The ’90s Bills recast as heroes in new documentary The Four Falls of Buffalo
Scott Norwood had rarely spoken on-camera about his experiences in Super Bowl XXV but producer Michelle Girardi Zumwalt figured she had three things going for her when it came to landing an interview with the former Buffalo Bills kicker: First, she was a fiercely loyal Buffaloian, born in University Heights and raised in Cheektowaga, and a huge Bills fan. Second, Norwood’s former position coach, Bruce DeHaven, had put in a good word for her. Finally, she was working for NFL Films and one of the last times Norwood had agreed to talk on-camera about his game-ending 47-yard missed field goal was with the late Steve Sabol for an NFL Films piece in 1999.
Norwood’s interviews, poignant and painful, are the emotional center of the terrific upcoming 30 For 30 documentary, The Four Falls of Buffalo, on the Super Bowl era Bills’ teams of the 1990s. The two-hour documentary airs Dec. 12 at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN immediately following the Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN and it’s one of the best 30 for 30 efforts of recent vintage.
Of course, I’m biased here.
I may not have been born a Buffaloian but I consider myself an adopted one. I spent my undergraduate days in the city and I started my professional career there ($10 per story from the Metro Community News). I’ve lived through lake-effect snow storms taller than Spud Webb, can pronounce Scajaquada (as in the Expressway) like a native, and I can recommend the best places in the city for chicken wings (Duff’s on Sheridan Drive). Most of all, I know the torment of what Bills fans feel from that decade because I lived through it. I’ve also always believed the Bills’ four-year Super Bowl stretch deserves better than the punch lines it endured in the 1990s. This was an all-time great team: The Bills were 14-2 against the NFC in the regular season during their four-year Super Bowl stretch.
“The Bills of the early 90s would always come up in my conversations with Steve,” said Ken Rodgers, the director of the film and also a coordinating producer for NFL Films. “He was fascinated by their perseverance. He thought it was superhuman. He may be right. It certainly goes against human nature to endure such heartbreak and keep coming back. I think their four-year run was only possible because they were isolated and protected by the fans of Buffalo. While the rest of the country just wanted them to go away, Buffalo fans never wavered in their belief that all their Super Bowl dreams would eventually come true. To paraphrase what Tim Russert says in the film, Bills fans believe that no matter how much snow there is or how bad outsiders make fun of them, their life is great, as are their Bills.”
The principles of that team appear throughout the film, led by the Hall of Famers—quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith, wide receiver Andre Reed, coach Marv Levy and former GM Bill Polian (Special teams ace Steve Tasker, who should be in the Hall of Fame, wide receiver Don Beebe and linebacker Darryl Talley also appear often). But it’s Norwood pathos and honesty that makes the film relate beyond diehard Bills fans. Girardi Zumwalt, who recently left NFL Films to work for Pegula Sports Entertainment in Buffalo, said she interviewed for the former kicker twice for the film. The first was a solo interview last February that lasted three hours. For the second interview, the filmmakers brought Norwood and DeHaven (now with the Panthers) back to Buffalo’s City Hall, the site of the most poignant moment of Scott’s career when 30,000 Bills fans came out to cheer him after the missed kick. (Norwood also spoke for the 2012 film which traverses this ground: Almost A Dynasty -- A Fan's Story)
“I think people might be surprised to learn how deeply he still loves Buffalo,” Girardi Zumwalt said. “His biggest regret is the role he played in this region having a ‘loser’ reputation. He’s a soft-spoken guy, but he was passionate in his insistence that Buffalo is a city of winners, no matter what anyone says. I honestly walked away with the impression that if he could somehow go back and make that kick go through, he wouldn’t do it for himself. He’d do it for Buffalo.
“Can you imagine the burden of having the worst moment of your otherwise solid career define the psyche of an entire region? It’s probably unrealistic to hope that people stop equating Scott Norwood with ‘wide right.’ But I hope this film can finally dispel the notion that he somehow choked. As confounding as it is that Buffalo couldn’t win a Super Bowl, especially that first one, it’s not Scott Norwood’s fault. He was just the last guy to touch the ball.”
How did the project come about? Two and a half years ago Rodgers was interviewing Kelly in Buffalo as part of the filming of the excellent 30 for 30 documentary Elway to Marino. At the end of the interview, Kelly told Rodgers that his group should make a doc on the Bills teams that went to the Super Bowl.
Rodgers loved the idea so in the summer of 2013, NFL Films brought the concept ESPN Films executives Connor Schell and John Dahl. They loved it, too. When Rodgers, Girardi Zumwalt, and NFL Films producer Chris Barlow got the green light from ESPN, the three of them met Kelly for breakfast in Buffalo and told him of our plans. He was excited to be involved. The very next morning, Rodgers said, Kelly was first diagnosed with jaw cancer.
