Former Buffalo Bill Ray Bentley is currently working on his memoirs from his time with the team from 1986 through Super Bowl XXVI. He kept a journal during his entire playing career, so many of the stories in this new book will have never been told. Below is the first look at his work.
Where Would You Rather Be?
I exited the locker room a little early to check the weather conditions and the footing I would have to deal with over the next four to five hours. The buzz of the crowd filing into Rich Stadium almost 90 minutes before kickoff grew with each step I took through the dark, dank tunnel leading from the bowels of the stadium out to the field. Adrenaline surged through my veins making me tingle all over as the roar increased the closer I came to entering the arena. I made a mental note to control my breathing and try to relax, like they tell an expectant mother during the throes of labor. No sense in wasting precious energy, although I felt like I could jump a fence all day long at that point.
Usually there was bright light at the end of the tunnel, but not so much on this fine January day in Orchard Park, New York. The sky was dark and ominous and the only real light was artificial, beaming from the bank of stadium lights cranked to full power to illuminate the ensuing battle for the bundled-up fans in attendance and the national TV audience at home.
I nodded and slapped hands with a couple of security guards in place at the field entrance. I knew a few by name and the rest by face as I had been making this sacred game-day walk onto the stadium turf for five years now. We had come a long way together. The energy surging through the house on this day was a far cry from my first grand entrance into Rich Stadium as an unknown free agent pick-up back in 1986. Things had changed in a big way from my early days as a Buffalo Bill.
I strolled onto the playing surface as people hooted and yelled my name and screamed for Raider blood. No doubt, the Buffalo faithful were ready for this one. And why wouldn’t they be? We were playing the greatness of the Los Angeles Raiders for a chance to go to Super Bowl XXV the following Sunday down in Tampa Bay. The Buffalo fanatics were as hungry as I was and had been with us on the same long, upward journey, if only vicariously.
A light snow-like mist permeated the air along with scattered flurries, the temperature was in the 30’s and would plummet even further as the afternoon wore on. Swirling winds added to the winter wonderland and you could see mini clouds of breath spewing forth from our dauntless fans throughout the stadium.
The playing surface had been covered by a tarp until just a few hours prior, but that didn’t keep the foam padding underneath the carpet of turf from freezing solid, making it as hard as asphalt – it wasn’t tundra but it was damn well frozen. Despite this fact, the footing wasn’t bad. I broke into a jog and made a few cuts testing it out. It seemed just fine to me. But I was what they called a “mudder;” I thrived in inclement weather on the football field, always had.
I segued to our sideline and plopped my frozen ass on the heated fiberglass benches to try to relax and soak it all in. However I couldn’t stop my legs from bouncing up and down with nervous energy. The high-stakes for which we were playing weighed heavily on my mind. This was our shot – we had put our collective blood, sweat, and tears into the past six months fighting to get home-field advantage for the playoffs. Opportunities such as this were not taken lightly as they were so hard to come by.
Memories from my early days as a Buffalo Bill flooded my consciousness seemingly with a will of their own. It had been a hell of a journey since I had arrived in the Queen City on the Niagara early in the 1986 season, joining a moribund franchise far removed from its early glory days. I thought of some of the guys who had helped build the team up who weren’t here for the pay-off. Stout men like Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett, Art Still, Derrick Burroughs, Mike Hamby, Dean Prater, Eugene Marve, Lucius Sanford, and so many others. My intent was to do them proud. They, too, had poured their hearts and souls into our rise from the dregs of the NFL to now be playing for a shot to go to the Big Dance.
My quiet reverie was broken when a chorus of boos began building to a crescendo in the fast-filling stadium. I knew what that meant and quickly turned my attention back toward the tunnel. The Raiders’ specialists were taking the field. Quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs, and the kicking specialists were coming out to warm up. I watched them pop out of the tunnel like groundhogs inspecting the skies on February 2nd. I couldn’t help but break out laughing.
Every single one of them – to a man – peered up through the mist into the menacing Western New York sky as snow flurries danced in the air around them. Several shook their heads, others jumped around trying to get their blood flowing, but most slumped in that it’s-too-damn-cold posture I had seen from many a warm-climate opponent upon entering our friendly confines late in the season. I knew in my heart right then and there we were going to kick that ass that afternoon. The Raiders appeared more concerned about the weather and staying warm than playing football.
Our home-field advantage, due to our raucous fans, was among the best the NFL could offer. The inclement weather only amplified the effect. The thin-blooded Hollywood boys weren’t prepared for either. The lusty booing suddenly morphed into cheers as our specialists hit the field running. Not one of them looked up into the sky. Hell, we knew what these arctic conditions were all about; we practiced in them every day. The focus and energy of my teammates was obvious as they entered the arena to a thunderous roar. The surge of energy popped me up from the bench and I headed back inside feeling pretty damn good about our prospects. I must have been some kind of prophet.
