For 37 years, Buffalo Bills games - preseason included – were Van Miller time.
But tonight the legendary radio voice of the Buffalo Bills will be sitting in front of his television in his Town of Tonawanda home like most fans to watch the team play its first preseason game against the New York Giants on NBC.
An interview with Miller was my final stop in a sports director retirement tour that started with Channel 7’s Rick Azar and continued with my new best friend, Channel 2’s Ed Kilgore.
Like Kilgore, Miller wasn’t always my biggest fan. But he has a great sense of humor about criticism. I vaguely remember that Miller once presented me with a razor, saying it was for all the cutting remarks made about him near the end of his Bills career.
To use a favorite Miller expression, “Do you believe?” it has been 10 years since he called his final Bills game? The Bills haven’t made the playoffs in those 10 years.
But the 86-year-old Miller is encouraged about this year’s team.
“I think this team will end it,” said Miller during an interview this week at the home he and his wife, Gloria, have lived in for 51 years. “They have a good coach and good players. They have good personnel. I love [Coach Doug] Marrone.”
It certainly would be a good time to end it, with the team for sale amid reports about rocker Jon Bon Jovi leading a Toronto group that may or may not want to keep the National Football League team here.
“I don’t put any credence to that right now,” said Miller, who was wearing Bills shorts. “I don’t think Bon Jovi would be the guy. I doubt that very much. I’m very confident that the team will be around for awhile.”
When Miller called Bills games, Gloria used to do the lineup cards for him on game day. Now he playfully calls her his chauffeur after 61 years of marriage.
She drove him to training camp at St. John Fisher College to see firsthand what this year’s team looks like.
Diagnosed with the eye disease macular degeneration, Miller can’t drive anymore. He needs a walker to get around his neighborhood at times. He fell a few times while adjusting to the walker, landing in the hospital for a few weeks in February. His distinctive voice, which has helped him get into six Halls of Fame, no longer is as strong as it once was.
“I don’t have that same verve, the same drive,” he said of his voice.
But then all of a sudden, Miller finds the energy to go back to the early 1990s and describe a fictional Bills touchdown to illustrate he still has it once in a while.
“He’s at the 40, down to the 35, down to the 35, 30, 20, 15, 10, 5, touchdown Bills,” Miller says playfully. “They are going to break that 14-year streak. They are doing to do it. It will be Fandemonium.”
He got even more animated when I suggested that former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley first coined the term “Fandemonium” and Miller elevated it.
“No, he did not,” protested Miller.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Talley used the word more than four years before Miller made it even more famous. After all, I didn’t need another razor.
Miller realizes he has slowed down, but adds he “feels wonderful.” Did he expect to feel this way at age 86?
“I had no idea what 86 would be like,” said Miller with a smile. “I am just doing the best I can.”
Besides his eye issues, Miller also has plantar fasciitis, a foot problem that hampered former Bills safety Jairus Byrd last season. Otherwise, his wife says he is fine and on very little medication.
“He’s 86 years old and still kicking,” said Gloria. “He’s got a lot to be grateful for and he’s done a lot over the years.”
He’s had a wonderful life, earning numerous honors, and reportedly once was kissed by actress Sandra Dee. (OK, she was 7 at the time).
Miller is getting another honor soon, one he feels he shouldn’t be getting. Miller will become the 29th person on the Bills Wall of Fame on Oct. 19 when the Bills play Minnesota. The list doesn’t include Miller’s favorite Bill, the late Cookie Gilchrist.
“It is a very nice honor,” said Gloria. “He does feel it should be for the football players. He’s very strong in that feeling.”
Miller, who already has a seating area named for him at the Ralph and is on the Wall committee, said he wanted kicker Steve Christie or linebacker Cornelius Bennett to be honored.
“I’m very flattered, elated and very thankful to the committee that voted me in,” added Miller of the honor.
Miller has strong memories of the past as the voice of the Bills and the Buffalo Braves of the National Basketball Association. He reflected on the deaths this year of Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and former Braves Coach Jack Ramsay, and the battle that former Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly is waging against cancer.
“I was very saddened,” said Miller of Wilson’s death. “He’s the guy that made the Bills the first major league team [here] 10 years before the Sabres and the Braves. No owner in this league spent more time with his team than Ralph C. Wilson Jr.”
Miller believes Wilson, who kept the team in a small market when more money was to be made elsewhere, was misunderstood by many fans.
“I think he was very misunderstood,” said Miller. “A lot of people criticized him, saying he was a cheapskate … Absolutely not. He insisted on keeping the team here.”
Miller said he keeps in touch with Kelly occasionally.
“He’s a tough old Irishman – or young Irishman,” said Miller.
Ramsay, who, the story goes, was once told by Miller when to insert Braves guard Randy Smith back in a game, died on April 28 at age 89.
“He was my favorite,” said Miller. “We took our tennis racquets everywhere. He was a decent tennis player, but I could beat him.”
Full disclosure: I also used to play against Miller on occasion, too. He usually whipped me as badly as the Patriots have whipped the Bills in recent years.
As I left his home, I joked that I wanted to play him again because I think I might be able to beat him now. We both laughed. At 86 – or any age – you have to believe laughter is the best medicine.