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Buffalo storm brings back memories of Christmas whiteout 40 years ago


LOCKPORT, N.Y. – Sitting in my hotel room in Lockport, N.Y., waiting out the storm that has delayed the AFC wild-card game between Pittsburgh and Buffalo from Sunday to Monday, I’m reminded of the last time severe Western New York weather and football collided in my life.

That was 481 months ago.

I was 16, halfway through Grade 10, when my parents decided that for Christmas 1983, we would drive to Williamsburg, Va., where they were staging a colonial Christmas.

Sounded like fun.

As Williamsburg was an 11-hour drive, my parents determined that they, my younger sister and I, were best to leave during the afternoon of Dec. 23 to get across the border and shave a few hours off the trip without a full day of driving.

There were no apps, or internet to check the weather. And for whatever reason, none of us watched the forecast on the Buffalo television stations that beamed across the border to Toronto. We were going south, so weather shouldn’t be an issue.

Roughly three to four hours after leaving home, we stopped in a place called Westfield, N.Y., which sits roughly 64 miles to the west of Buffalo, along I-90. If you’ve ever driven past Erie, Pa., on I-90 you’ve been past Westfield and the Thruway Holiday Motel which still sits on the south side of the highway near one of the exits to Westfield.

The Thruway is one of those 1950s era motels where, at least in 1983, it felt like time had stopped the day it was built. Even the postcards in the room showed cars parked in front from 25 years earlier and you sensed the carpets and drapes were probably original.

I recall my Mom saying, “We’ll get a nicer place for tomorrow night, when it’s Christmas Eve.”

However, that next morning came with a huge surprise.

Snow everywhere, whiteout conditions across the region, the thruway closed.

We were apparently among the lucky ones, as 15 miles away there were hundreds of people sleeping on cots in a high school gym in Ripley, N,Y., taken there by police when the thruway closed overnight.

We were stuck, with nothing to do.

My one saving grace was that Dec. 24 was NFC wild-card game day, so we settled in to watch the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Denver Broncos 31-7. I don’t recall whether we watched Alabama beat Southern Miss in the Aloha Bowl that night. But I’m guessing we probably did, as we waited for the roads to open.

They did not, however, and it was clear we would spend Christmas at the Thruway Holliday Motel.

On Christmas, we hiked through a blizzard to be fed by a local restaurant that opened its doors and its kitchen to anyone stranded who could make it – free of charge.

It was an amazing experience to be greeted with such generosity and to swap stories with others who had not planned to spend Christmas in Westfield.

And on the 26th, the thruway re-opened, and we got out.  

But Virginia was no longer on the agenda. We were going home.

Once home, my parents decided the money we’d saved by not making it to Williamsburg would be put towards a family purchase – our first VCR.

Back then, VCRs were an expensive luxury. But the Boxing Day sales were enough to entice my parents to enter the world of being able to record television shows.

It turned out to be perfect timing for an event I was very excited about – the 1984 Orange Bowl, to be played between Miami and Nebraska for the college football national championship.

Nebraska was a classic college football powerhouse of that era, with an athletic quarterback in Turner Gill, a giant offensive line, and a backfield led by Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.

Miami was a forerunner of what was to come in the sport – a big-armed quarterback in freshman Bernie Kosar and a bunch of receivers who could fly.

Nebraska was an 11-point favourite.

I was fascinated by the thought that I could tape this game and watch it back as many times as I wanted. What a world I was about to enter.

The 1984 Orange Bowl did not disappoint and neither did our new VCR.

Miami went up 17-0 in the first quarter before a crowd dominated by Hurricane fans. Nebraska stormed back with two touchdowns to make it 17-14 at the half.

In what was a fantastic game from start to finish, Miami led 31-24 when Nebraska scored with 42 seconds remaining to make it 31-30.

The Cornhuskers could kick a convert, tie the game and be National Champions as they’d entered the game ranked No. 1.

Or they could go for the win.

NBC’s Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy had the call that night, and I can still here Trumpy say of Nebraska’s head coach, “Tom Osborne made this decision a long time ago.”

They would go for the win.

However, the two-point convert pass failed, the partisan Miami crowd at the Orange Bowl exploded, and Howard Schnellenberger’s Hurricanes were national champions.

Part of the reason I can still hear Trumpy’s voice setting up that two-point attempt is I must have watched that game dozens of times in the weeks and months that followed.

The snowstorm in Westfield, N.Y. had interrupted colonial Christmas, but it had delivered a new wonder to my teenage life – the ability to tape football games. And my sports-viewing life would never be the same.

Fast-forward a quarter century to late 2008 when I was a sportswriter for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

I realized that the anniversary of that game was approaching and that I had access to people who had participated in it.

Marc Trestman, then the Montreal Alouettes head coach, had been the Miami Hurricanes quarterback coach. Then University of Buffalo head coach Turner Gill (who played briefly in the CFL with Montreal) was the Nebraska quarterback who started that game and threw the two-point convert that fell incomplete. And former B.C. Lions offensive lineman Ian Sinclair had been the starting centre for the Hurricanes. 

I reached out to all three, thinking I would write a story about “the greatest college football game ever played” (at least in my eyes). What I ended up writing was about the game that changed college football.

Looking back, the whole experience of being snowed-in over Christmas in Westfield, N.Y. was an early lesson that adversity and bad luck can sometimes lead to great things.

The memories of that Christmas and what followed have come rushing back to me during this current episode of extreme Western New York winter weather. Especially as I watch the snow falling and blowing about outside my hotel window, just as it did more than 40 years ago.