He didn’t have to be here, playing football for a fraying city once known for its mighty port, its Frank Lloyd Wrights and its Frederick Law Olmsted landscaping, and now best known for a bar snack featuring the part of the chicken that you used to throw away,1 wearing the jersey of a football team that’s had one winning season in this century in a 40-year-old cinder block stadium just down the road from the Tri-State Christian Television studio (“Broadcasting the Gospel 24 Hours a Day”), in a suburb called Orchard Park that at first glance appears to be entirely devoid of fruit trees or parks of any kind.
Not to mention that when the team flew to Denver for a preseason game in August, the traveling media contingent numbered one, if one can be numbered. Or that when the city held its 10th annual Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival in its flaking downtown Triple-A baseball stadium last week, they wanted to induct Bill Murray into the Hall of Flame, but Murray declined to attend, and the organizers were reduced to showing a clip from Osmosis Jones on the JumboTron.
It didn’t have to be this way. In 2005, Ryan Fitzpatrick could have strolled from the Banks of the River Charles straight to the banks of lower Manhattan, where his economics degree from Harvard would have earned him serial Maseratis at Christmas-bonus time, instead of taking a job in an industry in which his Ivy sheepskin was no more a liability than, say, a positive test for cholera.
It’s taken Ryan Fitzpatrick seven years and three teams to finally enter a season as a starting quarterback in the National Football League, and while, yes, his size (not very big) and arm strength (average) have helped speed-bump the journey, anyone who’s spent more than 11 seconds in the robotic front offices of the NFL, an organization with all of the intellectual curiosity of a tire-salesman convention, knows that the football deck’s been stacked against Ryan Fitzpatrick from the start.
“I picked the only profession in the world where my Harvard degree worked against me,” he says one day in mid-August, lounging on a lawn chair outside the locker room at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. “Some of it was just the competition level where I played. But also, some coaches never want a guy in there that they feel like he’s too smart. How you can be too smart for a position, I don’t know.”
He’s just walked through practice with a team whose low-profile roster, if you listen to the experts, will produce upward of only four victories this year, despite new uniforms2 and the happy prospect of finally hosting a team they might actually beat (the Redskins) in their annual home-away game in Toronto. The border-crossing experiment, now in its fourth year (the Bills are 0-3), represents, depending on whom you ask, (a) a desire to “regionalize” the Bills, or (b) a desperate plea to a healthy, happy Ontario to bring the same magic to Buffalo’s storied franchise as the Tim Horton doughnut shops have brought to those rest stops on the western fringe of the oddly spelled New York Thruway.
“The other thing is, ‘This guy’s got more going for him. What if his heart isn’t in the game? What if his passion is for something else? What if he wants to leave for business school?’ And then you still get guys like last year, Bart Scott said I couldn’t throw a book at him,” says Ryan. “I think it’s funny. If I’m going to get ribbed because I went to Harvard, there are worse things to be ribbed about. So I always laugh at that.
“But now, just through people meeting me and my being able to fight off those stereotypes, the whole negative stigma attached to going to Harvard is gone.”
If Fitzpatrick had really wanted to convince the powers in charge of his career that he wasn’t an Ivy geek, that he was an athlete first and an academic second, he should have explained from the start that until he got his first call from Harvard as a senior at Highland High in Gilbert, Ariz., he had no idea that Harvard had a football team. Or that the league report of his perfect score on the 50-question Wonderlic test before the 2005 draft (the Rams took him in the seventh round) was inaccurate, and that the Wall Street Journal clarified that he scored a 48 — although, yes, he finished in a record nine minutes.
Or that when Harvard’s foppish final clubs3 came calling in his junior year to lure the school’s quarterback into their exclusive, archaic clubhouses, Fitzpatrick in no uncertain terms declined. “It’s just not something I had any interest in,” he says. “I shunned them. I told them right away, it’s not for me. That’s just not my personality.”
Or that after five years of marriage and three kids, he now spends more time watching television than engaging in his other idle leisure-time pursuits — doing the math questions on the practice GMAT, for example. The son of a man who works for a missile-manufacturing defense contractor (“He likes to claim he’s a rocket scientist,” the son says, a little enigmatically),4 Fitzpatrick will confess to being a “math nerd,” but plays down the economics degree: “Harvard doesn’t have a business major. The business major is ‘Economics.’ It makes you sound smarter than you are.”
“Put it this way,” he explains. “I’m not going to go read Adam Smith again. That is not casual reading for me these days. I keep in touch with a lot of that through, like, The Economist. I also have junk magazines, too. I like to read Men’s Journal, Esquire, some that are a little bit more mindless reading, I guess.”
Fitzpatrick hasn’t even taken a tour of Wright’s Graycliff mansion, which is literally two minutes away from his home. But he has visited the Falls although he prefers the Canadian side, but honestly, who wouldn’t? Across the border next week, north of the city, you’ll be able to catch Dana Carvey at the Fallsview Casino. On the New York side, if it’s anything like last Friday evening, you’ll be able to literally stop your car in the middle of a deserted downtown street to take smart-phone pictures of the boarded-up Hotel Niagara. Or to make an offer on the Haunted House of Wax, which is up for sale.
