Buffalo holds special place in Frank Reich's heart, just not on Saturday
Nothing will ever change the fact that on their birth certificate, Frank Reich’s two oldest of three daughters, Lia and Aviry, have Buffalo as their listed birthplace.
Both were born to Frank and his wife, Linda, when Reich was Jim Kelly’s backup on the great Buffalo Bills teams that won four consecutive AFC championships in the early 1990s.
“Obviously, it’s a special place for Linda and I and our family,” Reich said the other day.
Buffalo will always mean something to Reich, not only in terms of his immediate family but also the extended family he had, which consisted of a special group of teammates and coaches that were responsible for the golden age of Bills football, something Sean McDermott, Josh Allen and others hope to replicate in the years to come.
But Reich will undoubtedly put his deep feelings aside come Saturday afternoon in his return to the place of his greatest achievements as a player when he leads his Indianapolis Colts into Bills Stadium for a wildcard playoff game against the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills.
“This is a business trip,” said Reich. “Fortunately, I have been back to Buffalo a few times since (leaving in 1994) as a player and as a coach. I feel like I’ve gotten all of that out of my system. Love Buffalo, will always love Buffalo, will always be a Bills fan, except for this Saturday for sure.”
Reich spent the first 10 years of his NFL playing career with the Bills after the team picked him in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft. He sat on the bench his entire rookie season on a terrible 2-14 team, and just when he thought he might get a chance to compete for the starting job in training camp 1986, along came Kelly.
Kelly, the Bills’ first-round pick in 1983, had spurned Buffalo in favor of playing for Houston in the USFL, but when that rebel league folded, Kelly’s rights were still owned by the Bills and the two sides came to a contract agreement in August 1986. Any chance Reich had of starting was gone.
So, for the next nine years he dutifully served as Kelly’s backup and trusted confidant, and when he got the chance to play, Reich made every other reserve quarterback in the NFL blush.
He went 3-0 in 1989 when Kelly was out with a midseason injury, wins that proved critical when the Bills barely won the AFC East with a 9-7 record. In 1990, the first Super Bowl season, Reich replaced the injured Kelly early in a Week 15 game against the Giants and finished off a key victory, then started the following week and defeated Miami in the game that decided the AFC East title.
And then, of course, he saved his best for the 1992 playoffs. With Kelly again sidelined, the Bills fell behind 35-3 to Houston in the wildcard round before Reich orchestrated the greatest comeback in NFL history, the game that forever defined his career.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also led the Bills into Pittsburgh the next week and won a divisional round game before turning the reins back over to Kelly for the AFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Last Sunday when the Bills secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs – with Miami’s loss in that game paving the way for Reich’s Colts to get in as the seventh seed – it was the 28th anniversary of the comeback game. Yet as memorable a game as it was, it completely slipped Reich’s mind all these years later.
“Honestly, until the day before the game I didn’t even realize it,” Reich said of Indy’s 28-14 victory over Jacksonville. “Us coaches, we don’t know what day of the week it is or what the date is, we just know when we play and what the practice schedule is. It actually wasn’t until I was doing the production meeting with the TV crew and someone mentioned that did the thought even cross my mind.”
Reich may have forgotten it, but no one in Buffalo ever will. And while Bills fans will be rooting against Reich on Saturday, any other time he’s in town he may as well be royalty. Sort of like Kelly, in fact.
Reich was informed by a reporter who had reached out to Kelly for his thoughts on his old pal coming to town with the intent of breaking Buffalo’s collective heart, and Kelly was abundantly clear where his allegiances lay.
“You’re cutting me deep with that one,” Reich said with a laugh when told Kelly said he loved him, but he loved the Bills more. “I would expect nothing less. I love Jim as well, he is a brother to me. I truly understand his loyalties to the Bills and I greatly respect that.”
Current Bills quarterback Josh Allen doesn’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing franchise history. Of course, he has a connection with Kelly because he sees Kelly around the facility and has leaned on him for advice and mentorship. But Allen knows all about what Reich accomplished in Buffalo, too.
“It’s a cool moment with coach Reich and what he meant here in Buffalo,” Allen said. “I saw his press conference on coming back and you know he was excited that we won on Sunday, but he’s not gonna be a fan of the Bills when he comes into town this time. The fans obviously love him and what he’s been able to do here so that’s a cool story in itself.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.