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Voice of the Bills to receive an honor he richly deserves

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Rochester Business Journal
May 23, 2014

I was one of those people who would mute the volume on the television during Buffalo Bills games and flip on the radio so I could listen to Van Miller instead of the network announcers. I had plenty of company on game days and nights because Van was the man, a funny, enthusiastic, informative painter of word pictures who always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the team and the game.

For 37 years—believed to be the longest play-by-play run in National Football League history—nobody did it better than the broadcaster we welcomed into our homes and cars and hearts as we would a kindly, life-of-the-party uncle. Van urged us to “fasten our seat belts” before kickoffs. He helped us feel the “fandemonium” at the Rockpile and the Ralph. He loved to laugh and make us laugh. And he wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was when the team wasn’t performing up to snuff.  

Like many of his fans, I was thrilled to learn this week that he will be going up on the Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium this season. I can’t think of too many more deserving candidates. In fact, a case can be made that the man who became the voice of Bills football is one of the most influential figures in franchise history, as important, in many cases, as the people whose exploits he was describing.      

The broadcasting legend from Dunkirk got his big break in 1960 when Wilson heeded the advice of general manager Dick Gallagher and hired Miller to become the team’s first radio play-by-play man. “It’s probably one of the best personnel decisions we’ve ever made,” Wilson told me in a 2003 interview. “Van has done as much to spread the word of Bills football and contribute to their popularity as anyone. Players and coaches come and go, but Van’s been our constant.”

That he was. Whether he was describing the euphoria of the 51-3 annihilation of the Raiders in the AFC championship game in January 1991 or the bitter disappointment of Scott Norwood’s wide-right field goal attempt in the waning moments of Super Bowl XXV, Van had always been, in the words of late NFL Films president Steve Sabol, “an announcer able to deliver the moment.”

When I asked him to pick his most memorable game, Van chose the Bills’ second-half comeback from 32 points down in the 1993 wild-card game against the Houston Oilers. “In my heart, I thought the game was over before halftime,” he said. “But as a broadcaster, you have to continue to describe the action to the bitter end, and that can be tough. I don’t think that comeback will ever be duplicated. It’s like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; it’s untouchable.”

If Van hadn’t become a sportscaster, he might have tried his hand as a stand-up comedian. He has a wonderful sense of humor and despite some health setbacks, his comedic timing remains impeccable. He tells a hilarious story of the spotter who had a patch over his eye and was experiencing double-vision while trying to help Van identify quickly who made a tackle or who recovered a fumble. Van joked to him that he should take whatever uniform number he was seeing and divide it by two.

And then there was the time when another spotter showed up drunk. “The guy had gotten into the martinis at a pre-game party, and he was half in the bag by the time the game kicked off,” Van recalled. “Early in the game, there’s this holding call against the Bills that negated a long gain and the guy starts going ballistic in the booth. He’s leaning out the window and screaming at the ref. He said some choice words that the FCC doesn’t like to hear.”

The four Super Bowl losses were tough to take, but Van always managed to keep things in perspective. “You can look back and say Super Bowl XXV was the one that got away, but you can’t ever lose sight of the fact that these are only games,” he said. “I love the excitement and the drama of the games. But I never forgot that football is entertainment. It’s not war.”

Van called 752 games during his career—his first against the Boston Patriots and his last, in 2003, against the New England Patriots. He missed doing a few seasons in the 1970s when his station lost the broadcast rights to Bills games.

“That stretch, when he was gone, something definitely was missing; there was a void,” said John Murphy, the team’s current play-by-play announcer, who grew up in Buffalo idolizing Miller and later working as his color man. “I remember going to a Bills game with my friend (current Michigan basketball coach John Beilein), and it just happened to be Van’s first game back. We’re listening to the action on the radio, and John turns to me and says, ‘You know, Murph, that’s what Bills football sounds like.’ And he was right. So many of us grew up with that voice and this football team. It’s like Van’s a member of every fan’s family.”

Van became to the Bills what Mel Allen was to the New York Yankees and what Vin Scully is to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Broadcaster and team are forever joined at the vocal cords. And this fall the bond will be immortalized when Van joins Wilson, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Marv Levy and the 12th Man (in honor of the fans) on the stadium facade. Van is sure to experience some “fandemonium” during that ceremony. And he’ll deserve all the love he receives, because he narrated these Western New York football passion plays for nearly four decades, always striking just the right chord for the comebacks and comedowns. He helped make the ride “Van-tastic.”

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was one of the co-authors of “The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball Greats.” The book was published to coincide with this year’s 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown.

5/23/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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