Things are no less depressing to the south of the city, along the waterfront, where gap-toothed warehouses and factories haunt the shore — a view that has hooked Fitzpatrick, a Sunbelt child, with its poignancy. “It’s the exact opposite of where I grew up: a farming community that started booming with every chain restaurant you can imagine. The schools are all brand-new, nice schools, there’s this great grid system; it’s like Sim City, like you’re sitting there on a computer: ‘Now there are this many people, so you need a hospital and two more elementary schools.’ The exact opposite of here. I love Arizona but there’s something about Buffalo. It’s a community. I don’t know if it’s just how nice people here are, or the pride they take in being the City of Good Neighbors but we love living here. We love it. It’s by far our favorite place we’ve ever been.”
That would include St. Louis and Cincinnati, two other past-their-prime cities that share a remarkable number of dismal historical similarities with Buffalo. It kind of makes you wonder if, in a graphic-novel alternate universe, Fitzpatrick has been predestined to visit failing American post-industrial towns until one of them recognizes his mission as Savior and anoints him.5
But it’s been a particularly rough century-plus in Buffalo (a.k.a. “City of Light”), ever since the Pan American Exposition of 1901 tried to strut the beauty of electricity to the world by tapping into the Falls 25 miles north and draping all the lakeside pavilions in glittering bulbs, but William McKinley’s on-site assassination put a damper on the festival.6 Then the steel left for China, then St. Lawrence marginalized the port, and the stolid, huge, red-brick, smack-downtown Statler Tower closed its doors.
Today, reinvigorated by some wise political luring of the health industry (the Bills’ practice facility, sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, is called “The Bills Healthy Zone”), Buffalo is in the top 10 U.S. cities you want to raise a family in, according to Forbes magazine. And a local investor just bought the Statler and says he’s going to spend $100 million bringing it back to life (that would be four times what it cost to build the Bills’ stadium).
But American cities are generally judged by the success of their sports teams, and if the City of Light is going to recapture some voltage, it’s going to need the Bills to win a few games in a very tough division. Encouragingly, the Brainy-QB-as-Savior plotline has precedents. Fifty years ago, with the town still smarting after the NFL plucked the lustrous Paul Brown Cleveland Browns, the respectable San Francisco 49ers and the bottom-feeding Baltimore Colts from the All-America Football Conference, leaving the highly respectable Bills at the altar to summarily fold as a going sports concern, a future nine-term congressman, Cabinet member, and vice-presidential candidate named Jack Kemp quarterbacked the team to two consecutive AFL championships in War Memorial Stadium, more affectionately known as the Rockpile.7 Like Fitzpatrick, Kemp was smaller than most quarterbacks, and wasn’t known for arm strength, but the guy was smart enough to be one of the last reasonable Republicans the House ever offered up.
Then, in the early ’90s, coach Marv Levy, armed with a Masters in English history from Harvard, took them to four straight Super Bowls, even if, somehow, history has managed to mutate the four AFC championships into an emblem of failure.
On the other hand, Ivy-wise, in 2006, Beloved Very Old Owner Ralph Wilson entrusted the team to Yale grad Dick Jauron, a very smart guy with all of the charisma of a horseshoe crab. Jauron pulled off the statistically improbable but highly consistent feat of three consecutive 7-9 seasons before being jettisoned mid-2009. Last year Georgian-drawled Chan Gailey took over in time to supervise a season of true failure, along with another new, incongruously accented appointee from the Confederacy, a general manager from Alabama named Buddy Nix, who signed Fitzpatrick as a free agent to back up Trent Edwards.
The Bills burst to an 0-3 record under Edwards. Fitzpatrick took over in the fourth week, and the Bills lost five more. But they split the next eight games, and Fitzpatrick, displaying a controlled and accurate game, if not a spectacular one, went on to become the first Buffalo quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards since Drew Bledsoe eight years earlier. Hence, finally Fitzpatrick’s tardy arrival at the pinnacle: This Sunday’s opener at Arrowhead.
“I wasn’t always the guy they wanted out there,” he tells me. “First, I was fighting for a roster spot. The third guy. Then the second guy. Then the veteran backup. Now I’m the starter. It’s different for someone who was the first pick of the draft. I’ve taken the road less traveled.”8
Since we’d last met, Fitzpatrick had completed 11 of 12 passes against the Jaguars for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the third preseason game, the one that sort of counts. So I figure that I’d be nuts not to ask a guy who’s read Adam Smith how he’s learned to “read defenses” — to explain that mysterious alchemy. So he patiently takes me through his presnap process, which involves three read options, and explains, complete with mathematical probabilities, the likelihood of each one succeeding depending on the defense’s postsnap behavior. But I can tell from his expression that even though he’s indulging my desire to have the smart guy sound smart, he really doesn’t want to talk about smart. The guy who has finally earned a top job in the world he loves by working his way up the grunt ladder and learning the mechanics of the workday craft and giving teammates with nothing but high school degrees their own special props — the guy who’s just spent seven years trying to convince people he isn’t too smart — decides to clarify something for me.
“Look, sometimes we overcomplicate things,” he says. “And sometimes I think it’s taught that way: where it’s too complicated for guys to actually get out there and play.
“Sometimes we try and make the game too hard, Sometimes when I’ve got my favorite receiver one-on-one with their defensive back, we just have to come up with a way to complete the pass. That’s it. Sometimes with receivers, when you make them think, they’re not at their best. But when you tell them, ‘Just beat the guy,’ they’re at their best. It takes out that other element and just allows them to play like when they were in high school.
“Essentially football comes down to our guy beating their guy one-on-one. The same as in Pop Warner and high school.”
Because it’s not, like, rocket science.
Peter Richmond is the New York Times best-selling author of Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders. He previously wrote about America’s struggle to build great stadiums for Grantland.
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