I had more fun covering Marv Levy than any coach or manager I've encountered in my 41 years in journalism. Yes, some of the enjoyment came from chronicling a Buffalo Bills team he helped raise from the ashes and build into a perennial Super Bowl contender, but it went beyond that. Marv was erudite and kind-hearted, and he had a marvelous, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Like the players, we writers enjoyed listening to his "Marvisms," those pithy quotes that not only made our stories dance and sing but expanded our vocabulary and understanding of history and usually elicited a chuckle or two. Of the scores of Marvisms, my favorite is this one: If Michelangelo had wanted to play it safe, he would have painted the floor of the Sistine Chapel.
Two years shy of his 90th birthday, Levy clearly isn't playing it safe. He's still looking for chapel ceilings to paint, still challenging that perpetually fertile and agile mind of his.
It should come as no surprise that the winningest coach in Bills history is now at work on a book of poetry, because this is, after all, a guy who penned his first novel-the critically acclaimed football thriller, "Between the Lies"--at the tender age of 86. Marv already has churned out 150 pages of poems.
"It's a vast variety of stuff, some very serious, some of which I hope is humorous," says Levy, who's scheduled to sign copies of his novel and serve as the honorary captain of the Rochester Lancers on Nov. 16 at the Blue Cross Arena. "To be honest, I don't know if there is much of a market for poetry, but it's what I've been doing to amuse myself lately."
He spends roughly three hours a day writing with rhyme and reason. His love of poetry can be traced to his mother, a Russian immigrant who didn't have much formal education but developed a love for the language and instilled it in her son.
Levy was famous for quoting Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in pregame speeches. (To ease the pressure before one big game, he told his team, "This game isn't a must-win; World War II was a must-win.") Occasionally, he would recite a poem to get across a message, once reading lines about the "unconquerable soul" from "Invictus," the famous William Ernest Henley poem.
"There would be some players in the room who would roll their eyes, but there also would be guys who would come up to me afterwards and ask me if they could get a copy of the poem I just recited," he recalls. "I didn't recite poetry often to them. I was strategic about it. It had to be pertinent to the situation."
A few of the poems he has written pertain to football, but most of them don't. Just as his novel was about more than football, so too are his latest word creations. "I'm a traditionalist," says Levy, who counts Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling and John Greenleaf Whittier among his favorite poets. "I believe poems should rhyme. I even have a poem I've written for the collection which says, 'Don't call it a poem if it doesn't rhyme.'"
This octogenarian author and poet also has a songwriting credit. A lover of college fight songs, Levy wrote one for the Bills and even sang it during his weekly television show-prompting special teams star Steve Tasker to quip that "as a singer, Marv Levy is one hell of a football coach."
That he was. His 112-70 won-loss record with seven AFC East titles, eight playoff berths and four Super Bowl appearances was good enough to earn him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a special place in Bills fans' hearts. Last spring, as part of a celebration to commemorate what would have been Vince Lombardi's 100th birthday, ESPN put together a blue-ribbon panel that ranked Levy the 17th-greatest coach in NFL history.
Among his many team records is this one: After the Bills' narrow loss to New England in Doug Marrone's debut in early September, Levy remains the only coach in team history to win his Buffalo debut. Bills head coaches are now 1-16 in their debuts.
"That's amazing," Levy said when told of the obscure stat. "That's one record I wish would have been tied by others."
He met Marrone at an offseason function and came away impressed with his successor's attention to detail and organization. "I really don't know a lot about Doug, but (former Bills general manager) Bill Polian speaks very complimentary of him, so that's like a seal of approval, as far as I'm concerned. I'm rooting for Doug to succeed because I really want to see the Bills be successful again."
The Chicago native and resident still follows his old team from afar. Levy feels the angst of Bills fans who are about to experience a 14th consecutive January without their team in the playoffs. But Chicago's Cubs recently extended their streak without a World Series title to 105 seasons.
"I was walking down the street the other day, and I saw a guy with a T-shirt reading: 'Chicago Cubs, World Series Champs 1908,'" he says. "Hey, you have to laugh about these things or you'll cry."
Two years south of 90, youthful Marv Levy still is making us laugh, still is teaching us that sometimes the best way to age is by refusing to act your age.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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