Above is a picture any Western New York resident knows too well. It comes from Superbowl 25 when Scott Norwood missed this 38 yard field goal (normally a chip-shot for this all-pro kicker) to lose the game to the Giants 20-19. The significance of this missed kick has been debated ever since 1991 when it occurred. The Bills went on to appear in the next three Superbowls, something that will never be repeated. Adding to this feat, they managed to lose all four of their Superbowl appearances. Many of us old Buffalo Bills fans believe Norwood making that kick would have seriously increased the chances of the Bills winning one or maybe even two more Superbowls. Instead of the butt of many jokes,The Bills would be mentioned in the company of the various dynasties in NFL history. The 1990-94 Buffalo Bills were the greatest team to never win a Superbowl.
I was raised in Grand Island, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. I grew up an avid football and hockey fan. Western New York is a blue collar, relatively small metro area. We take our sports seriously. Having now lived in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Wichita, St. Louis, and Kansas City, I can say without a doubt, Buffalo fans are the craziest, most devoted, of all major sports fans. A small TV market and further lack of national media exposure diminishes their prominence and could eventually lead to losing the Bills or Sabres, but don't let that fool you, Buffalo fans are the best.
That brings me to a major point of spiritual victory in my life. To be a football fan to the degree I was required a serious devotion. In fact, right when the Bills were starting to get good (known in Western NY as the "Kelly-Thomas-Reed-Smith" era), I was just beginning my discipleship journey with Christ. I remember doing whatever I could to be at church events, I considered myself to be a devoted follower of Jesus as a teenager. The only exception came when the Bills were playing and I could be at the game or somewhere to watch the game on a big screen. This would mean, sometimes, leaving church early or not going at all. I remember one of the pastors gently rebuking me for skipping out on church to catch a Bills game. I thought to myself- "give me a break, we're only talking about 10-16 times that I might miss something church related...big deal! Go pick on someone else"!
The first three years Buffalo made it to the Superbowl I was living in Chicago attending Moody Bible Institute. My obsession with the Bills and the NFL did not decrease, in fact, I worked as a doorman at a Michigan Avenue high rise on Sunday afternoons, so I could watch tons of football right at my desk. I never missed church in the morning, so I rationalized no foul was being committed. When I left Moody, got married, and took two years to work before going to seminary, I kept my obsession alive, especially that first year (1993-94) as the Bills made it to their 4th Superbowl that January. I never skipped church in the morning, heck, I was preparing for pastoral ministry, however, my day was definitely keyed on getting home, relaxing, and taking in some football...ok...lots of football.
The 1994 Buffalo Bills Superbowl loss to Dallas marks a shift in my view and practice.
As embarrassed as I am to confess this now, I had made watching, following, and thinking of NFL football an idol. There is no doubt I was more excited about the game Sunday afternoon than I was the worship service Sunday morning. I came under conviction on two counts- first, for making football an idol in my life. Second, for dishonoring the Lord's Day with this idol. For the next three years, I wrestled with this but the Lord eventually gave me release from my obsession to keep up on NFL games each week. Eventually, while I was in seminary, my pastor challenged me about my Lord's Day practices. He impressed upon me the need to rest, worship, enjoy the fellowship of my wife and church.
When I became the youth pastor at Redeemer (where I serve now as pastor) in 1997, I was finally liberated from the gnawing desire to race home to watch football. The Lord gave me a greater love for Him and His people than this idol of my heart. Further, the Lord made the various passages about the Sabbath come alive to me-not as a ritualistic practice of what not to do, but rather a special opportunity for spiritual enrichment to be taken advantage of. I think most of my congregation thinks I don't care much about NFL football, which would be odd for someone who lives in Kansas City (avid fans, not Buffalo-level, but avid). In reality, I used to be obsessed. The Buffalo Bills and NFL football were idols in my life. No doubt.
Now, I can't wait for the Lord's Day. It's my favorite day of the week. While I understand, from personal experience, why people are obsessed with watching and following sports (they serve as a kind of release and escape from the every day "grind"), I also feel sorry for people who look upon the Lord's Day with a sense of incompletion if they don't take in a game that day. Seriously, what is more profound- time with the people of God, hearing the gospel of God, worshiping the Triune God, in the House of God, or watching a bunch of overpaid egomaniacs play a game? I think we have the choice to worship every day, especially every Lord's Day. The question is- what will we worship? I once was lost, but now I am found- at least in the areas of idolatry to the NFL and dishonoring the Lord's Day because of it.
I'm no legalist. I didn't grow up "fundy" and I'm not remotely so now. I only challenge people to be honest about their various idols and practices. You might be surprised by where your heart lies.
So, I thank the 1994 Buffalo Bills (and the evil Dallas Cowboys who defeated them in Superbowl 28). I think God used them to give me victory over one of my complex sins. Many more to go.