Remembering Russert: Bills had a special place in journalist's life

It wasn't an act. It wasn't any sort of shtick or gimmick or even the remotest attempt to attach himself to something that would make him look, sound, or seem more genuine than the rest of those who inhabited his working world of national politics.

Tim Russert truly loved the Buffalo Bills.

Loved them because they were his hometown team. Loved them because they were an integral part of his earliest and fondest childhood memories. Loved them because of the bond they helped create between him and his father, the subject of his bestselling book, "Big Russ & Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life." Loved them because of the direct and unbreakable link between his heart and their fortunes.

When I heard the shocking news that his heart had suddenly stopped beating on Friday, I, like others who call Buffalo home, immediately thought about the connection between Russert and the Bills.

The Bills had no greater national cheerleader. Sure, Chris Berman qualifies as an ardent supporter, and, whenever possible, he reminds his ESPN audience that "no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills."

But Russert was the embodiment of what it meant to bleed Bills red, white, and blue. He was a Buffalo guy, so proud of his Irish-Catholic roots in South Buffalo and so proud to call himself a fan of the Bills.

Russert had followed them from their early days at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium, a.k.a. the old Rockpile, and never stopped. Through good times and bad, the Bills remained a part of his DNA. He wore his Bills jersey, just as countless other fans did, to games and other places -- including Woodstock, to where he and some Buffalo friends traveled with the intention of throwing around a football and drinking some Genesee beer while listening to the music. What they found when they got there was an atmosphere not quite as conducive to tailgating as they had envisioned.

Before each of the Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, Russert would make a point of ending "Meet the Press" with a mention about the game and about which team he was rooting for. He would sign off with, "Go Bills!" And after each Super Bowl loss, you knew that no fan felt more agony or torment than Russert.

He was among the dignitaries on the stage erected on the steps of City Hall in downtown Buffalo for a rally welcoming the Bills back from Tampa, Fla., after their one-point loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. Russert and his son, Luke, named after standout Buffalo Bisons baseball slugger Luke Easter, were among the 30,000 voices chanting, "Thank you, Bills!" and showing forgiveness to Scott Norwood, whose missed field goal in the final seconds was the reason that the rally wasn't a victory parade.

After the NFL's last extension of its collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association sounded alarms about the difficulty of small-market teams being able to compete with those in larger markets, Russert was part of a meeting with then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

A Bills-related video feature produced by NFL Films wasn't complete unless it included clips from Russert. His voice gave it a higher degree of authority because it was from both a journalist and someone whose passion for the team was unmatched.

Our first meeting was at a Bills kickoff luncheon many years ago. Russert was the featured speaker. Our paths would cross again, usually when he was in town for a speech or a book-signing. Each time we spoke, he would be the same guy, flashing a warm smile on his broad face and providing a sense that he was glad to spend a little time catching up on (what else?) the Bills.

Before joining, I covered the team for nearly 18 seasons for the Buffalo News. Russert told me that he kept up on my stories. I knew it wasn't because I had written them. It was because they were about his team.

Thanks to Russert, I had my one and only "close" encounter with a U.S. president. It happened in 1997. One Friday, I received a call from a friend of mine working in the sports department of The Washington Post. He was inquiring, on behalf of a friend who worked on then-President Clinton's staff, if I happened to have a copy of a book I wrote in 1991, entitled "The Buffalo Bills and the Almost-Dream Season."

"I have a bunch of them, in fact," I said.

It turned out that the next day the president would be taping an interview with Russert that would air on the 50th anniversary showing of "Meet the Press." As part of the appearance, Russert planned to give the president a copy of the book, "Meet the Press: 50 Years of History in the Making." In exchange, the president wanted to give Russert a book as well, but he wanted it to be about Russert's favorite team.

A short while later I received a call from the Clinton staffer with instructions on sending the book, via overnight mail, to the White House.

"Also, would you mind signing the book to Tim?" she asked.

"Not at all," I said.

"Great … just be sure to leave enough room on the page for the president's signature."

That wasn't a problem. In fact, I made a point of giving him nearly three-quarters of the top of the page. I guess I felt it was part of my patriotic duty.

I watched the show (and, yes, I'll admit it was one of the few times I had ever watched "Meet the Press" from start to finish) and couldn't help but feel a little sense of pride when, after receiving Russert's gift, I heard President Clinton say, "And I have a gift for you."

He reached down and picked up a copy of my book.

"And it's signed by the author," the president added, as if that actually enhanced its value.

Now, my pride has turned to sadness.

Journalism and national politics lost an enormous icon. The Bills lost an even larger fan.

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