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Losing a Super Bowl can have lasting impact on players, team

Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills walks dejectedly

Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills walks dejectedly off the field after missing what would have been the game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXV. Credit: AP, 1991

By late Sunday night, they will know their fate. The winners -- either the Seahawks or the Broncos -- will be hugging, posing with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and celebrating in MetLife Stadium with their kids on their shoulders.

Those from the other team will be sitting in a silent locker room, towels draped over their shoulders like giant metaphorical hankies. They will be stunned. They will be angry. They will be confused.

There are few places in sports as lonely and deflated as the losing locker room on Super Bowl Sunday.

Those who have been there say the only football experience more difficult than losing the Super Bowl is losing it again . . . and again . . . and again. No one knows this better than members of the Bills and Vikings, franchises that both are 0-for-4 in the big game.

The Super Bowl isn't an event that celebrates being No. 2. There is no medal stand for the team that wins the silver. There is just a feeling of not having accomplished what you set out to accomplish.

"It still hurts,'' said Jim Kelly, who quarterbacked the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1991-94. "When I think about what it would be like to win, to be in the winning locker room, it hurts for a second and then I have to focus on something else.''

Kelly is one of 22 to have played in all four Bills' Super Bowl losses, and the team remains an unusually tight fraternity. The Vikings' defeats were more spread out -- 1970, 1974, 1975 and 1977 -- with 10 players enduring all four. Carl Eller is one of the 10. He said despite all he accomplished -- the five-time All-Pro lineman anchored the Purple People Eaters' defense and made the Hall of Fame in 2004 -- it is those losses that people remember most.

"The fans, they don't forgive you,'' Eller said with a laugh. "You think 30 years after, they would, but they don't. Most people are good-natured about it. But their favorite line is 'I lost a lot of money on you guys.' It's as if I should pay them back.''

No team goes into the Super Bowl expecting to lose. Too much work goes into getting there for a team to believe it can't win. Eller admits, however, that as the losses began to pile up, the situation started to seem a little surreal.

"It's really a crazy thing,'' Eller said. "You lose one, you lose two, and then you think, we can't lose again. The gods wouldn't be that unfair. It's a nightmare. We had some great teams. We were dominant in that era, especially on defense. You just can't believe it could keep happening.''

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Bills' fourth Super Bowl loss. Two decades later, it's hard not to marvel at how Buffalo dominated the AFC in the early 1990s. The Bills won their four conference title games by a combined score of 120-33, beating John Elway, Dan Marino and Joe Montana, respectively, in the last three. How unique is the Bills' place in history? No other team has reached the big game four consecutive seasons (the Dolphins made it three straight in Super Bowls VI, VII and VIII).

Marv Levy, coach of those Buffalo teams, remembers each loss vividly. The first, a 20-19 heartbreaker to the Giants, ended when Scott Norwood's 47-yard field-goal attempt was wide right. The second was a 37-24 loss to Washington. The third was a 52-17 loss to Dallas. And the final one was a 30-13 loss to Dallas in which the Bills were outscored 24-0 in the second half. "Each had its own unique wrinkle,'' Levy said. "The immediate impact after is very disheartening. After the first one, I lay there and I'm pounding the pillow. But then you get back to work. I think that's what I feel best about with this team is how each time they went right back to work.''

Levy developed a formula for moving on after each loss. First, they mourned. Then they owned up to it. Then they looked at the good they had done. And finally they made a plan for the next year. Levy recalled how after the second loss, a fan called in to his radio show and begged him not to try to get back to the Super Bowl.

"He said, 'Please don't go back, I can't stand it. I get so depressed I can't go to work the next day,' '' Levy said. "I told him, 'Sir, I understand. But I'm glad you're not on my team.' ''

Kelly has yet to watch one frame of tape from any of the losses, saying he hadn't wanted to relive the pain. Yet he said with the passage of time, he believes his team is remembered more for what it accomplished than what it didn't. He noted that one of his closest friends, Warren Moon, never got to play in a Super Bowl and another, Marino, lost the only one he played in.

"People ask would you rather win one time, or go four times and lose. It's a hard question. But to be honest with you, I would rather go four times and lose,'' Kelly said. "There's nothing I would change. Coming in second is a lot better than not coming in at all.''

There is one thing worse than going 0-4 in the Super Bowl. Four Bills from their Super Bowl teams -- Gale Gilbert, Cornelius Bennett, Glenn Parker and Don Beebe -- were on the rosters of other Super Bowl losers, too.

Three years after Buffalo's fourth failure, Beebe tasted victory when the Packers beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. A year later, he was on injured reserve when the Packers lost to the Broncos.

Twenty one years ago, Beebe personified the never-give-up attitude of the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII when, late in the game the Cowboys had locked up, the receiver chased down Leon Lett as he prematurely showboated a fumble return near the goal line. He knocked the ball away from Lett and it rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. After the game, Bills owner Ralph Wilson told Beebe, "Son, you showed what the Buffalo Bills are all about today.''

It was moments like that in the losers' locker room that Beebe was thinking about when he finally did earn a ring. Beebe recalled that as the final 10 seconds ticked off in the Packers' victory, it was his former teammates, not his current ones, who occupied his thoughts.

"Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, all these Hall of Fame guys who never got to experience this,'' he said. "All I could think . . . why me? Why do I get to experience something like this and they don't?''

Some questions have no answers.


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