The Snow Couldn’t Stop the Bills, and Neither Could the Jets

Tuesday November 25th, 2014

DETROIT — The day the storm hit, Jason Vrable left his home in Hamburg, N.Y., for the office in Orchard Park that has for him become a second home. Quality control coaches live at the bottom of the coaching hierarchy, and in Buffalo they show up for work by 6 a.m. and don’t leave until 10 p.m. most nights. Forecasts had called for a foot or two of snow, not seven feet. So Vrable, in the second year of his first NFL job, felt relatively comfortable leaving his 7-and-a-half-months pregnant wife, Jill, at home on Scooter Lane when he went into the office on Tuesday.

Thanks to something sinister and mysterious called the lake effect, southern parts of the Buffalo area, including Orchard Park and Hamburg, were buried by Tuesday night. Jason, 29, looked up from game-planning with the 13 other coaches in the office to see the parking lots transformed into an expanse of pristine white. He called Jill to say he’d be sleeping at the office, prompting Jill to post a Facebook status saying Jason was stuck at team headquarters. That night around 11 p.m., four men in hoodies and ski masks descended upon the Vrables’ home. Jill heard scraping out front and opened the door to three strangers and one familiar face: neighbor, friend and schoolteacher Paul Kurzel. Word had gotten around, and Paul and his friends were digging out the street’s elderly, women left alone, and now, Jill.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a year,” Jason says. “She called me and said, ‘Hey, you wont believe this, but a few guys came over and shoveled the driveway.’ ”

They dug out the furnace vent too, so the heat wouldn’t conk out. And when the snow piled up Wednesday and Jason remained snowed in, they dug her out again, and Paul’s wife brought over dinner and groceries.

Jason thanked him over the phone profusely. Said Paul: “Don’t worry about it man. Us neighbors in Buffalo stick together.”

 

* * *

Two days later, the Bills escaped snowbound Western New York for Detroit, chosen by the NFL to host what should have been a Bills home game against the Jets. They played Monday night instead of Sunday, and it was awkward and harried and beautiful. Buffalo showed up, filling the lower two levels of the stadium with red and blue jerseys, and you’ve never heard 50,000 people cheer harder for the national anthem. The prevailing sentiment: Nothing, not even a catastrophic amount of snow, gets between Americans and our football.

Mountains had to move for it to happen. On Thursday night at 9 p.m., team president Russ Brandon sent out the bat signal, calling on all staff to be ready for the United 767 charter that would leave for Detroit on Friday. Two staffers had just trudged down the street to the only local bar still serving beer and food when the call went out. They looked at their beers, downed them, and hit the trail. Director of equipment operations Jeff Mazurek’s staff worked around the clock on Thursday to prep for the trip, with no man sleeping more than two hours overnight at the team facility.

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“Everybody rallied,” Mazurek says, “It was an awesome experience, I just hope we never have to do it again. And the Lions were first-class all the way.”

Lions equipment manager Tim O’Neil’s staff assisted Buffalo’s move into the Detroit practice facility and with game-day operations, and the Lions' public relations staff put in a 16-hour workday Monday.

The biggest challenge, however, was preparing and mobilizing 53 Bills players who had been stuck in their homes for the most part from Monday to Thursday last week. Some veteran players and natives of northern climates were self-sufficient—defensive end Mario Williams, who's been living in Buffalo for three years, and kicker Dan Carpenter, a Nebraska native who went to college in Montana, dug out not only themselves out but a handful of neighbors too. Less-experienced teammates were reduced to awe and cabin fever.

“I opened the door Tuesday morning and the snow fell in, and it kind of freaked me out a little bit,” said safety Da'Norris Searcy, a Decatur, Ga. native. “I couldn’t even see across the street out of the window anymore.”

Cornerback Ron Brooks was driving home to Hamburg Monday night after a charity event when snow started coming down hard and he lost control of his pickup truck, sliding into a drainage ditch. Unable to back out, he called for a tow, then turned up the heat and fell asleep in his seat. He woke up hours later to tapping on the driver’s side window.

