Like so many Bills fans, Jim Brenner inherited the love from his father. Bob Brenner was a football man through and through, a former high school star who played on the freshman team at Syracuse before World War II and was an original Bills season-ticket holder in 1960.
Jim swears he watched games before he could walk. The entire family would gather around the TV at the house on Fairchild Drive in Amherst to watch games. You lived and died with those teams, and the affair lasted a lifetime.
“I went to War Memorial Stadium,” said Jim, 55. “Those were the days when there were no nets behind the goal posts. Kids would go crazy for the footballs when they kicked the extra point.
“I was 7 or 8 when they competed for the AFL title in ’64 and ’65,” he said. “I remember Elbert Dubenion, Jim Dunaway, Tom Sestak, all the big names. Lou Saban. ‘Lookie, Lookie, there goes Cookie,’ all that stuff. I wanted to be a football player when I was that age. Oh, yeah. I would have loved to have done that.”
Brenner, who was a star swimmer at Amherst High and swam at the University at Buffalo, left town in 1987 for San Diego, where he spent nine years as a Marine lawyer. He married Eileen Malilk, a fellow Marine and former college basketball player. Their only child, Sam, was born in 1990 – the first year the Bills made the Super Bowl.
Jim came home for Christmas that year and was at Rich Stadium when the Bills beat the Dolphins to clinch the AFC East title with Frank Reich. It was a pretty sweet moment for a guy who had suffered through 20 straight losses to the hated Dolphins as a kid in the 1970s. Don’t even talk to him about Super Bowl XXV.
“I always thought I would move back,” he said. “My family is here. All my pals are here. I got divorced. Sam was 3 at the time. He was my only kid, and the only child his mother has had. I thought, ‘If I leave, I’m going to see a lot less of him.’ I couldn’t leave. We’ve had split custody since he was 3.”
On weekends in the fall, that meant football. Jim began taking Sam to San Diego State games when Sam was 3 years old. They watched his beloved Bills, too. Like any transplanted Bills lover, Jim watched every game on TV. He has the NFL package and says he never missed a Bills snap in 30 years – until circumstances pulled him away this season.
You see, Sam got the football gene from his late grandfather. Sam became one of the top offensive linemen in Oceanside, Calif. He played college ball at the University of Utah, where he allowed just one sack as a guard and tackle last season and was an all-Pac 12 Conference second-team selection.
And today at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Jim and Sam will both attend a Bills home game for the first time. Sam will be starting at left guard for the Dolphins.
It’s strange how these things work out. Despite his credentials at Utah, Sam Brenner wasn’t drafted last spring. He signed with the Dolphins as a free agent after the draft. He was bitterly disappointed at the time.
“I was, actually,” Brenner said. “It was a frustrating thing for me. A lot people say I’m undersized for my position, so I think that was a knock against me. But I don’t worry about things like that. It’s how you play the game and how you approach it mentally, in your technique and things, that makes the biggest difference.”
Brenner, who is 6-foot-2, 301 pounds, wasn’t given much chance of making the team. But he impressed Jim Turner, the offensive line coach, and he caught the eye of Miami head coach Joe Philbin. The Dolphins cut him late in camp on Aug. 30, but put him on their practice squad two days later.
He did well. But Brenner would probably still be on the practice squad if not for an ugly quirk of fate that shook the Dolphins and the football world. Early in November, tackle Jonathan Martin left the team, claiming he had been hazed by teammates. Left guard Richie Incognito was suspended for allegedly bullying Martin.
Suddenly, the Dolphins were in disarray. The character and leadership of the players were in question. Reporters descended on the team. The NFL hired an independent investigator to interview the players. The Dolphins lost on Monday night to a winless Tampa Bay team. National critics wondered if they might lose the rest of their games.
Oh, two of their starting offensive linemen were gone, too. Then center Mike Pouncey fell ill, leaving them three men down. On Nov. 16, the Dolphins elevated Brenner to the active roster. The next day, he started at left guard against the Chargers – the home team he had rooted for as a kid (yes, despite Jim pushing Buffalo).
“Yeah, it’s been a crazy turn of events that led to me starting,” Brenner said. “But I’m taking the experience as it comes and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
He wasn’t wild about speaking with Ted Wells, the independent investigator. An offensive line is a tight-knit group. Sam, who is known for his impersonations of wrestler Ric Flair, is one of the most gregarious linemen on the team. It was an uneasy feeling, having to discuss the group’s inner workings with a stranger.