“Jim battling through his cancer fight became part of the film because it so represented that team and how America has come around to support the Bills,” Rodgers said. “You'd be hard pressed for people to remember Super Bowl losers from any particular year, but ask them about the 1990s Bills and people's eyes light up. If we had made this film 15 years ago, it would have been about the biggest tragedy in the history of the game. Instead, with the passage of time, I think it's now a tale of epic heroism in the face of failure. If there's a way for a sports documentary to be heroically tragic, this is it.”
Rodgers said he hopes that people rediscover one of the most unique teams in the history of the NFL. (One aside: ESPN anchor Chris Berman, who often covered that team, appears at times in the doc and has some of his best on-air moments in years here. He cogently, and with no bombast, explains the appeal of the team. Well done to him.)
“It's been long overdue for America to forgive the 90s Bills for not winning a Super Bowl and instead recognize how incredible of a team they really were,” Rodgers said. “As more time passes and we see no teams coming close to repeating the feat, I think everyone is starting to understand how difficult it was to go to four straight Super Bowls. I think when you're done watching this film you're actively wishing that they could have won just one. Not out of pity, but because they truly deserved it for all they fought through.”
One of my favorite parts of the film is seeing Thomas and Smith sitting down on the couch and watching the Super Bowls together. Rodgers and Co. rented a house in Buffalo and shot with the two Hall of Famers for two hours. They wanted at least one player to watch the Super Bowls, something none of them has done in the 25 years since they played in those games, and Rodgers gave Thomas a lot of credit for watching and commenting on some of the toughest moments of his career (such as being on the bench for the Bills’ first two offensive plays of Super Bowl XXVI with a missing helmet).
Rodgers said Kelly was initially fearful of the title of the film because it sounded so dramatically negative on the surface. Eventually, Rodgers convinced him of the larger context. For the opening and some of the close of the film, they shot with Kelly for two hours on the American side of Niagara Falls State Park. “Believe it or not, it was the first time he had been there,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said he began the project with a filmmaker's passion for the story and grew to love the team and town.
“Is this a film about their four Super Bowl losses or about a great team that did something no other team may ever do again?” Rodgers said. “The truth is, it's both. Theirs is a complicated story.”
THE NOISE REPORT
1. The broadcast team of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Heather Cox will call one of the college football semifinals. Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe will call the other game. ESPN officials said that the crews for all the games will be informed on Monday of the assignments.
1a. Sports Business Daily reported that ESPN drew a 0.9 overnight for the CFP Rankings Show on Sunday, down 44% from a 1.6 overnight for the inaugural show last year, which had far more drama regarding the top four teams.
2. ESPN said UConn’s win over Notre Dame on Saturday tied for the highest-ever overnight rating for a regular-season women’s college basketball game across ESPN networks with a 1.5. ESPN’s coverage of Stanford breaking UConn’s 90-game win streak on Dec. 30, 2010 on ESPN2 also drew that rating and 1.2 million viewers.
3.. Episode No. 32 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Deadspin staff writer Diana Moskovitz, who specializes in the nexus of criminality and athletics, and has been with that site since 2014. Prior to working at Deadspin, Moskovitz was a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald for nearly eight years. She also worked briefly for NFL.com.
In this episode, Moskovitz goes in-depth about her story that details Cowboys lineman Greg Hardy assaulting his then-girlfriend Nicole Holder. Moskovitz discusses her extensive reporting, how she decided on the narrative for that piece, how the photos ended up in Deadspin’s hands and more. She also goes broader on why she’s interested in crime and sports, how working at the Miami Herald and reading journalism in South Florida prepared her for her current job, what advantages and disadvantages she has working at Deadspin, her thoughts on former Gawker editor Tommy Craggs (who hired her) resigning from that outlet, her love for FS1’s Katie Nolan, what she hopes to cover in the future and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Michele Tafoya will work her 200th game on an NFL sideline next week when NBC’s Sunday Night Football airs the Patriots at Texans on Dec. 13. On Sunday I profiled her work.
5. Fox NFL Insider Jay Glazer has been working to connect former NFL players with military veterans to help them deal with the aftereffects of combat and stateside isolation. Here’s a clip on his program, titled M.V.P. (Merging Vets & Players).
5a. HBO Sports will be chronicling the Gonzaga men's basketball this season, according to the network. It will air in 2016.
5b. HBO Sports said Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel averaged 3.1 million viewers in 2015, up 19% from 2014. The show has presented 224 episodes to date and featured 21 correspondents including Gumbel.
5c. MLB Network’s documentary series MLB Network Presents has a piece debuting Thursday at 8 p.m. ET titled Royal in Kansas City, 30 Years Later. The doc includes exclusive footage detailing the bond between the Royals and the Kansas City Fire department, following the tragic deaths of two Kansas City firefighters during the Royals’ championship run.
5d. SBJ’s Austin Karp reported that ESPN drew a 0.4 overnight for Portland’s win over Columbus in the MLS Cup, marking what will likely be the least-viewed MLS Cup ever. The previous low for viewership was for Sporting KC-Real Salt Lake in 2013, which drew a 0.5 overnight.
5d. Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com examined the year in MLS television coverage.