A cold and snowy Christmas Eve in Orchard Park. The wind howls as the lake effect snow forms drifts all around One Bills Drive. Late in the afternoon with the day’s short sunlight already retied for the day, two poor souls labor away in the executive offices.
Bob Catchit sits at his small desk, laboring away at the books under a bare light bulb. It is cold and Bob wears threadbare gloves as he works.
As Ralph Wilson enters, Bob jumps to his feet. “Hello, Mr. Wilson – Merry Christmas, sir”. “Bah, humbug – what right have you to be merry?” replies the old man. “Well sir”, replies Bob, “I’m going over the numbers from the Toronto game and I think you’ll be pleased. Even though almost nobody went to the game it was a sellout, so our take of the gate was very healthy. And then there’s the payment Rodgers made just to hold the game in Toronto. In all, a very good deal for the organization”. “And what do you know about money, Mr. Catchit? Why if you had the resources of this team you’d waste it on silly things like coaches and general managers – run this team right into the ground”. “Yes, sir, I probably would, sir”, replied Bob nervously.
“Sir? May I ask you to leave a bit early tonight? It’s Christmas Eve and I want to get home to my family” blurted out Bob. “Leave early, huh? I suppose you feel as if you’ve put in an honest day’s work for the money I pay you, huh? But here you are trying to short change me for your wages under the guise of some silly holiday. Away with you!”
Bob dashed out the door and old man Wilson retired to the leather chair behind his desk. Within minutes he was fast asleep, the only person left in the office. Suddenly the rattling of chains shook the owner out of his sleep and he awoke to see the ghostly, chained figure of original Tampa Bay Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse.
“Hugh! Oh how I’ve missed you since the early days. You were always one of the few people who understood what it was like to try and operate an NFL franchise in a smaller market. You always understood that in order to survive we have to keep costs down wherever possible. You understood that teams like ours couldn’t afford to pay exorbitant rates for coaches and front office staff, nor could we afford to pay market rates for star players. You were right to get rid of Steve Young and Doug Williams – they wanted too much money – why doesn’t anyone understand what it’s like to run a small market team?”
“Ralph-“ spoke the Culverhouse ghost, “I’ve come to warn you about my fate in the hopes that you do not end up like me. I was once a hero to the people of Tampa, but I rarely put a winner on the field. I hired bad coaches and made bad personnel decisions. My legacy is one of unwillingness to do what was required to win and now I must wear these chains as I walk through eternity – 1 link for each star player I let go, 1 link for each bad coach I hired, 1 link for each game lost, and 50 links for those god-awful Creamsicle uniforms with the gay pirate on them – what was I thinking?”.
The ghost continued. “Ralph, tonight you will be visited upon by 3 spirits of Christmas – go with them and heed their warning lest you end up like me”. With that the ghost vanished into the ether as Ralph Wilson struggled to awaken himself from what was obviously a dream.
As it was late and the weather was bad, Ralph could not make it back to Detroit, so he ended up at his WNY residence (address withheld so his lawn won’t be vandalized). The old man quickly donned his sleep robe and nightcap as the only people who still wear such things to be are in their 90s, and jumped into bed. After a short and restless period of sleep, Wilson awoke to the rumbling of a spirit who had entered his sleep chamber. “Who’s there? Is that you again, Marv? Look – I told you before – you’re not getting the coaching job – that’s a final decision”. A huge, shadowy figure emerged from the shadows. “Wait a minute – I remember you – you’re House Ballard! What are you doing here?”. “Mr. Wilson, take my hand – I need to show you a Christmas from your past”, replied the ghost.
Suddenly Wilson and the ghost found themselves at the home of Jim Kelly. Several Bills players were there – Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Darryl Talley – all partying after a tremendous win. Jim Kelly raised a glass and offered a toast, “To a great victory over Miami today – our 13th win of the season. Keep it up, men and we’ll be in the Super Bowl!” There was a great cheer and much merriment (actually, too much merriment, but such were the Bills teams of the early 1990s). Wilson stood watching and let out a big smile. “I remember that – what a win. Two weeks later we beat those damn fish again to go to the Super Bowl. What a team we had – the offense could score at will. We had a hall of fame quarterback in Jimbo, one of the best offensive lines in the history of the NFL, a defense lead by Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan and Daryl Tally – those were the days! The world was ours! The fans were so excited. Those were happy times – if only it could be like that again”.
