At 93, Marv Levy no longer defined by Super Bowl losses

Chicagoan and Hall of Fame coach has no regrets

marv levy image
Buffalo Bills Head Coach Marv Levy walks the sidelines during the Bills 40-7 win over the L.A. Rams in Orchard Park, N.Y. in the fall of 1992. Photo credit: Rick Stewart/ALLSPORT.

The caller to Marv Levy's weekly radio show in Buffalo, N.Y., had a simple request. Come to think of it, it was more of a plaintive wail.

"Coach, don't go back to the Super Bowl," the man said. "I can't stand it. It's just awful."

Levy's Bills, the juggernaut of the early 1990s in the NFL's American Football Conference (AFC), had made it to three straight Super Bowls and lost them all, first to the New York Giants, then to the Washington Redskins, and then to the Dallas Cowboys. Excruciating? Of course. Too much for Levy to bear? Not a chance.

"Sir, I understand your anguish," Levy replied. "I've shared it. But I'm glad you're not on my team."

It was 1993. The Bills would, in fact, make it back to the big game. And they would lose it, to the Cowboys, again. If Levy, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, is known widely for one thing, it's belonging to the only team to suffer the indignity of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats.

It's a shame on many fronts, not the least of which is a grand mischaracterization: The Bills winning four straight AFC crowns wasn't an annual prelude to disappointment, but rather one of the greatest achievements in NFL history. Levy today calls the whole experience a "wonderful pleasure, believe it or not."

Levy knows a thing or two about staying power. The native of Chicago's South Shore neighborhood is 93 years young. Many a football fan in the city has encountered Levy on one of his daily walks near his Lincoln Park home, or as he bounds about Northwestern's downtown campus. He takes classes there in the humanities -- history, mostly -- this lifelong learner, with a master's degree in English history from Harvard.

About Harvard: Levy was a law student there in the 1940s, when the head football coach offered him a position on the Crimson staff. Torts and contracts were replaced by X's and O's -- and history.

"I don't regret it at all," he said.

Levy's mother, Ida, came to America from Russia at age four. Father Sam, born in England, arrived young, too. Sam Levy earned a Purple Heart at the Battle of Bellau Wood in France during World War I. What did he know from football? Not much, but he trusted the inclinations of his son, who'd served in the Air Force, though not in combat, during World War II.

It was in the service where Levy experienced what he describes as one of the only anti-Semitic events of his life. A soldier from Levy's unit called him a "kike," and the two men had a fistfight.

"When it was over," Levy recalled, "the rest of the guys in the unit came up and apologized."

 

Broadly told, the narrative about Levy -- those Super Bowl losses -- utterly misses the mark. His intelligence, open-mindedness, and keen sense of fairness that made him revered as a coach were present in his early years in South Shore, where his friends and classmates -- Greeks, Germans, Irish, Scandinavians -- were, by and large, sons and daughters of immigrants as he was. Levy was elected president of his class at South Shore High School. He also became student body president as an undergraduate at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"I'm not real observant," he said, "but I believe in God. I respect all religions as long as they're not trying to tear apart others. My father was one of 13 kids, some very religious, some not at all. But we always respected everybody.

"My religion wasn't a big thing I dealt with in football, but I always wanted good people around me who accepted others. I have respect for people who are very religiously oriented -- and some of my players were -- so long as it's not prejudicial toward other well-meaning people."

Levy means well. His dalliances with the Super Bowl are a quarter-century old, and what he has engaged in since arguably is even more relevant. He learns. He walks (and sometimes runs). He's pondering a fifth book. With wife Fran, he still travels. They thaw out for a while every winter in the California desert, which he calls "wimping out." 

We should all be so wimpy.

Steve Greenberg is a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

 




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