The Long Wondrous Life of Marv Levy

You know Marv Levy for losing four straight Super Bowls, but you should know him for so much more than just that.

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Dec 26 2014, 4:50pm

I am fortunate to be living in the USA,

And I remind myself of that every day.

For new challenges in life I do keep yearning,

And that makes me want to keep on learning.

-From "I Appreciate," by Marv Levy

Marv Levy is 89 now, but he looks much the same as he did when he was coaching in the 1990s: more like a kindly Jewish grandfather than a football coach. He greets the visiting reporter warmly. A warm greeting is always part of the deal with him.

We met in early December at Harry Caray's Seventh Inning Stretch in downtown Chicago, the city where Levy was born and raised, and where he has mostly lived with his wife since retiring from coaching in 1997. His concessions to age in the 20 years or so since he was a major national sports figure have been minimal; his hour-a-day exercise regimen keeps him trim and spry. His overall fastidiousness—not a hair out of place, not a sentence poorly constructed—has kept his bearing together. His broad intellectual interests have kept his mind agile.

Leave the retirements of perpetual sunshine and golf to the stereotypical ex-jocks. Levy, who earned a master's degree in history from Harvard on the GI Bill, has stayed in Chicago to cultivate a life of the mind. The night before we met, he attended a lecture at the Alliance Française de Chicago on World War I and its aftermath. (Levy's father fought in World War I, and Levy was in the military during World War II but was never shipped overseas.) Over lunch, we discussed his forthcoming, self-published collection of poetry, entitled It's Time for a Rhyme. It's his third book since retirement, after a memoir in 2004 and a football fiction novel in 2011. (In between, an unsuccessful two-year stint as Bills general manager.) Late in his life, he has followed through on a passion instilled in him by his mother, a Russian immigrant whose first language was Yiddish and had only a first grade education, but had read the complete works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats.

"I want something to do, I want to be challenged!" he says. His pronunciation is precise, his voice gravelly and cheerful. "The alternative is to sit on your butt and watch TV."

His expectations for the book are modest: he acknowledges he probably won't recoup the publishing costs, but says he'd be content with a few readings in Chicago and Buffalo, which he still visits several times a year. The poems are upbeat and easy-to-read, reflective of Levy's geniality and accessibility, long his calling cards. Kenneth Davis, a running back on Levy's Bills teams, told me that Levy's singular gift was his ability to instantly connect with every member of the organization, from players to front office executives to secretaries. He is part-owner of Harry Caray's and, despite achieving his sports stardom in Buffalo rather than Chicago, is recognizable to many passersby. When a middle-aged man asks him if he is, in fact, Marv Levy, Levy bellows, "Guilty as charged!" and shakes the man's hand.

Photo by RVR Photos/USA TODAY Sports

It takes a naturally positive outlook for Levy to spend his old age writing poetry, and to be at peace with the defining aspect of his coaching career: going to four straight Super Bowls, and losing them all. To a sizable segment of American sports fans, inculcated with the country's number-one-or-bust mindset, Levy is one of sports history's greatest losers. In this thinking, his diminutive stature (relative to other football men), white hair, and friendly persona feed into the perception that nice guys, while perhaps not always finishing last, certainly don't finish first.

He acknowledges that the losses still hurt. I ask him which one hurt the most, and he responds, "Cut my arm in four places, ask me which one hurts more." His football fiction novel, Between the Lies, is about a sportswriter who discovers a Super Bowl fix, and can be interpreted as an attempt to come to grips with the losses.

But life's too short to spend it regretting the outcome of a sports game. Better to focus instead on the positive side to the losses: the remarkable perseverance the Bills showed in getting up off the mat each time. It's a record likely never to be matched, and stands as proof that the Bills absorbed Levy's message that nothing is as important as always moving forward.

"Look, it's a game," Levy, a prostate cancer survivor, says. "Sure we would have loved to have won 'em all, or one. But you only mourn for a little while. Then you recognize the good."

Never will I give in.

Being a quitter to me is a sin.

Instead I will, with surging inspiration.

Go back at it again, with full dedication.

