Only one newspaper clipping is displayed on the wall of my dark office basement at home. It was framed and given to me a few years ago by a friend who had no idea the column was written during a period of transition in which I crossed over the line from Bills fan to newspaper reporter.
Yellowed by time but as clear as yesterday, the words jumped off the front page of the sports section after the Bills beat the Oilers, 41-38, capping the greatest comeback in NFL history. Larry Felser’s column was placed in its customary spot on the top-left side of Page One, also known as my starting point every day.
“An astonishing thing happened on the Bills’ way to the slaughter pen,” Felser wrote after that game. “The champions suddenly began to play like champions once again. The ax was turned against the executioner. … For anyone who saw Sunday’s game, it will remain one of the unforgettable moments in sport.”
It was vintage Larry Felser, who had an incredible knack for using just the right words in just the right way, a simple combination that
explained his opinion and didn’t require a thesaurus or a translator. He made sportswriting seem effortless and fun with his classic style. Looking back, that was his genius.
Twenty years later, and 20 years from now, the game and the man who gave us his perspective for a half-century will be remembered just the same. The Bills’ victory and the columnist who covered it were key components in Buffalo sports history, local treasures that withstood the test of time and met the measure of greatness.
Felser was an exceptional writer, of course, with a unique flair and an incredible memory. He had a sharp sense of humor and a sturdy backbone. He had a vast number of sources who trusted him because they knew he was a consummate professional. He could swing a heavy hammer when necessary, but it didn’t stop him from being a gentleman.
It’s all true, but to describe him so succinctly would be minimizing his career and grossly underestimating the intimate relationship he had with his hometown. He covered 35 Super Bowls and wrote thousands of columns over his 50 years in the business, yet his greatest gift can be described in three words:
He understood you.
And because he did, because he bled Buffalo, his connection to people was far easier to understand than it was to define. You knew what he meant when he said Western New York was an attitude more than anything else. He knew what people were thinking in the steel mills and corporate offices and school cafeterias and dinner tables.
Felser reached all of them at the same time. He tapped into our communal conscience and was the unquestioned authority, a voice of reason when it came to Buffalo sports. He was masterful in getting his message across, sometimes subtly and sometimes sternly, with the proper tone.
It was one reason he was a great columnist.
What kind of guy was Larry? He knew for months that Marv Levy had been diagnosed with prostate cancer but never reported it because he respected Levy and his privacy. He came from an era in which secrets were kept, a practice that sadly has gone out of style. And Felser would have done the same for Hank Bullough, for whom he had little respect.
Felser didn’t treat everyone the same, but he did treat everyone fairly while always keeping sports in proper perspective. It came through in his columns and was clear in his conversations. You knew he had the stomach to criticize an athlete, but was also sensitive enough to sympathize with him.
It was one reason he was a great person.
Felser was celebrated in Buffalo for his work, largely because readers grew accustomed to him addressing their concerns. He offered praise when worthy and criticism when warranted. Any sports figure who crossed him or disrespected him might as well start packing his bags. He was feared by some, revered by many – respected by all.
He never changed but, unfortunately, times did. Insight turned into incite, often in 140 characters or less. Every day became one of those opinionated days. The expediency of news today goes against what Felser did best. He thought through issues, looked at all angles and formed clear opinions.
When he died last week, he took a part of old-school journalism with him.
It’s a shame I never told him how much I respected him, how much he meant to my career and how much he changed my life, all just by watching him. He never knew my routine after school for years was getting off the bus, running to the mailbox, grabbing The Buffalo Evening News and fantasizing about having his job some day.
See, I didn’t just admire him. I wanted to be him. He made writing look easy and allowed kids like me to dream. He was one of the few people who ever made me nervous the first time we were introduced. This might seem odd, but it was weird for me to hear him say my name for the first time and acknowledge my existence.
Imagine what it was like working with him after hanging on his every word for so many years. It was like a kid growing up in 1950s New York and 10 years later finding himself in the same lineup with Mickey Mantle. Seeing our bylines in the newspaper on the same day for the first time was almost surreal.
Felser taught many young reporters numerous lessons over the years, including one about expense accounts. He would point to a bus and ask, “You know what that is?”
“No,” he would say. “It’s a $20 cab ride.”
(Note to News accounting department: Completely ignore the previous anecdote. It was just, you know, an example. Really.)
Felser didn’t simply allow guys like Bob DiCesare, Mark Gaughan, Mike Harrington and me, all of whom grew up reading him, into his world. He opened up doors and led the way. He and the late great hockey writer Jim Kelley were incredible that way. My primary goal when hanging around with them was not saying anything stupid.
One night in the Sabres press box in the late 1990s, while standing near a counter with coffee and other drinks, I asked Felser if he ever found the same brilliance and madness in an athlete that I found in Dominik Hasek.
“Juice,” he said.
No thanks, Larry.
Felser looked at me and smiled.
Oh. Ooooohhhh. Right. The Juice. I get it.
And he laughed in a way that people who knew him will never forget.
Part of what you’re reading today, by the way, is based on a collection of notes while wondering whatever happened to Marv Bateman. Eerily, the previous sentence was written on a smart phone while walking past my boyhood home and approaching my old bus stop. Felser was around my age now, 45, when he became a must-read for me.
Meeting him was a pleasure, but knowing him was an honor. Although he was never a schoolyard bully, he had a way of making the people around him stand a little taller and feel a little tougher. I can still remember him introducing me as his friend and quietly thinking, “Really? I’m friends with Larry Felser?” It was worth bragging about.
Yes, I wanted to be Larry Felser until I realized there never would be another columnist quite like him. He loved his family, a good meal, a good read and a football game. He was incredibly humble. After hearing him curse and crack jokes, it became clear that he never viewed himself the way everyone else did, as an icon.
He was just a Buffalo guy.
In fact, that was the best part about him.