Thursday, April 25, 2013

Walking With Larry Felser

A few hours after Tampa Bay finished what turned out to be a season-crippling 31-17 win against the Bills in late November of 2000, I was packing up my notes, tape (yes, tape) recorder and laptop and getting ready to head out of Raymond James Stadium.

"Dave, can I catch a ride with you back to the hotel?" asked Larry Felser, who died Wednesday at the age of 80. Mark Gaughan and Alllen Wilson, his Buffalo News travelling companions that year, which would be the last of his 41 seasons covering the Bills on the road, were still plugging away, and likely would be for at least another hour or two.

Of course, I said, if you don't mind a bit of a hike. As the beat writer for the Niagara Gazette, I did not rate one of the parking passes afforded the representatives of larger-caliber outlets, and so my rental car was parked in one of several large, identical lots across the street from a community college.

"That's OK -- I could use a walk," Larry said.

So we said our goodbyes to Allen and Mark and headed out.

It was at least a mile stroll, and we talked about the game just completed, in which the Bills had jumped ahead early, suffered a surreal string of injuries that ended the seasons of three defensive starters. We turned off the road and up the very long driveway of the lot where I thought I had parked. After getting past the trees and fences that partially hid the property, we saw that it was empty.

"Are you sure this is the right lot?" Larry said with a wry half-smile.

"I guess not."

So we walked back up the driveway, further down the road, then down the next driveway, talking about Buffalo's playoff chances which had faded rapidly through the second half, and about the ongoing fiasco over just exactly how many votes George W. Bush and Al Gore had received in the state we were visiting in the presidential election held earlier that month. Having added at least a half-mile to the walk, we finally reached my car.

When we got to the hotel in Tampa, I apologized for at least the fifth time for the mix-up, and for at least the fifth time, Larry chuckled and told me not to worry about it.

The following Sunday, with the Bills hosting Miami, I noticed Larry was not in his customary spot in the center seat of the front row of the press box at what had been renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium two years earlier.

During halftime, I asked News columnists Jerry Sullivan and Jim Kelley about Larry's absence. Surprised that I had not heard, they told me he had been stricken as he was about to speak at a high-school sports banquet on Thursday evening, and was in the hospital, undergoing tests.

Given my guilt-driven personality, I assumed my parking-lot blunder had contributed to Larry's heart problem, if not been the sole cause. They told me where he was hospitalized, and I went to visit the following night. He was not in his room, so I left a copy of that day's Gazette, which included my coverage of a hideous 33-6 Miami win, along with a note that read something like, "See what happens when you miss a Dolphins game?"

Working the desk at the Gazette the following evening, my phone rang. I answered, expecting to take a report from a high-school basketball game. Instead, I heard a familiar and very welcome voice.

"'John Fina couldn't block a recount if his brother was the governor,'" Larry said, quoting my column from Sunday's game, in which the Buffalo left tackle had been repeatedly smoked by Miami's Trace Armstrong. "I wish I'd written that."

Having received the highest compliment a young writer can get, especially from someone of Larry's stature, I apologized for any extra strain or stress our car search had caused.

Larry laughed again, and told me he would be out of the hospital in a day or two.

When we hung up, I thought about another call I had gotten from him a couple years earlier. Vic Carucci, longtime Bills beat writer for the News, was leaving the newspaper. That created a much-coveted opening on the sports staff, and Larry wanted to know if it was OK if he put in a word for me with the sports editor.

Yes, I said, that would be fine, and thanked him. Before starting to update my portfolio, I sat for a minute, amazed that someone of his stature would take the time to even think of me, much less take action on my behalf. I didn't get the job, but never forgot how Larry and other News staffers had tried to help.

We shared another connection that had nothing to do with sports. Larry's wife, Beverly, with whom he shared their 47th wedding anniversary on Tuesday, was from my hometown. Her mother and my grandmother were close friends, regularly playing bingo together.

When I started covering the Bills on an occasional basis for the Batavia Daily News in 1990, it probably would have been smart to work that angle. But I have never been very comfortable with overtly schmoozing as a career-advancement tool, so never dropped his mother-in-law's name during the brief encounters I had with him in the locker room or the press box.

One day, after Marv Levy's weekly Wednesday media conference, he walked up to me.

"Your name is Staba?" he said. "Are you related to Helen?"

We started talking regularly after that, at the then-Rich Stadium and, once I started travelling with the team, on the road. One fall Sunday morning, he sat down with me as I shoveled in the pre-game breakfast provided by the home team -- Kansas City, I believe.

"Do yourself a favor," Larry said, "and take a walk around outside the stadium. They've got a really good set-up out there."

I did, and it was a great walk. And I swiped his introductory phrase, and have been advising others to "do yourself a favor" ever since.

The last time I saw Larry was at the wake for Allen Wilson, who died of leukemia in December 2011. We cheered each other up with stories about the road trips we had made with our good friend, and parted as usual -- reminding each other that we were due to have lunch.

We never made it to that lunch, but I did make sure Larry knew that he had unwittingly helped launch my journalism career some 35 years ago.

I was about 9 or 10 when my parents took me for a tour of the Buffalo News. I was already addicted to sports, especially football, and when the tour reached that department I asked where Larry Felser sat.

The guide pointed to a desk covered with piles of football magazines, copies of the Sporting News (where Felser wrote weekly columns on the National Football League) and a row of media guides for every NFL team.

That must be the best job in the world, I thought. What a great life he must have.

After being lucky enough to count him as a colleague and a friend, turns out I didn't know the half of it.

Because You Haven't Had Enough Draft Hype

Due to budgetary constraints
Due to malfeasance, ineptitude and chronic workplace substance abuse, we had to lay off summarily dismiss the We Want Marangi NFL Draft Research Team for cause.

As a result, I can safely say I know as much as you do, probably less, about this year's annual rookie draft, which begins tonight.

But I suppose it's obligatory for a football-based blog to post something about what has become a three-day carnival, so here's the best piece I have read about the festivities.
The fact that the draft is not and cannot be foolproof is what makes it dramatic. The draft isn't fun without the Leafs and the JaMarcuses and the KiJanas. Those busts stand as historic proof that the NFL draft remains out of control, even to the NFL's biggest control freaks. I'll never get tired of people like Mel Kiper, who spends all of his time dedicated to a single weekend, fucking things up so badly. The man once had Jimmy Clausen at the top of his draft board people. Jimmy Clausen. This is what makes the draft so very special.
And if you're really into mock drafts, potential trades and other Bills-related draft ephemera, Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 does a fine job of all that on his draft blog.

As for We Want Marangi, we'll be back with a post-draft analysis soon. Probably as soon as we're done contesting all those unemployment claims from former members of our NFL Draft Research Team.