Buffalo Bills players remember the prank played on special teams ace Steve Tasker after his spectacular kickoff return during the team’s come-from-behind 29-23 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1994 divisional playoffs.
That same day, team officials recall that the press box windows were so clouded by condensation that the team bought some deicer and used a large squeegee to repeatedly clear off the 10-foot-high windows.
And many fans probably remember that the win sent the Bills to the AFC Championship Game, just one win away from their fourth straight Super Bowl appearance.
But the game, played 20 years ago today, on Jan. 15, 1994, found its way into the team’s record book for another reason:
The temperature was zero degrees, making it the coldest Bills game ever. The wind-chill temperature supposedly was 32 degrees below zero, although that formula has changed since then.
Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas liked playing without long sleeves under his jersey. But not for that game.
“I never really let cold weather affect me,” Thomas remembered. “But I remember it being very, very cold.”
Here’s some evidence:
• The Bills training staff couldn’t fill cups with water and Gatorade for the players. It froze too quickly.
• Two top-notch National Football League kickers combined to miss three of seven extra points.
• And perhaps the team’s most loyal fan, who missed only one home game in the Bills’ first half-century, remembers thinking the left side of his face was going to fall off as he walked toward the stadium.
It never snowed that day, and the sun even came out in the second half. It wasn’t cold enough for anyone to take a bite out of his coffee – the famous line from the NFL’s coldest game ever, the Ice Bowl on Dec. 31, 1967, in Green Bay, when it was -13 degrees.
But try standing outside for three hours in zero-degree temperatures, especially for coaches who couldn’t work up a sweat.
Former head coach Marv Levy is a storyteller, and his most vivid memory of the game is from shortly before the opening kickoff.
For years, Levy had regaled his troops with his historical and military stories, often quoting Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. One of those sayings was from a World War I commander.
So shortly before the game, linebacker Darryl Talley asked Levy whether he could address the team. Talley then delivered that line to his teammates, straight from his coach’s playbook of war stories: “When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”
Sure, it was limb-numbingly cold that day. But it was just as cold for the Raiders, and they came here from Los Angeles.
“Our players sort of reveled in playing in bad-weather games,” Levy recalled last week.
That was part of the team’s resilient psyche, sculpted by Levy, its ability to stare down adversity during tough times. You need those intangibles when you win four straight AFC championships.
As uncomfortable as it may have been, the Bills grew to view the cold weather games as part of the team’s home-field advantage.
“You live in it, you take your kids to school in it, and you practice in it,” said Bills kicker Steve Christie, who faced his own adversity that day. “It gave us a real advantage.”
The Bills public relations staff has put together a list of the team’s 10 coldest games ever, and, oddly enough, half those games were played away from Orchard Park. But the four coldest were played here. No other Bills game has come within 9 degrees of the January 1994 game.
Here are other anecdotes from that game:
The kickoff return
Just after the Raiders had taken a 3-0 lead in the second quarter, they kicked off to the Bills. Tasker, the Bills special teams star, remembered an earlier bad-weather game, when Raiders kicker Jeff Jaeger had slipped and fallen while kicking off. So Tasker readied himself for it to happen again.
Sure enough, it did. Standing just outside the Bills 30-yard line, he made a catch of the botched line-drive kick.
“It knuckled in the air and dropped, and I caught it off my left shoulder,” he recalled. “Luckily, I didn’t bobble it. I caught it clean and took off running.”
Once Tasker passed the first wave of Raiders, Jaeger appeared to be the only man to beat.
“I thought I was pretty fast,” Tasker said of his playing days.
But Tasker was run down and caught by a Raider who had a good angle on him. He was pushed out of bounds inside the 1-yard-line, following a 67-yard return. The Bills scored on the next play, a 1-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Davis. Observers called the runback the turning point of the victory that included two touchdown passes from Jim Kelly.
A straight-faced Bud Carpenter, then the team’s assistant athletic trainer, told Tasker he had been run down by Dan Turk, an offensive lineman and long snapper.
“I was like, ‘Dan Turk? You’re kidding me,’ ” Tasker said.
“Yeah, Dan Turk got you,” Carpenter replied.
Tasker later learned he had been run down by wide receiver Willie Gault, a sprinter and high hurdler who had made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
Jim Nydahl, from Kenmore, missed only one Bills home game in the team’s first 50 seasons. But he had second thoughts that day, while heading into Orchard Park’s version of the Ice Bowl.
“The wind was coming straight off the lake, right at my face,” the 62-year-old said Tuesday. “I just remember walking up Abbott Road and thinking that the left side of my face was going to fall off. I remember thinking this was a mistake, the stupidest thing I had ever done.”
Like other fans quoted about that day, Nydahl thought it was much more bearable inside the stadium. He wore six layers on top, along with a neck warmer. So only his face was exposed to those negative wind-chill temperatures.
“My cheeks were the coldest thing,” he said. “I thought for sure I was going to get frostbite.”
Another fan, Glenn Gaviller, now 56, of Newfane, remembered that he didn’t have to put any ice in his tailgating cooler that day.
But he doesn’t remember being too cold. “I think when the Bills are winning, it doesn’t feel as cold,” he said.
A blatant attempt to get on NBC led one fan’s sign to read “Never Been Colder.” The guy holding it wore no shirt.
One fan held up a large round thermometer, with a reading of about 6 to 7 degrees. Another sign read “Brr-rrr-uce,” for defensive end Bruce Smith.
And one fan attempted poetry, with a bit of hyperbole: “30 Below with 4 Feet of Snow, LA’s Season Ends in Buffalo.”
The kicking game
During the January 1994 playoff game here, Christie and Jaeger, both accomplished kickers, made only four of seven extra points. One was blocked, another sailed wide right, and the third hit the left upright.
And on Tasker’s dramatic kickoff return, Jaeger couldn’t keep his footing.
Blame it on the weather.
When the temperature dips to zero, kickers say the football becomes a brick or even a cinder block, compared to usual.
“It was like kicking a brick,” Christie recalled. “You had no touch on the ball. No control or feel for the ball. You’re just swinging at it.”
The press box was packed with reporters eager to see whether the Bills could make a fourth Super Bowl run.
The problem was that both fog and condensation made it extremely difficult to see the field.
So Scott Berchtold, the Bills senior vice president of communications, sent an intern to the store to buy cans of deicer, which helped but didn’t solve the problem. The better fix was to have one worker use a large squeegee on the huge press box window, from top to bottom. The problem was so bad that once he reached one end, he had to go back and start all over again.
“He was the MVP that day, as far as the media was concerned,” Berchtold said.
Nydahl remembers only one play from that game, Tasker’s catch. But he also recalls how he felt leaving the stadium, one week before the Bills clinched their fourth straight Super Bowl appearance.
“I was thinking this was our year,” he said. “We were riding the wave, and you wanted to ride that wave as long as you could.
“I thought they couldn’t lose four in a row.”