Ralph Wilson basked in the glory of 1990 and let the warmth sweep over him as House Ballard brought him back to his bed – the old man continued to sleep with a smile on his face until a second ghostly figure appeared at his bedside. “Dick Jauron, what are you doing here? Look – I didn’t make the move to cut you – it was Russ – he made the decision! So, you’re a ghost now, huh? I’m sorry you’re dead, but you make a great looking ghost – it works for you”. “Actually, sir, I am a ghost, but I’m not dead – I always look like a corpse – it’s just my look. I look particularly corpse-like when I look like I’ve been beaten and outcoached – just look at my post game press conferences – you’ll see”, replied the ghost.
The ghost first took Wilson to his namesake stadium where he painfully watched Ryan Fitzpatrick throw 3 bad interceptions, the Patriots rack up 170 yards on the ground and the Bills blow another one-score game in the fourth quarter. Pats fans seemed to outnumber Bills fans in Orchard Park, and Bills fans held their heads low as they silently walked out to the lots after the game. Wilson felt a sick feeling in his stomach that was all too familiar – the feeling of losing.
Soon the ghost of Jauron lead Wilson to the team’s locker room. Although the game was another horrific loss, few if any players seemed to be downtrodden. In fact, some players seemed plenty happy that the game was over they had collected their game checks and were on their way home. “A few more games and we can go play golf”, said one player. Marshawn Lynch interrupted – “Golf? You got to be trippin’ Me and James (Hardy) gonna go shootin’ – gonna try the new gat. Where’s my grill? Who stole my grill? The fool who took my grill better run if he see me driving down the street in my SUV….” Wilson looked confused. “You mean the players don’t really care whether they win or lose? Why are Marshawn and James going shooting – didn’t Goodell tell them they had to stay away from firearms? This isn’t good at all”.
Jauron took Wilson by the arm again and soon the pair found themselves looking in on Wilson’s clerk Bob Catchit and his son, Tiny Jim. The Catchit family looked happy to be together to celebrate Christmas. Although their apartment was small and they only had a standard-def TV, the family embraced the spirit of the season. The young boy, Jim, was bent over and needed the use of a crutch to hobble around, but the lad didn’t complain. Although he had very little he began to question his father – “Dad, do you think Mr. Wilson made it safely back to Detroit tonight? I sure would hate to have anything happen to him”. Mother chimed in, “I don’t know why you care about that cheap bastard at all – just look at what he’s done to Buffalo and its fans! In the 10 years Tiny Jim’s been alive he hasn’t had any opportunity to stand tall as a Bills fan and celebrate true success! Look at him – he’s incapable of standing tall – he’s crippled”. Bob quickly cut his wife off, “Now dear, you know Mr. Wilson wants to win and bring a championship to the good people of WNY. Remember what Dick Jauron always said – it’s hard to win in the NFL. We should all be thankful that Buffalo has a team and that Ralph Wilson hasn’t up and moved it yet.”
Again Wilson looked surprised at what he saw. Turning to the ghost he said “you mean that poor little boy is hunched over because he can’t stand proud as a Bills fan?”. The Jauron ghost responded, “Yes, sir – that’s right – Tiny Jim is only 10 years old, but in that span the Bills have had no playoff appearances, and only 1 winning season – there’s really not much to stand tall about as a Bills fan”. “That’s terrible”, said Wilson, “the Buffalo Bills have the best fans in the world – every single fan should be proud to support our organization”.
Wilson was clearly bothered by what he had just seen as he tossed and turned in his bed. His restless slumber soon came to an end when the evening’s third spirit arrived. Standing at the foot of the bed was the ghostly figure of Jairus Byrd. “Wake Up, Mr. Wilson! Time to see the future!”.
