Niagara Gazette

April 29, 2013

CITY DESK: The voice of the fans

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In my parents’ house, Larry Felser was practically like family.

He never stopped by or anything. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards. In fact, sadly, the Scheers never even met the man. 

Thanks to my father — a voracious newspaper reader — the late, great Buffalo News columnist was a fixture in our living room and at our kitchen table. His weekly observations served as fodder for countless conversations and serious debates about our beloved Buffalo Bills and Sabres. 

To say Felser was great is an understatement. 

To me, an aspiring journalist, Felser was a hero, a true source of inspiration. 

The News put it best when they described him as “iconic.”  

Generations of Western New York sports fans who grew up reading Felser, being educated by him, laughing with him and, of course, enduring the tremendous pain that has become synonymous with rooting for anything Buffalo in the world of sports in recent years. 

A former colleague of mine who now works at the Buffalo News once told me Felser had an uncanny knack for being able to write for space.

In other words: He rarely exceeded the number of words allowed.

What impressed this person most was how, regardless of the deadline or how much he may have had to say on a given topic, Felser so often managed to say it — just right — within 20 or so inches of column space. 

I can tell you, that’s no easy task and, for the great ones, like Felser, it’s a gift. 

From my perspective as a reader and a fan, Felser almost always seemed to get it just right. I’m not talking about facts or statistics. I’m talking something much more complex to express in words — things like tone and context and tempo. 

After Bills games, particularly after losses, my father and I would rush to read Felser’s columns to find out what really happened.

Even though we most likely watched the game ourselves the day before, we still needed to know what players, staff and management told Felser, what he thought went right or wrong and how he believed things could or should have gone differently. 

So often you came away thinking “exactly, Larry, exactly.” 

As needed, Felser could be a harsh critic. He was a calming influence as well, reminding irate fans that seasons ebb and flow and in sports, as in life, things don’t always go as planned. 

Year after year, Felser’s words put the state of affairs at One Bills Drive in its proper perspective. He did it better than anyone else, often with genuine humor and emotion.

Having been there when the Bills were just a fledgling franchise back in the days of the American Football League, Felser introduced more modern era fans like myself to the likes of Jack Kemp and O.J. Simpson and Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion. 

His work also brought us closer to the heroes of our day — the greats like Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith as well as the grunts like Darryl Talley and Ray Bentley and Leonard Smith.

One thing was clear: Felser loved football, the way Buffalo fans do — not just for the dazzling one-handed catches or the thrilling touchdown drives, but for the hard-fought goal line stances and the gritty 3-yard struggles that so often make the difference between a win and a loss.  

Reading his work taught me a great deal about the subject at hand: The game itself. 

There were other days when Felser allowed fans into his personal life, penning touching and entertaining columns about experiences with colleagues and friends as well as own family. 

It all made him real, more approachable somehow. 

After Felser’s passing, Bills owner Ralph Wilson paid perhaps the highest complement that can be paid to a newsman. He called Felser “tough, but fair,” a delicate balance that, trust me, is not easily achieved. 

In a column written by his colleague, Jerry Sullivan, following Felser’s retirement in 2001, Jerry Izenberg, veteran sports columnist at The Newark Star-Ledger, characterized Felser as a true writer for the working class — the perfect voice for a community like Buffalo.

“Larry Felser comes from a class of columnists who wrote for the people,” Izenberg told Sullivan. “They didn’t write lines, they wrote for the people. It’s a dying thing. There was no question who Larry’s audience was. From what I know about him and about Buffalo, I think it was the perfect marriage.” 

I watched the first round of this year’s NFL draft at my parents’ house. Minutes after I walked in the door, my dad asked me if I heard about Felser’s passing.

We both agreed it was a tough loss. 

Contact city editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.