Steve Champlin was sure the Buffalo Bills would win Super Bowl I. They didnâ€™t. And heâ€™s spent much of his life since chasing Super Bowl dreams.
He was at War Memorial Stadium for the AFL title game on New Yearâ€™s Day 1967, when the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Bills for the right to play in that first Super Bowl. It just about broke that seventh-graderâ€™s heart.
He was sure the Bills would win Super Bowl XXV, too. By then, he was the Billsâ€™ director of stadium operations. Wide right, in his mindâ€™s eye, still hangs in the night sky over Tampa. That broke his heart yet again.
He was with the Bills for two more Super Bowl losses and then left when general manager Bill Polian did, eventually following him to the expansion Carolina Panthers and on to the Indianapolis Colts. Then, following the 2006 seasonÂ â€“ 40 years after that Billsâ€™ loss to the ChiefsÂ â€“ the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. And Champlin, at long last, had a Super Bowl ring to call his own.
This Saturday, the Colts come to Bills Stadium for a playoff game. It pits the team Champlin won a ring with against the one he loved as a kidÂ â€“ in the stadium he used to run. Surely you can guess for whom he is rooting.
â€œMy heart belongs to the Bills,â€ he says. â€œIt was niceÂ â€“ awesome, reallyÂ â€“ to win a ring with the Colts. But, hey, the (Bills) Mafia, as they call themselves now, thatâ€™s loyalty beyond any measure.â€
Champlin, 66, is speaking by phone from his home, in suburban Indianapolis. (Full disclosure: Weâ€™ve been friends since grade school in the 1960s at St. John the Baptist in the Town of Tonawanda.)
â€œItâ€™s funny, because when I first got to the Bills, Bill Polian told me, â€˜When you work in the NFL, you lose the right to be a fan.â€™ And I thought, â€˜Wow. Thatâ€™s impossible to do.â€™ He was right. It was a good lesson learnedÂ â€“ but I donâ€™t have to worry about that anymore.â€
Thatâ€™s because he left the Colts when Polian did, after the 2011 season. And now that he is a fan again, his loyalty resides with the Bills once more.
â€œAs much as I respect both teams, and as much as I love Frank Reich, I think this is Buffaloâ€™s time,â€ Champlin says. â€œAt least I hope it is.â€
Hereâ€™s a New Yearâ€™s toast to Jack Kemp and Jim Kelly andÂ all of our newfound Bills friends, Brady writes.
When he was growing up, his family had season tickets to the Bills and the hockey BisonsÂ â€“ and, 50 years ago, they were original season-ticket holders for the Sabres, with four at center ice, on the aisle, in the first row of the reds. They lived in the Town of Tonawanda, three blocks from St. Josephâ€™s Collegiate Institute, and he played on the earliest hockey teams there. He played at the U.S. Naval Academy, too. And after graduation he served on the first U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf after the American hostages were taken in Iran, in 1979.
Champlin returned to Buffalo as a Navy recruiter in 1980 and coached the St. Joeâ€™s freshman hockey team. He left the Navy in 1982, nearly took a job with a defense contractor in Washington, but instead went to work for a food-service company in Buffalo that also provided private security at Bills games. The company was later acquired by Marriott, where Champlinâ€™s boss was a dynamo named Jon Luther.
The companyâ€™s contract with the Bills ran out after the 1985 season. So Champlin made an appointment to talk with the Billsâ€™ newly named general managerÂ â€“ PolianÂ â€“ about getting it renewed.
â€œI walk into his office, and Bill has three cigarettes going,â€ Champlin says. â€œHeâ€™s got a dozen files on the ground and heâ€™s kneeling with his back to me and he doesnâ€™t turn around, just wags his arm for me to come in, and he says, â€˜Iâ€™ll be with you in a second.â€™ â€
Neither knew it yet, but it was the start of a beautiful friendship. When Polian was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, he saluted Champlin as â€œthe most loyal, selfless teammate one could have.â€
A few months after their meet-cute in that smoke-filled room, Polian called Champlin to offer him a job as director of stadium engineering and maintenance. Polian also hired Ed Stillwell, who had hired Champlin at the food-service company, as director of stadium operations. Their first big event at Rich Stadium was a Grateful Dead concert, on July 4, 1986.
