--Columnist Larry Felser covered pro football for The News for 38 years until his retirement in 2001. This is his column that appeared on Jan. 4, 1993.--
Bubba McDowell, the Houston safety, had just finished high-stepping into the end zone for Houston’s fifth touchdown.
The Oilers’ 35-3 lead after 31 minutes, 41 seconds of their wild-card game against Buffalo was not far from the 41-3 halftime stranglehold the Bills themselves had on the Los Angeles Raiders two years ago in the AFC Championship Game.
That game ended in a mercy killing, 51-3. Sunday’s game had the potential for a stockyard slaughter.
When Frank Reich’s pass bounced off the hands of Keith McKeller and into those of McDowell, the exits in Rich Stadium were choked with fans anxious to head to Route 219 and the New York State Thruway, getting the taste of this sour game out of their palates.
It’s still hard to believe but that sourness of vinegar turned into the sweetness of honey.
An astonishing thing happened on the Bills’ way to the slaughter pen. The champions suddenly began to play like champions once again. The ax was turned against the executioner.
When it was over, veteran journalists from around the nation, here to cover the contest, said it was one of the greatest games they had ever seen; some said it was THE game of games.
One thing is beyond doubt: Buffalo accomplished the greatest comeback in the 73-year history of the NFL. No team, not even Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers, ever battled back from a 32-point deficit.
The eerie part is that the man who engineered this incredible comeback, Reich, is the same quarterback who led the University of Maryland to the greatest college football comeback of all time. In 1984, Miami led the Terrapins, 31-0, at halftime. Maryland rallied to win, 42-40.
For anyone who saw Sunday’s game, it will remain one of the unforgettable moments in sport.
Reich, the backup quarterback who was bludgeoned a week ago by the same Oilers when he became an emergency replacement for the injured Jim Kelly, was indelibly magnificent.
After McDowell scored his touchdown, pushing Houston’s dominance near the breaking point, Reich remarked to those around him, “We just have to take this one play at a time. That’s the only thing we can do.”
Simplicity itself, which doesn’t work very often, especially in circumstances this dire.
Incredibly, the one-play-at-a-time formula worked.
An unsuccessful squibbed kickoff was the basis for the first touchdown drive. Then an onside kick worked and Reich threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Don Beebe.
Oiler throats began constricting. By the end of the third quarter, the Bills had scored 28 points and broken an NFL record that stood since 1940, when the Chicago Bears scored 26 in a quarter during their famous 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins for the NFL championship.
At that point, the game took on the atmosphere of a fairy tale.
The Bills had been so far behind, they didn’t so much stage a comeback as they were exhumed.
The play that brought Buffalo within four points, 35-31, and gave whatever doubters still remained the idea that the Bills could pull off the impossible, came on fourth down from the Oilers’ 18-yard line.
“I called timeout to discuss what we wanted to do,” said Reich. “There was a possibility we would kick a field goal. Marv [Levy] asked me how I felt about the play that had been called.
“I said that I felt real good about it. He said ‘go for it.’ ”
Reich gunned a pass to Andre Reed in the end zone for the touchdown.
That Reich, barely used during the regular season, would be the hero in such a game was stretching melodrama beyond its limits.
But the quiet, self-contained 31-year-old found the inner strength he had needed in pressure situations in the past. It wasn’t just the great Maryland comeback that established his reputation, but his rescue job in the 1989 season when Kelly was hurt, along with his quarterbacking of the Bills to the 1990 AFC East title in another emergency role.
Someone Up There likes him a great deal.
Reich lives a conservative, family-oriented lifestyle. He is a religious man. When he came to the podium for his postgame news conference, he asked for a moment to read aloud the words of a song written by a Christian writer, Michael English. “I must have listened to that song 100 times last week to relieve the pressure,” said the quarterback.
The lyrics include these lines, which inspired him:
“In every victory let it be said of me,
“My source of strength,
“My source of hope,
“Is Christ alone.”
Reich paused after reading the words and said, “OK, now I’ll answer any questions on football that you want.”
That’s Frank Reich. Uncomplicated, direct, dependable.
If his teammates or the Bills’ fans had forgotten about him during the long period of his inactivity, they received a dynamic reminder in the second half.
Reich reactivated Buffalo’s forgotten feature receiver, Reed, in those 30 minutes, collaborating with him for three consecutive touchdown receptions.
He also gave the Bills the notion they could accomplish the impossible and they did.
There is another line in that song that is bull’s-eye-appropriate for Reich:
“For I have been blessed beyond measure, and by His strength alone I overcome.”
After Sunday, who can argue?