-From "Persist," by Marv Levy

A tickling image of Levy's career: the overhead NFL Films shot of the little white-haired man in the middle of the mob, surrounded by huge, fire-breathing men in red helmets. "Where else would your rather be than right here, right now!" Levy would shout. He concluded every pre-game speech with the same exhortation.

The words first came to him at the University of New Mexico in 1958, when, at 33, he was the youngest major college football head coach in the country. It was after warmups prior to his first game, and he took in the atmosphere: the pretty cheerleaders, the marching band. He had always been a sucker for pageantry and Americana. He spontaneously blurted the line out to his players, not knowing what else to say. "And just from the players' reaction I said it before every game I ever coached," he says.

Levy had long been fascinated by the power of words to inspire. As a teenager during the beginning of World War II, he would listen on the radio to speeches by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Churchill in particular captivated him. "What he stood for, his brilliance, his command of the language," Levy says. "I became enamored with him."

"Marvisms," his players called his turns of phrase: "When it's too tough for them, it's just right for us!" "What it takes to win is simple, but it isn't easy." "If Michelangelo had wanted to play it safe, he would've painted the floor of the Sistine Chapel." The players bought in: it's telling that he introduced Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed for their Hall of Fame inductions.

As he tells it, Levy was writhing in psychological agony in the wee hours after the Bills lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV, when an old Scottish poem, from a book his mother had once given him, popped into his head and provided comfort:

"Fight on, my men," Sir Andrew said.

"A little I'm hurt but not yet slain.

I'll just lie down and bleed a while,

And then I'll rise and fight again."

Levy posted the poem in the locker room the next day. It would become a Bills rallying cry. Whenever the team faced adversity over the next several years, one player or another, and never Levy, would re-post it.

Photo by Malcolm Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

Professional athletes are famously averse to rah-rah tactics and anything verging on corniness. But Levy got through, likely because he was secure enough in himself to show his full humanity in a profession full of aloof technocrats. Sometimes this meant putting himself out there and risking embarrassment, like when he promised to write a Bills fight song and sing it on his Monday local television show if the Bills beat Miami. (They did, and he did.) Another time, sensing his team was uptight before a big game, he broke into comically exaggerated Jane Fonda-style calisthenics. After the era's most glorious moment—the Bills' 35-point comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 playoffs, the biggest come-from-behind victory in NFL history—Levy told his players, "I just coached the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL, and I want you to know, I couldn't have done it without you."

"Many coaches are standoffish, but Marv was always approachable," says Don Beebe, a wide receiver from that era of Bills teams. "Humility is such a big word for that guy."

The archetype for a modern football coach is a control freak with a huge ego, angling to be labeled as a strategic or motivational genius. By contrast, Levy was a delegator and consensus-builder who let his coordinators run the offense and the defense. "He kinda let you alone and we were able to do our work," says longtime defensive coordinator Walt Corey. The single most important decision of Levy's career was itself a drastic act of ego subordination: converting the Bills to a full-time no-huddle offense. This took playcalling away from the sideline and put it into Jim Kelly's hands, and shrunk the playbook—the document in which the coach's power is consolidated—to 20 percent of its original size.

Unlike many other Hall of Fame coaches, Levy didn't demand a signature style of play. It's testament to Levy's openness that the same coach who rode the no-huddle offense to four straight Super Bowls also installed the antiquated, high school-style Wing-T offense in his first year as an NFL coach, in 1978, with the Kansas City Chiefs. "With Marv it wasn't his way or the highway. It was the best way," says longtime Bills special teams ace Steve Tasker.

Levy's accessible personality was a perfect fit for unpretentious Buffalo, a small town by NFL standards. Matt Sabuda, director of the Buffalo Fan Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to keeping the Bills in Buffalo that was active around the recent sale of the team, remembers Levy jogging around the city's southern suburbs and waving hi to well-wishers. "He never, ever was full of himself, and we always embraced those personalities," Sabuda says. "Marv fit like a glove here. I don't think you necessarily would bring a Bill Parcells here and have the same connection." (Levy was not active in the campaign to keep the Bills in Buffalo, having promised the late owner Ralph Wilson that he would stay out of the team's business affairs.)

