Twenty-five years have passed, yet when his memories uproot him from his perfectly pleasant existence as a Phoenix-based salesman and send him back to a darker, windier, colder place, Bruce Mathison still feels the chill.
"The cold of Buffalo," says Mathison, "can kill a man."
Back in 1985, Mathison -- like Shawne Merriman earlier this year -- was under the impression that he was a San Diego Charger. He had spent the previous two seasons as one of Dan Fouts' backup quarterbacks, relatively happy to stand alongside the sunny sidelines of Jack Murphy Stadium, kicking back and watching a legend perfect his craft. "There was nothing not to love," says Mathison, who had been drafted by the Chargers out of Nebraska in 1983. "The weather was always at least 70, the beach was nearby, you wore shorts and a T-shirt all the time. Being a Charger was pretty wonderful."
Then -- hell.
On September 5, 1985, the Chargers released a shellshocked Mathison, keeping Mark Herrmann instead. Four days after that, he was signed as a free agent. By Buffalo.
"San Diego and Buffalo are pretty much the same," says Mathison, laughing. "I'm sure Shawne will barely pick up the differences."
"Like the culture," says Mathison. "And the people. And the food. And the weather. Otherwise, they're like twin cities."
As Merriman will surely notice when he reports to his new team today, Buffalo plus fall/winter equals cold. Like, a-freezier-inside-a-freezer-inside-Yellowknife, Canada cold. When Mathison arrived in town, he came armed with a couple of pairs of shorts and a toothbrush. After all, he figured it was only early September. How bad could conditions be? "It was rainy, drizzly, dark, nasty," says Mathison. "The sky was all gray, and when it started snowing -- really snowing -- I was pretty worried. Try throwing a football in 80-degree temperatures with a sunny sky and no breeze. Now try doing the same thing in a blizzard."
That year the Bills finished 2-14, with Mathison tossing four touchdowns and 14 interceptions in seven starts (he was released after the season). This season the Bills are 0-7 and, even with a hopefully rejuvenated Merriman, will be fortunate to snag two victories. Buffalo is near the bottom of the league in nearly all major offensive and defensive categories, and in first-year coach Chan Gailey the franchise managed to find a leader who -- dating back to his time with the Dallas Cowboys -- nobody seems to listen to.
Not that Merriman should feel down. Four years removed from testing positive for a banned substance and three years removed from his last productive season, he is a man fortunate to still be playing.
Plus, what Buffalo lacks in surf and fish tacos, it makes up for in other things. Like, uh, chicken wings. Niagara Falls. Bars that stay open until 4 a.m. Frankie Valli with The Four Seasons playing Sheas Performing Arts Center on Nov. 12. Buffalo is birthplace to such celebrities as Brian McKnight, Chad Michael Murray, Beverly Johnson and Nancy La Scala -- an actress so famous I have never heard of her. There is a restaurant, Ms Goodies, that is very tasty, and Greg Kuppinger, the world's most famous sandpaper artist, owns a studio in town.
"We have a lot to offer Shawne," said David Franczyk, president of Buffalo's common council. "If he likes skiing or making snowmen or throwing snowballs, it's a winter wonderland here. California is nice, but there are no seasons.
"Here, we have seasons. He'll see."
He sure will.