Pollock: John Murphy left a legacy in Bills’ broadcasting

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By Sun Senior Columnist CHUCK POLLOCK. Photo of Van Miller, left, and John Murphy courtesy Buffalo Bills.

You don’t expect to be brought, almost to tears, by a segment of the local TV news.

But that’s where I was Wednesday evening watching Channel 7’s piece on the retirement of Bills’ radio play-by-play man John Murphy.

That announcement seemed inevitable since he suffered a stroke on New Year’s Day 2023. Since then he’s been in physical, speech and occupational therapy, mostly trying to regain his distinctive voice.

So far results have been mixed.

The 67-year-old Lockport native has lost 70 pounds and in an interview with Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News said “It’s kind of ironic, I’m in the best shape of my life, and I can’t talk.”

As a former broadcaster, it’s a given your voice is the most critical professional tool, and for “Murph” to lose that while living his lifelong dream, is beyond ironic, it’s tragic.

THERE IS irony, though. He suffered that stroke the day before one of the most memorable games in Bills’ history. That was the night Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium. Only an incredibly rapid response from the Bills’ training staff and both team’s doctors saved Hamlin’s life.

As I watched that scene unfold, my thoughts went to Chris Brown who had less than 24 hours to assimilate that he had inherited Murphy’s job and his very first game — which was ultimately canceled after Hamlin’s collapse — presented him with the most extraordinary circumstances he will ever again experience.

MURPHY’S interview with WKBW’s Jeff Russo revealed the same witty sense of humor, that wide smile and that deep, hardy laugh, though a bit tempered. But as John struggled with his speech, it choked me up, a graphic reminder that life isn’t always fair.

I met Murph in 1984 when WBEN radio hired him as sports director and he joined play-by-play man Van Miller as analyst on Bills games.

IT GOT ME thinking that in my 51 years covering the team, there have been only four radio play-by-play men and a mere nine analysts, one of them Murphy.

Though the late Miller broadcast Buffalo games for 38 seasons — the first 12 and the last 26 before retiring — he had a six-year hiatus (1972-77) when WBEN lost the contract to WKBW. Those years the broadcast crew was Philadelphia’s Al Meltzer on play-by-play. He flew in the night before the game then flew out afterward or the next morning. His analysts were Channel 7’s Rick Azar and former Bills’ quarterback Ed Rutkowski. 

Back then, select media traveled on the team plane and at times I was seated next to Azar, who had great stories about his acting and musician days and weekends doing ABC-TV’s national sportscasts from New York.

Or with Rutkowski, a Notre Dame alum, who wasn’t much of a QB, but had a charisma about him in the way he dressed and his appreciation for the finer things in life. One night at dinner he introduced me to escargot. Eventually his wisdom and sophistication earned him political notoriety as Erie County Executive.

AND SO IT was, in 1973, the year then-Rich Stadium opened, O.J. ran for an NFL record 2,003 yards and my first season on the beat, Van was a bystander listening to an out-of-towner do his job.

In 1978, he returned to the play-by-play position  and six years later Murphy joined him for 16 interrupted seasons as analyst.

Van was one of the funniest people I’d ever met. My wife and I were having breakfast at the team hotel in Ft. Lauderdale before a night game against Miami. He spotted us from across the room, headed straight to our table and mused, “Well  Chuck, I see you overachieved in marriage,” then walked away, no other words said.

Miller was well-known to be — ahem — fugal, a trait his fellow media wouldn’t let him forget. And to Van’s credit, he never took umbrage at being the butt of the joke, laughing as hard as the rest of us.

Back then — and this is totally unethical now — the Bills public relations staff, the night before road games, would host a dinner at a fancy restaurant for the traveling media and assistant coaches, all at team expense.

THESE DAYS, NFL coaching staffs are 22-or-more, but back in the ‘70s there were eight. The only stipulation was what the media heard from the coaches was off-the-record. And during the pre-meal drinks they got fired up and unleashed a waterfall of stories. We couldn’t report it but it was sure entertaining and great background.

Of course, Van was always first in line for the cabs to those dinners and NEVER brought his wallet. He maintained it gave his tight-fitting pants a “bad look” read: “I’m not paying for anything.”

And he warned us if he ever missed one of those dinners, to order his meal in a to-go box and bring it back to the hotel OR just bring him the cash value of his dinner!

He was one-of-a-kind. One of Van’s favorite gags was to walk up to a strange woman and ask “Why would such a pretty lady only be wearing one earring?” The victim would reflexively reach for both ears only to realize she’d been had.

That’s the legacy “Murph” inherited from Miller in 2004 and he handled it superbly for 19 seasons until circumstances put Brown in his chair.

Somehow, it just doesn’t seem long enough.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

Read more great columns by Chuck Pollock by clicking the links!

• Beane assesses the Bills’ draft picks

• A look at the first three picks by the Bills

• Will the Bills regret trading out of the first round?

• A look at the Buffalo Bills going into the NFL draft

• Pollock on the Bonnies and the need for a defensive lineman in the NFL draft for the Bills

• O.J. Simpson left a mixed legacy … in the wrong order

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