“I know Sam personally likes Incognito a lot,” Jim Brenner said. “As near as I can tell, the whole locker room does.”
“It was tough,” Sam said. “It was a tough thing for everybody on the team, I think. But we’ve kind of moved past that and we’re just focusing on the games that we’ve got and trying to take it into the postseason.”
The Dolphins didn’t go to pieces, after all. They came together after the Martin-Incognito imbroglio. They won four of five, the only loss coming in the final minute against a hot Carolina team. At 8-6, Miami is tied with Baltimore for the final AFC playoff spot, though the Ravens own the tiebreaker having beaten the Fish head-to-head.
Despite the upheaval on the line, Miami’s offense got better. Over the last five games, the offense is up overall by a whopping 71 yards a game. Sacks are down by more than one a game. Scoring is up. The average rush is up more than half a yard. It’s as if the offensive linemen decided to show the world that they had a more powerful bond that anyone ever imagined.
“Yeah, that was definitely a huge part of it,” Brenner said. “We said all this stuff going on is crazy, but we’re going to come together and improve, and not let these outside things affect us. I think the whole team had that mindset, not just the offensive linemen.”
It has to help when you’re the son of two Marines. As a Marine lawyer – a “judge advocate” – Jim was asked to both prosecute and defend Marines, depending on the situation. Sam’s mom was a logistics officer in the Marines and served a tour of duty in Kuwait.
“That’s a huge part of it, I think,” Sam said. “The way I was raised by both of them instilled a lot of mental toughness in me, just an ability to handle things and not get too upset about stuff. They learned those lessons in the Marine Corps, and they definitely passed them on to me.”
Jim Brenner couldn’t be any prouder.
“The whole thing is blowing me away,” he said. “I know he’s a tough kid. He has great technique and tons of heart. I don’t think he’s as quick as some guys.”
Sam was quick to seize his opportunity. He started two games at guard when Pouncey was ill, then went back to the bench. Jim, who had seen him play an NFL game in person for the first time against Carolina, figured Sam wouldn’t play much at Pittsburgh. But Sam said he was expected to alternate at left guard with Nate Garner, a six-year veteran.
So Jim and his brother Ted, a deputy district attorney in Niagara County, drove to Pittsburgh for the game two weeks ago. Sam wound up playing the entire second half as Miami won 34-28, its highest-scoring game of the year. Last week, Sam started and played the whole game as the Dolphins stunned the Patriots, putting the playoffs in sight.
“I love the fact he’s part of something where they have a shot,” Jim said. “That game against New England might have been the biggest game for Miami in years. I texted him after the win, ‘You’re a part of something special’.”
Bob Brenner Sr., who died in 1979, would surely agree. Sam never got to know his paternal grandfather. He did know his grandmother, Dorothy Brenner, who died in 2002. More athletic genes: Her father, George L. Redlein, played for the old Buffalo Germans, one of eight entire teams enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Sam has a tattoo of his grandparents on his left arm. “It’s a picture from 1951, when they were at my dad’s sister’s wedding,” Jim said. “These kids today with their tattoos. It’s from a nice picture that’s in our house.”
Jim was sitting in his childhood home on Fairchild Drive as he spoke. Most of the family still live in the area. His brothers (Bob, Ted and Mike) and sister, Janet, are all big Bills fans. There will be around 20 family and friends at the game today, cheering for, uh, uh ...
“I’ve never rooted against the Bills,” Jim said, “Never. But honestly, I am now. I want the Dolphins. I was a little ambivalent when he was on the practice squad. But not now. I’m wearing a Dolphins cap right now. I hated them! They beat the Bills 20 straight times in the ’70s!”
It’s almost 23 years to the day (Dec. 23, 1990) that Reich led the Bills over Dan Marino and the Dolphins for the AFC East title. Fans tore down the goal posts that day. Jim Brenner was there; he recalls it fondly. He had a new baby boy. His Bills were going to their first Super Bowl. In the end, family wins out.
Today, he’ll wear his Miami cap and root for the team that tormented him as a young man. Sam appreciates it, though it does raise some obvious concerns.
“I know what happens up there,” Sam said. “I’m just worried that his own friends won’t beat him up, because he’s been a Bills fan since before I was born. He’s going into hostile territory, wearing the wrong colors.”