We came out ready to go but so were the Raiders, at least until they got cold. They scored on their opening possession to take a 3-0 lead. They stopped our initial drive and took over possession and began to put together another drive, which was ultimately killed by a fumble. Our offense took the field and clicked into high gear.
With Jim Kelly running the K-Gun offense and Thurman Thomas carrying the rock behind our stout offensive line we cruised down the field and took our first lead of the game – a lead we would never relinquish. The initial success the Raiders had moving the ball was short-lived, to understate things. We threw a cold, wet blanket over that ass the rest of that intemperate, dreary day.
Darryl Talley led the way on defense and started a pick parade that would see us intercept five Raider aerials on the day. He took the first of his two picks to the house. This may have been the best game D.T. played in his entire career. I know it is the one he remembers most fondly as he picked off a pair of passes and was flying all over the field like the madman he was.
By the time we headed back up the tunnel at halftime we already knew in our hearts we were going to Tampa Bay to play for a Lombardi Trophy the next Sunday. We had bashed the heart, spirit, and soul of Raider Nation in just 30 minutes of play and held an unsurmountable lead of 41-3. We began our premature celebrations on our way to the locker room.
I couldn’t get the smile off my face and Shane Conlan and I were punching each other in the arm almost in disbelief. I was riding the biggest high of my career. We knew! By halftime we knew, beyond all doubt, we were going to the Super Bowl.
Our normal halftime routine was usually more serious and mundane as we first took care of bodily functions: changing undershirts, hitting the head and the like. I hadn’t seen so many smiles in a halftime locker room since I began playing the great game of football at the tender age of seven. We were whooping it up – only a little, as we knew there was still a half of football to play. But let’s be real, we were going to the Super Bowl and every damn one of us knew it.
The coaches came out of their meetings and gathered us up by offense and defense and there were very few adjustments to be made. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Finally Marv gathered us up to give his customary halftime speech. I could see he was struggling to keep a smile off of his own face as he drew us in.
“Men,” he began, “the score is 0-0!”
I didn’t hear what he said next because of the rousing outburst of laughter that filled the room. Somebody yelled out, “Don’t worry, Marv, we got this!” and we piled out of the locker room, not even waiting for anymore unnecessary words of wisdom. There was a brief expression of confusion on Coach Levy’s face but then he broke into a smile and joined the mad rush back onto the field. Sometimes nothing need be said.
The second half was glorious as we continued to dominate the contest. The Raiders pulled their starting QB, Jay Schroeder, and brought in veteran journeyman Vince Evans to see if he could at least get them back on the scoreboard. No such luck. Early in the fourth quarter I took a deep zone drop into the middle of the field as a pass play developed. There was no need to worry about the shorter passes – they weren’t going to beat us at that point.
I recognized the pass pattern immediately as the Raiders dragged their tight end on a shallow route across the field trying to bait me into jumping him thus voiding the intermediate zone behind me. Not today. I knew immediately a deep crossing route was coming in behind me. I took a quick peek and saw it coming. Now it was my turn to throw some bait into the water. I held my position in the middle of the field and gained a little more depth, trying to goad Evans into making the throw all the while ready to pounce if he did.
Fishing was good that day and sure enough, ol’ Vince let it fly and I made my break to undercut the route. The ball landed softly in my hands and I took off “hell bent for election,” as one of my old coaches used to say. I made a nice little return into Raider territory putting us in excellent field position.
This was my second time playing in an AFC Championship Game. I had had one of the better games of my career two years prior when we lost to Cincinnati down in The Jungle that was Riverfront Stadium. I had intercepted Boomer Esiason early in that game in the red zone thwarting a drive. Now I was two for two with Big Game picks as Vince Evans’ name would forever be notched onto my belt.
I brought the ball to the sideline, and after taking a celebratory beating from my hopped-up teammates I gave it to our esteemed equipment manager, Hojo, (Dave Hojinowski) to put away for safe keeping. I have an awesome picture of the moment I share in this book and the ball is still in my memorabilia collection to this day.
Every Bills fan worth his salt knows the final score of our historic victory. For those of you short on salt, we beat the Raiders 51-3 that wonderful winter day. The euphoria I felt as the final seconds ticked off the clock is truly the high-point of my football career. My heart soars now just thinking about it. The locker room celebration was off the chain. There were shouts and backslaps, hugs and high-fives. This was the second time I had shed tears after an AFC Title tilt, but this time they were tears of joy.
As I sat on the stool in front of my locker with grown men running around celebrating like children on Christmas morning, the famous words of our astute head coach rang in my ears: There was no place I would rather be than right there, right now.