“The next thing I knew a police was knocking on my window,” says the Dallas-born Brooks. “He was like, ‘Are you okay?’ I guess he thought I passed out or something. It took five hours for the truck to come. We were pretty much in a state of disaster.”

Odd-couple buddies Anthony "Boobie" Dixon (6-1, 233-pound running back) and Seantrel Henderson  (6-8, 344-pound offensive tackle) hung out Monday night, with Dixon crashing at Henderson’s place south of the lake instead of his own apartment in a northern Buffalo neighborhood less hard-hit.

“We woke up Tuesday morning and we were stuck,” Dixon said. “I looked outside and got dizzy from all that white.”

Dixon took his adopted plight to heart—after blocking a Jets punt that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, Dixon found a broadcast camera and screamed “THIS IS FOR THE SOUTH SIDE!”

* * *

Buffalo made short work of the Jets, jumping out to a 14-3 halftime lead en route to a 38-3 victory that raised the Bills' record to 6-5 and kept them in contention for a playoff spot. Their inability to practice, which was supposed to have been a hindrance, actually seemed to work in the Bills' favor. So isolated were individual players from all distractions that they were able to focus entirely on game-plan presentations uploaded to their tablets by the coaching staff back in Orchard Park.

“I didn’t have anything to do,” said Searcy, who never shoveled his driveway and only saw the two teammates who are his neighbors during the storm. “I’m from the South. I’m not shoveling. My wife and daughter were already out of town, so it was just me and my dog in the house. All I did was watch film.

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“I got to look at so much [Jets] film that by the time we played the game, I could pretty much tell from their formation what they were going to do.”

Likewise, safety Duke Williams declined to venture outside to shovel: “I did make a snowman. That was cool.”

Williams too focused on the Jets, absorbing the game plan and participating in conference calls with the rest of the defensive backs.  Position coach Donnie Henderson, 57, unexpectedly video-phoned the second-year safety to see what he was doing on Thursday afternoon.

“Have you been watching film?” Henderson asked.

Williams held up his tablet so Henderson could see.

“I was like, ‘Here I go right here!’ ”

The discipline paid off: Duke Williams snagged his first career interception in the second half, after posing in a blitzing posture behind the defensive line, then sinking into a hook/curl zone, to Michael Vick’s chagrin.

“We were able to frustrate him all game with our disguises,” Williams says. “We use it against those quarterbacks who have difficulty reading the middle of the field.”

While Williams watched film and stared up at his roof hoping it wouldn’t cave in, Henderson and Dixon got into shenanigans. They went grocery shopping and dragged the goods back on a makeshift sled. #BoobieEskimo chilled champagne in snowbanks and did snow angels and cooked meals with Henderson in his apartment.

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“We had a blast, getting to know each other,” Dixon says. “We did a whole bunch of talking—shout-out to Big Trel for holding me down! We were just in there cooking chicken, having a good old time.”

All the while, staffers scrambled to reach the facility and coaches marooned in the Orchard Park headquarters drew up plans. They had one team chef, also stuck, and he fixed up what was left in the kitchen, including pizza and soup.

“You just watch the snowfall and grind,” Vrable says. “I was telling my dad it was a good time I’ll never forget, just being together and working on a game plan. The only bad part is worrying about your families, worrying about the power going out.”

Some players and coaches experienced outages, but for many, the worst is yet to come. Snow is expected to melt rapidly this week, posing the threat of flooded basements across south Buffalo. The weight of the snow bowed one staffer’s walls to the point where a shower curtain rod fell to the floor. Neighbors, he said, are clearing his roof in his absence.

On Friday, after the Bills departed for Detroit, the Kurzels invited all of Scooter Lane over for a potluck dinner. Jill decided if the snow melted enough by the weekend she and a friend would make the drive to Detroit to see the game. They ended up leaving Monday morning, hoping to catch the marauding football club from Western New York that wouldn’t be denied a shot at Win No. 6.

They made it, barely, and not without help.


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