After three straight years of Super Bowl appearances, I was committed to seeing the Bills play in the postseason and was convinced that this was the year!
I had seen them play in person before but was now in a position to take advantage of the situation. I was living in Bethlehem, PA and was working for VERSYSS selling Credit Union software throughout NY, NJ, PA, DE and MD. As the season unfolded, the Bills looked stronger than ever. They were 7-1 heading into the second half of the season. Everything was clicking…
The excitement quickly turned to concern when they dropped the next three out of four games, including losses to the Chiefs (7-23 at KC) and the Raiders (24-25 in Buffalo). But as they say, “no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills”. They ended their regular season with a four-game win streak to end the regular season at 12-4 and finished atop the AFC East earning a bye week and home field throughout the playoffs! The plan was coming together!
The Division Game was against the Raiders, to whom they lost at home earlier in the season. As the game wore on, and the Bills down 17-6, I said to my wife, “if the Bills win this game, we’re going to the Championship Game next week”. The Bills defense took over and limited the Raiders to just two more field goals while Kelly and team cranked up the offense to win 29-23.
I immediately jumped on the phone to call the Bills Ticket Office. I was amazed that I was able to get 2 club level seats (under cover) for face value! Score!
On Monday, I hit the phones cold calling to see if I could schedule a demo for the following week. I can’t remember how many calls I made, but I finally found one in Lockport!
Buffalo is about a 6-hour ride from Bethlehem, so of course, we needed to leave Saturday for a Sunday game and we’d plan on returning Monday right after the demo. There are two ways to get there – either the more direct, but winding way along the southern tier of NY along Route 17 or the more commercial and driver friendly way through Syracuse via Routes 81 and 90. Normally, I’d opt for the more direct way, but the forecast for Friday weather was snow! We chose the more densely traveled but longer route through Syracuse.
After the long drive, we pulled into the Holiday Inn by the airport. The roads weren’t too bad, but the storm blanketed Western NY, making the drive even longer than we had expected. After a quick dinner of Beef on ‘Weck and some wings, it was off to bed to rest up for the day tomorrow.
We started Sunday by checking out Our Lady of Victory church, otherwise known as “Father Baker’s Church” in Lackawanna. This was where my parents were married in 1950 while my dad was working for the railroad. We didn’t step foot inside, but it was a beautiful church in a somewhat rundown area of town. The exterior is white marble with a huge copper, now green, dome along with trumpeting angels. To this day, I kick myself for not entering the magnificent facility. Someday…
After a quick visit, it was off to the game. As we drove towards the stadium, low lying clouds covered the area with a mist of moisture in the air. It was supposed to be a quick trip down Abbott Road and into the parking lot. We didn’t prepare for tailgating (I know, I know, a Cardinal sin in Buffalo), so we had planned on parking and getting into the stadium early to witness the pre-game festivities.
Shortly after turning onto Abbott, we came to a standstill. The radio was reporting that since the storm came through, the snow reduced the available parking spots in the lots. Traffic was stopped! We inched along for a while at a snail’s pace. As we got closer, people started to park along side streets and started to run towards the stadium. At this point, I put my window down to listen to the people along the road and the homeowners who were setting up “parking” signs in their driveways.
I had no idea how far out we were. You have to remember, this was long before GPS and internet enabled phones. All I could see off in the distance was the glowing haze of the lights over Rich Stadium. I’m pounding on my steering wheel saying “I can’t believe I drove all the way up here and I’m going to miss kickoff”.
All of a sudden, a man in a long, leather trench coat, fedora hat and carrying a long bag over his shoulder, comes up to my windows and says “hey, how would you like to get to the stadium fast”? “Of course” is my quick answer. He continues, “my name is Chuck Mangione and I’m supposed to be playing the National Anthem and I’m running really, really late”.
After a quick check to process the statement and validate that, yes, it looks like Chuck from when I saw him on TV and yes, I do want to get to the game fast, I pop open my door to let Chuck in the back seat of the car!
My wife, limited by what she heard from this bearded stranger that I just let in the car, is scrambling to hide the camera and other valuables we had in the back seat of her black Ford Probe. Chuck calmly says, “pull out into the other lane and pass these cars”. Sure, why not I think… What can go wrong? I just started driving down the wrong lane into oncoming traffic passing countless other drivers who were as ticked off as me that they were missing kickoff.
As I’m passing the cars, Chuck pulls out a trumpet from his bag and starts playing his hit song, “Feels So Good” from the back seat of my car! At this point, people alongside the road are screaming, but in a good kind of way… “wahoo”, “go Chuck”, “get him in there”, etc…
As we approach an intersection, a police officer comes running toward my car, whistle blowing, finger pointing, then raising his hand forcefully, Officer 1 tells me to STOP! Uh oh!
I try to calmly explain to the irate officer that I have Chuck Mangione in my car and he’s supposed to play the National Anthem. The officer runs what was probably the same mental check I ran through, looks like him from TV, has a trumpet, check! “OK, hold on” the officer states.
He stops the cross-traffic and pedestrians and waves me through the intersection! Whew… Hazy lights getting closer! Still passing cars, I say to Chuck, “why were you walking to the game”? He said his limo driver didn’t want to take the risk of passing the cars! Wonderful!
Next intersection ahead. Another cop sees me coming. This time, the whistle and finger pointing are positive signs. He halts traffic and, without even stopping us, waves us through! Nice job Officer 1. A gentle wave out the window to Officer 2 and we’re now getting more excited as we pass dozens of other cars.
Now, Chuck is fidgeting in the back seat. I say, “what’s going on”? His reply, “I can’t find my ticket”! I said, “you’re playing the National Anthem and you need a ticket to get in”?
Now, as we’re about halfway to the final intersection, Chuck confesses. “I’m not really playing the National Anthem. I was negotiating to play the National Anthem”. WHAT!?! My immediate response was “I’m going to kill you”! To which he replied, “why, you’re here aren’t you”? as we are now in the shadows of the stadium.
Next stop, Officer 3, same treatment as Officer 2. No stopping, just cruise through the intersection on the northwest corner of the stadium as we are now approaching One Bills Drive. I don’t even know where I’m going at this point. Clearly not somewhere where normal ticket holders are allowed.
As we get stopped by two more officers right alongside the stadium, they ask, “where are you going”? My simple, factual reply is “I have Chuck Mangione”. They said, “I don’t care who you have, you can’t park here”. OK, end of the line Chuck. I open the door and he pops out, bag in hand.
As he starts to walk away, one of the officers says “Is that really Chuck Mangione”? I said, “yes”. Next reply, “alright hold on”… He then whistles me in to park in the lot about 50 yards from the ticket window!
We raced through the lines, rushing up the ramps as we listened to the National Anthem being sung by one of the Bills’ wives. Clearly, not Chuck. We barely got to our seats and it was kickoff!
The rest of the game was not nearly as memorable as the events leading up to it, with one exception. The Chiefs playoff run was because of football legend, Joe Montana. Montana had the Chiefs in position to return to the Super Bowl until he was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Without Comeback Joe, the Chiefs fell to the Bills 30-13, advancing the Bills to their record 4th straight Super Bowl!
The next day, as I was retelling the story about Chuck to the people at the Credit Union, they confirmed that he’s from Rochester and a huge Bills fan! And now it all makes sense…
After a couple of years of telling the story, people always questioned if it was really Chuck. So I decided to try to get in touch with him. I called his record company in Rochester and spoke with his secretary. I relayed the story and asked if she could talk to Chuck about it and if he remembered, acknowledge it. The results are below.