heard about the event the night before and decided to take half a day from work to drive to Manhattan to get Levy’s autograph. One man who obtained an autograph didn’t even have that much notice.

“I grew up in Buffalo, but had no idea about the Bills Backers,” the fan said. “I just came in tonight for a drink and saw that Marv Levy was here!”

Several people wandered into the bar to see what all the commotion was, and some stayed for autographs once they realized a Hall of Fame coach was signing his book.

At one point in the evening, I pointed to the “New York Times Bestseller” stamp on the corner of Levy’s book, and as an aspiring author myself, I had to ask him how it felt.

“If I said I wasn’t excited, I wouldn’t deserve it,” he said, with as much class and sincerity as we’ve come to expect from him.

Levy signed books for nearly three hours straight in order to get to everyone who was waiting in line. He listened to the story of two fans who had their first date at the comeback game (and are now married), and joked, “So if it weren’t for me, you two may have never gotten together?” Another man admitted to being one of the field-storming fans who tore down the goalposts after the Bills beat the Jets to clinch the AFC East in the 1988 season.

Occasionally, Coach Levy would look up at the TV to check on the comeback game.

“This is when Henry (Jones) makes one of two key interceptions,” he said as if he has the entire game memorized.

“I dunno, Coach, I think we might come back and win this one. The Bills just might pull it off,” I joked with him as he watched the game.

He smiled at me. “You’re crazy! They’ll never come back from this one. No way!”

As he continued signing, one female fan approached Coach Levy with a book for her friend Jamie, who was leaving for Iraq. Because of time constraints, he was not signing personal messages in any books; but without any special request from the fan, Levy, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, wrote, “We all admire you” in the soldier’s book. It was one of several moments where it became completely obvious to me why Bills fans adore this man so much.

Each time we thanked Coach Levy for taking the time to come and meet us, he insisted that he was the one who was honored to be there. He and Fran truly seemed touched by the turnout and the outpouring of affection they received from the fans in New York.

The most accurate depiction of Levy I’ve ever heard came from my always-astute friend Sarah, who mused that Marv Levy is a perfect illustration of a modern day Renaissance man. Athletic, intelligent, witty, humble, and articulate, Coach Levy’s brilliance extends to sports, literature, and history. He’s one heck of a guy, too.

I, for one, plan to continue gushing over him far into the off-season, and I know no one else who was there last Tuesday will likely forget the experience either. Let’s just hope the Bills take Levy’s prediction to heart next September. GO BILLS!!

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