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After leaving 1107 Hope Street and Stamford, Connecticut, behind, my grandfather lived the final 15 years of his life in Rochester, New York, where I grew up.
And the cutest thing happened: This placid, skinny 80-year-old man became a football fan.
Those years — we’re mainly talking late ’80s through late ’90s — were halcyon times for the Buffalo Bills, who by some combination of intelligence and magic molded themselves into one of the league’s toughest teams.
(What’s that you say? Do I know what “BILLS” stands for? Yeah, I’ve heard that one. Go play in traffic.)
I’m still not entirely sure what turned my grandpa into a Bills fan. Maybe he saw it as a way to find common ground and start conversations with the shivering, Genny Cream-fueled masses of Monroe County. It’s not easy to uproot yourself at an advanced age, after all, and anything that makes a new hometown more homey is welcome.
I do know that, when Doug Flutie came to Buffalo, my grandpa was particularly charmed by his story. He delighted in talking about what the little guy had done the previous Sunday, especially when Flutie had engineered one of his fourth-quarter comebacks. (Thankfully, my grandfather did not live to see the J.P. Losman years, which were enough to make the living envy the dead.)
At any rate, it was kind of endearing to go over to my grandparents’ house and hear my grandfather enthusiastically hold forth on the Bills’ latest effort.
I was never much of a Bills fan as a teenager. But I’ve become one since I left WNY, and I think my grandfather’s interest contributed a little to that. It’s almost like I feel a desire to stay updated on the team for him, since he’s not around to do it himself.
None of the above rambling explains this week’s calendar entry:
I have no indication that my grandpa was a football fan before he moved to western New York in the mid-’80s. So I have no idea why a football score from 1971 — from a pre-season game, no less — would be considered worthy of noting on his calendar. I am 99.44 percent sure (like, Ivory Soap sure) he would not have attended in person.
I can think of a couple reasons why this game might have been important to my grandfather, but they’re all supposition:
* New Haven was a city my grandparents sometimes went to for big occasions like birthday or anniversary dinners. So maybe an NFL game there was redolent enough of the Big Time for my grandpa to put it on his calendar.
That being said, the Giants played regular-season games — games that actually counted — in the Yale Bowl in 1973 and ’74, after they got kicked out of Yankee Stadium and before Giants Stadium was ready. None of the results of those games made it onto my grandfather’s calendar; nor did he suddenly develop a fandom for Big Blue when they moved to New Haven. So maybe his interest was based entirely on the novelty of the first game.
* My Aunt Elaine was apparently in New Haven that day on undisclosed business. If she attended the game, perhaps that would have piqued my grandfather’s interest in it. I don’t think she had any more interest in football than my grandpa did, though. So I’m guessing she wasn’t at the game.
* This game appears to have been the first head-to-head matchup between the two teams that have fought since 1960 for the allegiance of the Tri-State Area. (The Interwebs tell me that the first regular-season Jets-Giants game occurred in New Haven in 1974, with the Jets winning.) So maybe my grandfather was seduced by first-time-ever hype to take notice of the game.
One major figure was missing from the Aug. 22 game. Flamboyant Jets quarterback Joe Namath suffered a serious knee injury a few weeks earlier in the team’s first preseason game, against Detroit, and missed most of the rest of the 1971-72 season.
Of course, stars rarely see much playing time in preseason games. Still, the absence of Namath meant one less thing to draw a casual fan like my grandpa into the Giants-Jets game.
About 15 years of my grandpa’s calendars (1961 to 1975) are still in the family collection. And, based on my month-by-month review, only two football scores ever made the grade for inclusion on his calendars.
The Aug. 22, 1971, preseason game is one. This legendary game is the other:
This, of course, was Super Bowl III, the famous game in which brash young Namath promised a victory for the underdog Jets against the entrenched Baltimore Colts.
Joe Willie didn’t exactly light up the skies — his team managed only one touchdown and three field goals — but the Jets’ fierce defense ensured a 16-7 win. (No one remembers Randy Beverly, but he did as much as Namath did to win that game.)
I would have guessed that my grandfather would feel a much stronger kinship with the Colts’ Johnny Unitas — a crew-cut, high-topped organization man — than with the shaggy-haired playboy Namath. Again, I’m guessing that the pre-game hype drew him in, and the game itself delivered enough drama and tension to keep even a non-fan interested.
Incidentally, if you ever want a time trip to the Sixties, run a Google search for “Les Shaw’s New Haven.” A number of postcards still circulate showing the building’s exterior and main dining room. They pop up on eBay from time to time, and offer a great view of what a long-running locally owned fancy-night restaurant looked like back then.
If science perfects a time machine in my lifetime, I will go back to January 1969 and secretly reserve the table next to my grandparents and aunt at Les Shaw’s. I will order a big American steak, with a baked potato on the side, and a few Old Overholts to wash it down with. And I will smoke unfiltered cigarettes the entire time I’m eating.
And when I’m done, I will leave a generous tip worthy of Sinatra himself, and then travel directly back to 2011, without passing Go or collecting $200.
I lived through the J.P. Losman years once; only a fool would do that twice.