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  • Four Falls of Buffalo dir. by Ken Rodgers
  • Molly Yanity
Four Falls of Buffalo (2015). Dir. Ken Rodgers. Prod. NFL Films and ESPN Films. 102 mins.

Perhaps derived from the United States' record in grand military showcases from the Revolutionary War to World War II, the nation's obsession with winning has infiltrated all of our competitions, from the sublime—UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders in 1949 said to his team, "Winning isn't everything. Men, it's the only thing"—to the silly, such as Ricky Bobby's immortalized quotation from Talledega Nights: "If you ain't first, you're last."

In director Ken Rodgers's ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary Four Falls of Buffalo, sports fans are faced with the challenging notion of what winning means.

This notion surrounds the Jim Kelly–quarterbacked Buffalo Bills from 1990 to 1993. Four trips to the Super Bowl, four devastating losses. Four double-digit-win seasons, four excruciating heartbreaks.

With brilliant NFL Films footage and the deft, sometimes-sentimental script of Chris Barlow and Buffalo native Michelle Girardi Zumwalt, the documentary seizes on three metaphoric characters of the Bills' seemingly empty success. They are Kelly, a Hall of Fame quarterback who never hoisted the Lombardi Trophy but endured the death of his eight-year-old son and victoriously battled cancer; kicker Scott Norwood, whose failed field goal attempt became emblematic of the franchise's failure; and the city of Buffalo, an ice slab of a Rust Belt city on Lake Erie that has crashed ceremoniously at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

Rodgers takes us from Buffalo's public library to the hallowed corridors of the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The scenes come from Niagara Falls's Maid of the Mist riverboat to a back-corner table at the Orchard Park Café and miss none of the nostalgia of the American Football Conference's winningest team of the 1990s.

Actor William Fichtner narrates over much of the NFL Films game action. But thoughtful breaks are inserted with an older, cancer-ravaged Kelly leafing through scrapbooks with his teenage daughters and with hall of famers Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith lounging on a leather couch before a TV showing Super Bowl loss after loss. (Mercifully, some playoff victories are shown, too.)

The film dives into the action with the Bills drafting Kelly in 1983. The brash University of Miami product wanted nothing to do with the frigid, blue-collar city. Instead, he opted to play for the Houston Gamblers in the short-lived United States Football League. When the league folded in 1986, Kelly shipped out to the north.

In 1989, Kelly and Thomas, a fledgling star at tailback, aired their differences in the local media, prompting Bills beat writer Vic Carruci to dub them the "Bickering Bills." But the new decade galvanized the team, as did the installation of coach Marv Levy's no-huddle offense, which energized the Kelly–Thomas tandem and demoralized opposing defenses. In 1990, the team went 13–3 to land in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. [End Page 234]

Levy's offensive attack, which featured a third future hall of famer in wide receiver Andre Reed, suddenly stalled in Super Bowl XX V as the New York Giants were executing their young defensive coordinator's plan to a T. The coordinator? Bill Belichick, who would go on to lead the New England Patriots to multiple Super Bowl championships.

But none of the drama matched the final seconds of the game. Bills kicker Scott Norwood lined up for a forty-seven-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the game and the Giants leading 20–19. Norwood's kick had the distance but hooked about a foot to the right of the goalpost, prompting play-by-play commentator Al Michaels to yell, "No good! Wide right!"

A middle-aged Norwood is interviewed in his living room and on the steps of Buffalo's City Hall. He still chokes up. "[I remember it] as a blur," he says. "I almost relate it to any kind of an accident . . . shock . . . sorrow and disappointment in letting down teammates that are on...


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pp. 234-235
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