But Levy's gentlemanly persona, coupled with the fact that he never won a Super Bowl, left him susceptible to criticism. As popular as Levy was, some Buffalo fans can't help but think that if the Bills had a snarling intimidator for a coach, they maybe would have performed better in those Super Bowls. (Thurman Thomas losing his helmet prior to Super Bowl XXVI against Washington stands as the signature moment for the idea that the Bills, too often, weren't ready to play.) One of those gruff coaches, Bill Belichick, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV when the Giants beat the Bills, was famously contemptuous of Levy. "Here's a guy who came in and tried to run the Wing-T offense. That was brilliant," Belichick said in 1995, while coaching the Cleveland Browns.

Occasionally, some players mistook Levy's understated touch for softness. During training camp in 1993, a Bills rookie receiver named Russell Copeland became a ringleader of the "Deez Nutz" game, in which the perpetrator baits the victim into asking "Who?" so that "Deez nutz!" can be offered in reply. One day, Copeland caught Levy, and joyously ripped a "Deez nutz!" to his almost-70-year-old coach. But he was summarily confronted by several veterans. Coach is cool, but don't confuse that with license to disrespect him, they told the rookie.

Levy is fond of telling a story demonstrating his own measured firmness. It was after the Bills' second Super Bowl appearance, and Levy appeared on a sports talk radio show. A distraught caller wanted to commiserate with Levy: he said he couldn't deal with another Super Bowl loss, and that he'd rather the Bills not even get back to the Super Bowl. "Sir, I understand your anguish and I share it," he told the caller. "But I'm glad you're not on my team."

Photo by RVR Photos/USA TODAY Sports

But now, faster and faster the years fly by.

And many of my dear pals have said, 'Good-bye.'

And even if today's world now considers us old,

They should have seen us when we were young and bold.

I'll remember that time when we went off to war

And then returned to a world that was better than before.

I'll remember all those with whom I served,

The Greatest Generation, a title deserved.

-From "I'll Remember Those Days," by Marv Levy

As soon as he graduated high school in 1943, Levy enlisted in World War II. He joined the Army Air Corps, but his bad eyesight prevented him from seeing action, so he went to military meteorology school instead. Twenty-one of Levy's fellow high school classmates enlisted as well, three of whom didn't return. It was part of what he described as "a hard-to-explain atmosphere that prevailed in the whole country at that time. The entire nation was so immersed." A journalist once asked him if an upcoming game was a must-win. No, Levy responded. World War II was a must-win.

Levy's father, Sam Levy, enlisted in World War I at the age of 16, fudging his age to do so. He fought in the battle of Belleau Wood, when Allied forces halted the advance of the Germans in a forest about 50 miles from Paris. Sam Levy took shrapnel all over his body and was gassed. He survived. A little more than two decades later, he tried to enlist in World War II, but was turned down because he was too old.

In 2014, football has come under scrutiny, and so has the traditional masculine value system often associated with it. In our culturally polarized age, words like "bravery" and "patriotism" are closely aligned with one side of the debate, rendered abstract by the fact that United States is fighting two distant, perpetual wars without mandatory enlistment. But Levy comes from a generation pre-dating this cultural polarization. The country was all-in—of a population of 130 million, 16 million were enlisted—and teenagers like Levy took seriously their duty to be brave and patriotic.

Levy sees these virtues reflected in football, and he isn't cynical about it. "I was honored and fortunate to be where I was [as Bills coach]. I was fortunate to be born in this country. I was fortunate to be born to my parents," he says.

He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, son of a middleman in the produce business who bought wholesale produce from downstate farms and then sold it to local grocery stores. Levy worked in the produce house on Saturdays as a child, where he made a classic son-of-an-immigrant resolution: he didn't want to do this kind of work for the rest of his life. When he was 13, he was sweeping up one day when his father snatched the broomstick out of his hand: "Go home and play football," he told him.

South Shore High School had an eclectic mix of Jews, Italians, Irish, Greeks, and Scandinavians. Levy attributes his ability to get along with black players to growing up in this ethnic stew: "I've just had this, 'They're no different to me than anyone else' feeling my entire life," he says. (Levy is Jewish but was never observant. He wasn't Bar Mitzvah'd, and doesn't go to synagogue or celebrate Passover.)

After World War II ended, he received a football scholarship to the University of Wyoming as a defensive back, "but they didn't give you 10 seconds to study," he says. So he transferred to Division III Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was a letterman in multiple sports and the student body president. His resume was so impressive that he got into Harvard Law. His education was paid for by the GI Bill, which Levy still calls "fantastic."