As Ralph Wilson stood up he found himself looking at the Rodgers Centre and it’s big sign – “Home of the Toronto Blue Jays” and in very small type below, “and the Toronto Bills”. Wilson and the ghost entered the dome and found a half empty stadium watching a football game. The Detroit Lions were handily beating the Bills and the crowd didn’t seem to care – those in sporting attire seemed to favor Maple Leaf jerseys over the uniforms of the home football team. The team was quarterbacked by Brian Leaf, whose father had also once played football. In his fourth season, the quarterback continued to struggle as a starter but the team refused to give up on him – they had, afterall, traded back into the first round to draft him. The clock stopped and Wilson watched as the cart came onto the field to carry off another Bills offensive lineman. Indeed, the injury bug had struck the Bills – 4 games into the season and 13 players were already on IR. The Bills were painfully thin at a number of positions, but still had a few healthy defensive backs thanks to selecting four of them in the last draft.
Wilson was dismayed, “Why do we still not have a franchise quarterback? Why has the offensive line failed to gel yet? Why do we still suffer all the injuries? Jairus – why aren’t you out there playing?” The ghost turned and pointed an accusing finger to the owner’s box where Russ Brandon, Tom Modrak and John Guy were talking and casually watching the game. Brandon was excited about his new promotion with Wegman’s – the “enter to be this week’s left tackle” promotion. Guy and Modrak were busy talking about what division 2 college kids they could steal in the next draft and whether they really should give up a first round pick to bring in the 42 year-old Larry Fitzgerald to be the top receiver. Brandon liked the idea – he wasn’t sure if it would help on the field, but he knew it would sell jerseys. They lamented not signing Jairus Byrd to a contract beyond his rookie agreement, but come on, the guy wanted market value for his Pro Bowl skills so off to Minnesota he went in free agency.
Before Wilson could comprehend the ghost’s purple attire he was once again standing outside the home of Bob Catchit and his family. Bob and his wife were watching a lacrosse game on a very old, standard-def TV and cheering on Buffalo’s lone-remaining professional sport team. Tiny Jim was nowhere to be found. Wilson was amazed, “You mean Buffalo doesn’t have any professional sports teams left? But they had the greatest fans anywhere! Lacrosse? Where is Tiny Jim – why is he not here?” The ghost turned to Wilson and told him that Tiny Jim was alive, but he was now living in Boston. With his terrible back problems and the broken heart he suffered when the Bills left town, he sought medical help at the Mayo clinic. He was ordered by doctors to start rooting for a winning team, so he moved to Boston and became a Pats fan – after 3 Super Bowl wins in 4 years he was cured.
Wilson couldn’t believe it – the future was terrible! Toronto! Brain Leaf! Patriots fan! He sprang from his bed, determined to change the organization and its future.
Wilson sprang from his bed and to his window. He called to passersby below, wishing them a Merry Christmas and giving them Bills tickets. He ran into the street hailed a cab and went directly to One Bills Drive where he fired John Guy and Tom Modrak and demoted Russ Brandon to Grand Poobah of Marketing. He then called Mike Shanahan and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, signing him to a 4 year deal with an option for 3 more.
Still in his bedclothes and looking particularly silly (especially the long cap), Wilson drove to the home of Bob Catchit and knocked on the door. “Bob – Merry Christmas! I’ve got a great gift for you and your family – season tickets! Where’s that son of yours? I’ve got a signed jersey for him and a pledge that things are going to change!”. Tiny Jim hobbled into the room and was stunned to see Ralph Wilson in his pajamas (?) standing in the living room. “Son, I want to tell you that it’s time to stand tall as a Bills fan. I’ve been resistant to change for the past decade and my team has become a laughingstock at worst, irrelevant at best. I now know that I need to make major changes, even if that means getting rid of loyal employees who haven’t been able to get the job done. I’ve got to make bold and substantial changes and give the long suffering fan base the championship it deserves. Just please tell me you’ll continue to support the Bills – proudly, and that you’ll never abandon us to become a Patriots fan”. Tiny Jim looked up at Mr. Wilson with a tear in his eye and proudly proclaimed that he would be a Bills fan forevermore, and would rather die than become a Patriots supporter. For the first time in his life he felt genuine optimism and it allowed him to straighten his crooked back. The overjoyed lad seemed amazed at his new posture as he proudly exclaimed, “God bless us, everyone – except the New England Patriots – those guys are cheaters”.
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