â€œThat was a lot of revenue,â€ Champlin says. â€œWe made enough money to pay for a third-round draft choice.â€
Polian left the Bills after their third Super Bowl loss, and Champlin left, too. Polian later hired Champlin to help get the newbie Panthers off the ground in Charlotte. Champlin left the Panthers in the mid-1990s to work in franchise sales for Popeyes, where his boss once again was Luther.
â€œI have two mentors who have shaped my professional life,â€ Champlin says. â€œBill Polian and Jon Luther.â€
When Polian got the gig in Indy, he wanted Champlin by his side again. But Luther suggested that the corporate world offered more stability than the NFL. He was president of Popeyes, then a division of AFC Enterprises. Champlin picked the AFC East instead.
â€œJon said, â€˜Why do you want to do this? You can have a great career here.â€™ And I told him, â€˜We never won a Super Bowl in Buffalo, and I have some unfinished business.â€™ â€
Champlin went to the Colts as director of player development and moved up to director of football administration. Polian assembled a powerhouse team with the so-called Triplets: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. By 2005, the Colts were the NFLâ€™s best. They went 14-2, earned a playoff byeÂ â€“ and then got upset in the divisional round by the No. 6-seed Pittsburgh Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
That loss was devastating. Champlin still thinks the 2005 Colts are the most talented team he was a part of: â€œI remember thinking, â€˜How good do you have to be to win one of these things?â€™ â€
Luther called a few weeks later. By now he was CEO of Dunkinâ€™ Donuts, and he offered Champlin a senior position in Boston, where both Champlin and his wife, Mary, had family.
â€œIt was an ungodly amount of money,â€ Champlin says, â€œwith stock options.â€
He came close to taking it. In the end, though, the siren call of the Super Bowl kept him in Indy. And, as it happened, the Colts won it all the next season.
What does it feel like to win a Super Bowl he had thought about since his seventh-grade self watched the Bills miss out on the first one?
â€œSurreal,â€ Champlin says. â€œIt was worth everything. Worth whatever 10,000 shares of Dunkinâ€™ stock would bring today. I donâ€™t know what that isÂ â€“ and I donâ€™t care.â€
We peeked: A portfolio of that many shares is now worth north of $1 million. But you canâ€™t wear stock. And Champlin has a Super Bowl ring. He doesnâ€™t wear it all the time, but itâ€™s his.
â€œItâ€™s mostly for special occasions,â€ he says. â€œWeddings, funerals, baptisms. Old-guy stuff.â€
Four decades later, Bills fan Steve McCarville, of Orchard Park, remembers a special trip to the airport.Â
Champlin almost got a second ring. The Colts played in Super Bowl XLIV, following the 2009 season, but lost to the New Orleans Saints. He has fond memories of that Super Bowl, too, and one of those is simply this: For two weeks, he worked closely with a Panthers executive who was assigned to the Colts by the league office to help with the labyrinthine logistics involved in guiding a team seamlessly through the fortnight of excess leading up to kickoff.
That Panthers exec was none other than Brandon Beane. This means Champlin is that rare individual who has worked closely with the two best GMs in Bills historyÂ â€“ Beane for all of two weeks, and Polian for more than three decades.
â€œYou could see how good Brandon Beane was going to be,â€ Champlin says, â€œthe attention to detail that he has.â€
They stay in touch. Champlin texted congratulations when the Bills signed Beane to a contract extension last month. Beane texted back his thanks.
Now, with the Colts coming to Buffalo for the Billsâ€™ first home playoff game in what feels like forever, Champlin is rooting for the team of his youth, rather than for the team of his ring.
And now he hopes the Bills, and the city they represent, will ring in 2021 with Super Bowl rings of their own.
â€œIf fate owes the Bills a Super Bowl,â€ he says, â€œletâ€™s hope it comes this year.â€