CANTON, Ohio -- The Vince Lombardi Trophy never did make it there.
It teased. It flirted. It raised hopes. It became the stuff of wonderful dreams.
But that glistening piece of Tiffany-crafted hardware stayed away from Buffalo, N.Y. And for the longest time, that became the lasting memory of the Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the 1990s.
No trophy meant there was no success. No trophy meant there was nothing to celebrate. No trophy meant … a prevailing sense of emptiness for the Bills and for their fans.
During the ceremonies inducting the Class of 2009 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we were reminded of just how wrong that lasting memory of the Bills' Super Bowl era has been. In what clearly was, as ESPN's Chris Berman called it, "a Buffalo home game" at Fawcett Stadium -- with people wearing Bills jerseys and shirts clearly dominating the crowd of 12,695 -- there was a measure of success. There was something to celebrate. And there were hearts filled with pride and joy.
Other members of those great Bills teams have previously been honored here: coach Marv Levy, quarterback Jim Kelly, wide receiver James Lofton and running back Thurman Thomas. Those inductions, too, brought a strong Western New York presence to Canton -- especially Kelly's.
But the enshrinements of Wilson and Smith served as the crowning achievement for one of the greatest NFL teams that never won it all.
It's possible that the Hall will welcome other Bills from that sterling group, but I'm not holding my breath. Wide receiver Andre Reed has been a finalist in each of the last three years yet still looks as if he could be a longshot. Steve Tasker often is mentioned as someone who has been overlooked, but voters have long had a problem with admitting a special-teams standout -- even if he was the greatest one in league history.
You sensed it the moment that NFL Network's Rich Eisen, the master of ceremonies, said, "Since when did they move Buffalo to Canton, Ohio?" You sensed it during the deafening cheers after Eisen's introduction of Kelly, and his introduction of Thomas, and his introduction of Levy.
You sensed it during the crowd's acknowledgment of "Bruuuuuce!" when Smith took the stage and every other time his name was mentioned.
You sensed it during the long standing ovation when Wilson was introduced.
"It's as if everyone in Buffalo is being inducted into the Hall of Fame," said Berman, who served as Wilson's presenter and has always had as good a feel on the pulse of Buffalo's love for the Bills as any member of the national media.
Smith spent the final four seasons of his career with the Washington Redskins. It was during that time that, by registering 29 sacks, he was able to push his career sack total to 200 to become the NFL's all-time leader in that category.
Yet Smith understood that those four years were merely a brief stop on a journey that, for all intents and purposes, began and ended in Buffalo.
"In the annals of NFL history, the sum total of my career will forever be defined by the 15 years I spent playing for the Buffalo Bills," Smith said, drawing wild applause from the crowd. "And what a ride it was. Four consecutive AFC championships ... the potency of our no-huddle offense ... the greatest comeback in NFL history ... and the record-breaking attendance set by the greatest fans in the NFL."
Berman talked about Wilson's rock-solid reputation as a man of his word. Berman praised Wilson for being humble and selfless enough to loan the Oakland Raiders $400,000 to keep them from going out of business and likely keeping the American Football League from folding -- a fate that could very well have prevented the NFL from becoming what it is today.
The one moment that truly drove home the point that Saturday night was the last hurrah for the back-to-back-to-back-back Bills Super Bowl appearances was when Berman, during a video piece taped before the ceremony, said: "If and when the day comes that we no longer have Ralph Wilson with us, and that'll be a sad day, people will remember that he stood for football ahead of himself. It's not that he did it; it's that they did it."
Of course, Wilson, who doesn't move quite as swiftly or as gracefully as he once did, isn't planning on going anywhere soon. You get the distinct feeling that he has no intention of leaving this earth until after he finally can hold that Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"My luck prevails," Wilson said while wrapping up his speech. "And closing in on 91, I still feel that I have youth on my side."