From his perch high atop Rich Stadium, Bill Flanagan could see them coming in waves. Car after car, pulling up in the parking lots. Buffalo Bills fans descending on the gates.
They had been listening on the radio as their team began what would become the greatest comeback in NFL history, and now they wanted to see it for themselves.
“We had good seats, but they were two rows from the top,” Flanagan said. “Right around that time when they had chipped it away to 35-17, and it’s this avalanche of scoring, you’re looking around and you’re seeing people losing their mind everywhere. You see these people getting dropped off, literally pulling their cars off and jumping back trying to get into the stadium. Now whether they were in the stadium to begin with, or whether they had just heard the game on the radio and decided to come down, I don’t know, but it was surreal seeing that happen.
“All of a sudden you start to feel this emotion … it was unbelievable.”
Attendance at Rich Stadium on Jan. 3, 1993, is listed in the Bills’ media guide as 75,141, but if you believe every story you hear in Western New York, a million people were there to see Buffalo’s 41-38 victory over the Houston Oilers.
“I’m not convinced more people who’ve claimed to have stayed didn’t actually leave,” said former Kenmore resident Mark Lindsay, who was one of those unfortunate – but honest – souls who left the game at halftime. “I like to think of myself as one of the few who’s actually willing to admit I left the game early.”
Lindsay, of course, is far from the only one who did. Hundreds, or more likely thousands, filed out at halftime, with the Bills down, 28-3. Even more joined them after Bubba McDowell’s 58-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter put Houston up, 35-3.
The weather matched the Bills’ effort to that point – dreary. It was barely above freezing, with a bone-chilling wind and enough rain to make the conditions as miserable as possible.
“It got to halftime, 28-3, I looked at my brother and said, ‘What do you think, do you want to go?’ He was pretty down in the dumps, I was pretty down in the dumps and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s get out of here,’ ” Lindsay said. “Immediately after halftime they picked off that pass and returned it for a touchdown. If I hadn’t left at halftime, I would have left at that point. It was so cold, and like I said, we were wet and miserable.
“I’m ashamed to say I left early, because I’m not typically that person. I don’t leave games early. If the weather was different, I probably wouldn’t have left that one.”
Lindsay returned to his Kenmore home, while his brother headed to the old Buffalo Sports Garden on Elmwood Avenue in North Buffalo. The bar was showing the game, albeit illegally.
Because it wasn’t sold out, NFL rules prohibited the game from being aired on local television.
“I believe that was back in the days before the NFL was really efficient in cracking down on that type of thing,” Lindsay said with a laugh. “When [the Bills] scored to make it 35-24, he came over and picked me up and we went over to the bar and watched the rest of it. It was a great scene, but obviously not the same as being in the stadium. Hugging strangers, people were on top of the bar. It was just completely wild.”
Leaving early ended up costing Chuck Weatherbee in more ways than one. The current Angola resident was at the game with a group of friends, but headed for the exits early in the second half. As they were walking out, one of Weatherbee’s friends told him they should stay.
“I told him, ‘If they come back, I’ll buy your season ticket next year.’ It was one of those things, you didn’t ever believe it was going to happen,” Weatherbee said. “It was a classic open mouth, insert foot moment.”
Weatherbee’s group tried to get back into the stadium as the comeback mounted, but were denied at the gates. They instead returned to the car for a memorable postgame tailgate party.
“Of course there’s some regrets. It’s a part of NFL history,” Weatherbee said. “My wife now, if we go to a game, I’m like, ‘I’m not leaving.’ I do not leave a game early. That was a lesson learned.”
Even for those who weren’t there to see it, the mere mention of the comeback game stirs special emotions.
Cheektowaga resident Jim Zaky attended every game as a season-ticket holder from 1989 to ’94, except this one. Zaky’s mother had passed away on New Year’s Day 1993, and he was at her wake.
During the afternoon, he slipped out to his car to check on the score of the game, and was disappointed to hear the Bills were trailing big.
“I came back in and went up to her casket and said, ‘Mom, you can’t let this happen to Frank [Reich].’ That was her favorite player,” Zaky wrote in an email. “Every time I’d say that, someone would come in to the funeral home and tell me about a positive play the Bills just made. The weird part was hearing Frank Reich saying in interviews after the game, ‘It was like there was something in the air that day.’
“I like to think it was my mom helping Frank and the Bills. Myself, watching game footage still 20 years later, fills me full of emotion.”
Flanagan, who drove up from his home in Erie, Pa., for the game, had a date with him. It was her first-ever football game. A little more than three months later, they went out again, this time to Stephanie’s first-ever hockey game.
Like the Comeback, “May Day” —when Brad May of the Sabres eliminated the Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with an overtime goal — is similarly carved into Buffalo sports lore.
“We probably should have stopped there,” Flanagan said. “It’s hard to top those two.”
The couple went on to get married a few years later – “After that karma, I had no choice,” Flanagan wrote to The News – and has two children, a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.
They’ve both been fully tortured by the Buffalo sports experience, Flanagan said, but they remain fans, believing that better days are ahead.
Days like Jan. 3, 1993.