He was a smart, bookish young man who was on track to be a lawyer, but he knew his heart was in coaching. He had grown up listening to a radio announcer named Bill Stern in Chicago, a Chris Berman type who announced the college scores with a melodramatic schtick. Levy, ever the sentimentalist, internalized the notion that sports were elevated pursuits. A month into law school, he called his father and told him he wanted to give up law and instead get into coaching. He would transfer out of the law program and enroll in a master's program in history at Harvard, after which he would try in earnest to become a coach.

"Thirty seconds of painful silence followed," Levy remembered in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2001. "And then the old Marine said simply, 'Be a good one!'"

Our Second Amendment grants the right to bear arms,

Regardless of how many people it harms.

But is is never too late to change some laws,

Especially those that are laden with flaws.

Twenty-seven amendments in our Constitution reside,

Many of them put there to cast previous ones aside.

And so the time has now come for Amendment Twenty-Eight.

It is the righting of wrongs that makes our nation great.

-From "Guns," by Marv Levy

Levy voted for Obama, but says that he "liked Romney too." He considers himself a Democrat, but voted for Republicans like Dole, Reagan, and Eisenhower. Maybe this speaks to political incoherence, but maybe it speaks to Levy's generous, consensus-building spirit. In Levy's America, people are decent, and the arc of America's moral universe bends towards justice.

In an interview last year, he called the Washington team name "a crude word" and added, "I would think if Native Americans feel offended, it would make sense to change it." He is inspired by the country's mid-century triumph over Jim Crow. During the war, while he was stationed at Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base, the Charlotte Observer printed a letter he wrote defending President Roosevelt's executive order prohibiting discrimination by any government agency, including the military. (In practice, this order was not fully enforced.) He fondly recalls an incident from his Coe College days, when an African American member of his squad was denied admission to the team hotel and told to stay at the YMCA. The Coe team upped and left with him. So did the Grinnell College team, which was staying at the same hotel.

Levy says he himself encountered little anti-semitism. Once, in college, he was told by a member of a fraternity that they didn't accept Jewish pledges—"very apologetically," Levy adds. In the Army Air Corps, he once got into an argument with a fellow soldier who called him a "kike," but Levy's bunkmates came to his defense, shouting the offender down and telling Levy not to worry about that jerk.

Life has been good to Marv Levy. Thus his pleasantness and faith in people. Thus, to complete the circle of decency, a guy who people in turn treat well.

But what does such an optimist make of the current state of the NFL, during its annus horriblus? Of Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice, and the growing awareness of the sport's long-term effects on its participants? Of the fact that some of Levy's all-time favorite players—Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Don Beebe, Kenneth Davis, Darryl Talley—were among the players on the class-action lawsuit against the NFL? Of the recent news reports about Talley, the heart-and-soul linebacker of those Super Bowl Bills teams, whose rattled brain has left him broke and depressed, and possibly suicidal? (Talley was the recipient of a fan crowdfunding campaign that raised $150,000 for his medical bills.)

Levy offers no easy answers, no nuggets of literary wisdom. His impulse is to point out the progress the game has made: "In my day you were a sissy if during the preseason you wanted a drink of water!" he says. He says he spoke recently to Talley, who "seemed lifted" by all the fan support. He hopes to lobby the Bills to get Talley a job in player relations. When I ask Levy what he would do if he had a 14-year-old son who wanted to play football, he admits, "That has gone through my mind. That has gone through my mind—yeah."

Still, the idea that football is a destructive enterprise is a tough sell for a guy like Levy, for whom the game was a fun diversion from the broom in the produce market. The idea that football is toxic because it glorifies violence is absurd to a guy from a generation rightly venerated for its willingness to subject itself to violence. What makes Levy such a magnetic person is his ability to see the better angels in everyone and everything—including football.

"I have truly loved the game, and I love every one who has shared this passion with me," he said at the conclusion of his Hall of Fame induction speech.

He concluded his speech: "Thank you all for enriching my life."

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Darryl Talley received $100,000 from a crowdfunding campaign for his medical expenses. In fact, he received $100,000.