Last week, after the Buffalo Bills found yet another way to rip their fans’ hearts out with a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up, last-second loss, Jim Kelly reached out to beleaguered quarterback Josh Allen. Kelly, who’s overcome so much tragedy and pain in his life, took to Instagram and told Josh he remained in his corner and urged him to keep plowing forward. It was a magnanimous gesture from one legend to another, and a reminder that we could all use a cup of kindness and perspective on occasion.
I don’t know if it was Jim’s message or the play-calling of new offensive coordinator Joe Brady or a combination of that and other things, but Josh appeared rejuvenated during Sunday’s throttling of the New York Jets. He seemed like the old Josh. The fearless Josh. The fun-loving Josh.
And I was reminded there clearly are times when our sports passions get the best of us, when we invest so much emotion that we lose sight of what we have. I don’t know if Josh will ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy or even reach the Super Bowl, but this much I know: Like Kelly, three decades before him, he’s made the Bills relevant and exciting again.
So, during a time of the year when I devote this space to giving thanks, I doff a helmet to Jim and Josh.
Here are some other sports-related things for which I’m grateful:
- The sounds of bats hitting balls, sneakers squeaking on hardwood courts, putts dropping into cups, and skate blades carving up ice.
- The heroism of Don Holleder, Bob Kalsu, Gary Scott and Tom Way — four local athletes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
- Ted Lasso, the fictitious soccer coach who taught us the power of hope and humor, especially during these dark, polarized times.
- My friendship with longtime Voice of the Bills John Murphy, who continues his inspiring comeback from a stroke.
- The annual Challenger Baseball World Series at Innovative Field — and how this brainchild of kind-hearted Tony Wells gives kids with disabilities a chance to showcase their abilities.
- The humorous and wise malapropisms of late catcher/wordsmith Yogi Berra, and the documentary about his remarkable, underappreciated life.
- Zambonis and Lord Stanley’s Cup.
- Birthday and Father’s Day games of catch with my kids, grandkids and wife.
- The new baseball rules that resulted in more crisply played games.
- The riveting performance at this year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill by Michael Block, who scored a hole-in-one and struck a blow for every weekend hacker who’s dreamed of being a contender.
- Trips to Syracuse football and basketball games in the Dome with my paisans.
- Transcendent sports books, such as Roger Kahn’s “Boys of Summer,” which had a profound influence on my life and career.
- The two-way brilliance of slugger/pitching ace Shohei Ohtani.
- Conversations with 98-year-young Marv Levy, whose intelligence, sense of humor, and kind heart are in abundant supply each time we speak.
- Major-League caliber announcers Josh Whetzel of the Red Wings and Don Stevens of the Amerks.
- Memories of my first ballgame at Yankee Stadium with my dad, Andrew Pitoniak, on Sept. 17, 1966.
- Butterflies fluttering in the stomach before a kickoff, first pitch, tipoff, or opening faceoff.
- Being there to witness Mickey Mantle muscle baseballs into the upper deck, Michael Jordan sink a buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper, Muhammad Ali light the Olympic cauldron, Frank Reich engineer a miraculous comeback, Syracuse upset top-ranked Nebraska in football, Abby Wambach score the gold-medal-winning soccer goal in Athens, Greece, Michael Phelps swim to a record eighth gold medal in Beijing, and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods drain long and winding birdie putts at Oak Hill.
- The perseverance of former Rochester Red Wing Drew Maggi, who, this summer after 13 years of toiling in the minors, made his Major League Baseball debut.
- Gone but never forgotten sporting friends Joe Altobelli, Johnny Antonelli, Carmen Basilio, Tom Batzold, George Beahon, Al Cervi, Larry Costello, Mike Fennell, Jerry Flynn, Jack Garner, Dan Guilfoyle, Kent Hull, Milo the Bat Dog, Tom Myslinski, Bob Parker, John Ricco, Bob Schwartz, Pat Stark, Nick and Sam Urzetta, Christine Wagner-Welch, and Rick Woodson.
- Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” and Jim Valvano’s “never, ever give up” speeches.
- The profound and life-saving impact Bills safety Damar Hamlin has had in raising awareness and money for CPR education and defibrillator accessibility.
- The reminder from the highly entertaining Savannah Bananas – aka the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball – that sports are supposed to be fun.
- Interviews with spitfires like Maybelle Blair, one of the women baseball players who inspired the classic movie, “A League of Their Own.”
- The loyalty and generosity of Bills Mafia, which has raised tens of millions of dollars for worthy causes.
- Yankee pinstripes, UCLA’s powder blue and gold football uniforms, and the Rochester Americans red, white and blue crest.
- The Courage Bowl, a Gary Mervis-inspired idea that, among other things, provides kids with cancer an opportunity to be a part of a college football team and cheer squad.
- The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in bucolic Cooperstown.
- Mentors such as Frank Bilovsky, John Pitarresi, Vic Carucci and Jim Memmott, who each in their own way helped me become a better writer and person.
- Timeless movies, such as “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “42,” “Hoosiers,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Slap Shot,” “The Express,” and “The Natural.”
- People who have read my stuff and shared it with others. This ink-stained wretch could not have taken this 51-year journey without you.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest books – “If These Walls Could Talk: Buffalo Bills,” and “Invisible No More: A Historical Novel” – are available at Amazon.com and in bookstores.