As a part of my never ending quest to rain Buffalo knowledge down on the rest of the football world, I wanted to go back and look at some of the unsung yet unquestionably dedicated heroes from the Bills' glorious (yes, glorious) past. It won't be a large, all-inclusive list (though I could name you 50, if you'd like), but just a trio of players, names you should know, contributors to some of Buffalo's more memorable moments from the 1990's. I know, it's the Bills, but if I can't bring them respect through my writings, I'd at least like to drop some knowledge on the NFL fanbase at large.
So, here are my personal three from an era when I grew up, players who stuck out in my head during a time of great success in Buffalo, even though they aren't Hall of Famers.
Steve Tasker (wide receiver/special teams assassin, 1986-1997)
- Ever heard of a "gunner"? Well, before he was a CBS broadcaster, Tasker largely defined the gunner position on the Bills' special teams, becoming on of the most feared cover men in the NFL. 5'9", maybe 190 pounds when soaking wet, Tasker was always the first man down the field on kicks, like a Volkswagen Beetle flying downhill with no breaks, and would literally crash through opposing return men no matter how big or fast. It was amazing to watch, like watching a quiet choir boy just lose his mind and start demolishing people twice his size (think the Waterboy, that's how violent those hits were, just click HERE
to see what I'm talking about).
Originally a 9th round draft pick by the Oilers, Tasker came to Buffalo in 1986 and quickly became one of the hardest working, most valuable special teams players in Bills' history, as well as one of the top special teams players in NFL history. Though he would play wide receiver at times (especially later in his career, finishing with 779 yds and 9 TDs), Tasker's seven Pro Bowl selections were entirely due to his special teams play, and he was even selected as Pro Bowl MVP in 1993 without ever catching a pass (yep, all he did was block a field goal, and force a fumble, and record four tackles... he didn't really do anything). By the time he retired from the Bills, Tasker had amassed 204 tackles on kick coverages, blocked seven punts, and largely changed the perception that there's any value in a special teams player that doesn't kick or return kicks. Both Marv Levy and Jim Kelly have hailed him as the best to ever play special teams, also joining many in the Queen City (where Tasker still resides) railing at the injustice of Tasker not having a bust in Canton, though they did honor him as one of the 26 players on the All-Time NFL Team (and he was a semi-finalist for the Hall in 2011). One of those players who defined Bills football in the early 90s, both in his play of the field and his love for the city off it.
Mark Kelso (free safety, 1986-1993)
- The Great Gazoo... As we are currently in an era of the NFL that is so largely concerned with safety, primarily in the area of concussions, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Kelso here. In his eight years with Buffalo, Kelso may have put up decent stats on the field, but it was his helmet that so firmly plants him in my memory. See, Kelso wore a "helmet cap" (or pro cap), an extra layer over the top of the helmet used to help reduce concussions, and helpful as it may have been, it also looked ridiculous. Even from the upper deck, you could always identify Kelso on the field, his encephalitic noggin floating around like.. well, like the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones. You kept expecting him to turn green and start floating around the field getting people into shenanigans.
Regardless of that, Gazoo... I mean, Mark... he was a big part of those four Super Bowl defenses of the early 90s, more than just the helmet that came to define him (if you search the history of helmet caps, odds are it'll be a Bills cap pictured). He had 30 career INTS for the Bills, returning one for a TD, and 8 fumble recoveries, with another TD from those. He may not have been the flashiest or most impactful player on the Bills, but he's a memorable one and was dedicated to Buffalo's success, playing his whole career there and living in Western New York to this day (he still works at Saint Mary's in Lancaster if I'm not mistaken). A true blue Buffalo player and visible member of the community, here's to Kelso, hero for those looking to ensure skull safety in the NFL, regardless of how goofy it may look.
Don Beebe (wide receiver, 1989-1994)
- Like Tasker, Beebe was one of those players that just defined work ethic, playing well beyond his 5'11", 185 pounds. Just imagine Wes Welker in a Bills uniform, as Don was that same player, a speed demon on the field who always found a way to get open and get the ball amidst a flurry of larger defenders, using sure hands that seemed to be made of glue. In just his time in Buffalo (he played three seasons after), Beebe had 2,537 yds and 18 TDs, accompanying the Bills to all four Super Bowls and remaining a vital part of the receiving game throughout. Though never the star of the wideouts (that was for Andre Reed), both Don and James Lofton were essential to those 1990's runs, with Beebe always finding daylight, always sure in his catches. Though he also contributed to special teams (983 yds returning), he is perhaps most memorable for two plays in his six seasons with Buffalo.
First, "The Bounce"
(click it to view). In a game at the Browns, Kelly threw a high pass that Don flew up in the air to snag, leaving him ripe for an undefended tackle. In came safety Felix Wright, knocking into Don's legs and flipping him ass-to-the-sky, causing him to come down hard on his head where he then... bounced. Literally, the man's neck just contracted and shot him back up about 2 feet, like it was a spring. I swear, the whole place just went eerily silent as he lay on the field after that, groaning everytime it replayed. Grotesque as it might have been to see, though, what was more amazing was when Beebe got up a few minutes later, walking off the field to the cheers and gasps of the hometown Cleveland fans. A great memory (saw it live, thank you).
Second, and more famously, was "The Super Bowl Strip"
(click it). Super Bowl XXVIII, Buffalo down 52-17 late in the 4th, Frank Reich in for the injured Jim Kelly, ball on the Dallas 31. Reich snaps the ball, is swarmed, and fumbles... typical, right? Leon Lett (annual bonehead of the NFL back then) scoops up the ball and rumbles back up the field to add insult to injury, seemingly untouchable, but then, around the 35 yard line of Buffalo, Beebe suddenly speeds into the bottom of the shot... unseen by the Cowboys. At the five yard line, Lett hangs the ball out with one hand like the proverbial loaf of bread, celebrating with a little high step, totally unaware of Beebe just steps away. Then, at the one yard line, Beebe swats the ball away, thus preventing the final ignominy. For no discernable reason, when everyone else on the field had all but gone to the locker room, Don hauls up the field at top speed and, based on pride and heart alone, stops that last, meaningless touchdown from being scored. That is why he's on this list, not only for the play, but for his heart and dedication to always playing, to never giving up.
When Mario Williams signed with Buffalo this past offseason, it was his reasons for signing that pleased so many fans. He came because he wanted to live in Western New York, liked what he saw from Buffalo and its people, sounded like he was truly dedicated to the city, to winning with the Bills (he better for that paycheck). The three players above, they shared that passion for winning there, were some of the more infectious carriers of the always-fight attitude that brought Buffalo out of the dungeons of the NFL and into the light of success for a time last century. The Bills were once truly elite and it's a shame too many forget how truly good a team can be when they believe they can win. In Buffalo, the winds of change are blowing back to a time when winning was a way of life, and it behooves fans and players alike to examine the play of some of the great Bills who came before, even if they weren't as heralded or have busts in Canton.
In remembering, we may often avoid the mistakes of the past, but we also see what made our successes.
(...and Happy Birthday to my gorgeous, patient, thankfully Bills fan of a wife, Mary... hearts...)