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SUPER BOWL XXVIII : BUFFALO BILLS vs. DALLAS COWBOYS : Y O U Gotta Have Heart : The Bills Look to Small Schools for Players With Singular Talents and the Heart to Face Adversity

January 29, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — When chronicling the building of a company, most successful executives remember important meetings, key sales, big victories.

John Butler, general manager of the Buffalo Bills, remembers an indentation in his belly.

It was caused by the steering wheel of a tiny car he had rented in Marquette, Mich. It was one of only two cars on the lot.

The stocky Butler had flown several hours in a prop jet that was so small, he changed seats to keep it level.

But he was determined to scout linebacker Mark Maddox of Northern Michigan University in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

So he squeezed into one of those cars.

"I get in and start driving, this wheel is pressing against my big tummy and it's snowing like hell," Butler said. "All I'm thinking is, 'This Mark Maddox better be able to play.' "

Butler arrived on the 8,000-student campus and watched some film on Maddox. Then he asked if he could watch him lift some weights.

"Mark tells me, 'Mr. Butler, there is only one guy with a key to our weight room, and he isn't coming in for two days,' " Butler said. "I thought to myself, 'There is no way I'm staying around here for two days.'

"I told him, 'Son, I've got to get back to the airport. There's only two rental cars and it's somebody else's turn."

So he left. But he didn't forget Maddox.

Based on interview and instinct, Butler made him a ninth-round draft pick in 1991.

Nearly three years later, Maddox is the Bills' starting inside linebacker and living proof of their dirt-road philosophy:

You can't travel to four Super Bowls if you won't first travel to Marquette.

Or Normal, Ala.

Or Chadron, Neb.

Or Kutztown, Pa.

More than any other NFL team, the Bills seek out the small-college athlete.

They search for him, give him a chance he never thought he would have, then allow him to pay them back.

Football's most resilient team? Small-college tackles such as Alabama A&M's Howard Ballard give them their resiliency.

Football's greatest comeback team? Small-college receivers such as Kutztown State's Andre Reed and Chadron State's Don Beebe have been making comebacks since puberty.

"Small-school kids have been fighting uphill battles all of their lives," Butler said. "Those are the kinds of kids that will not blink in adversity. They will play their hearts out for you."

They are guys like Phil Hansen, defensive end from North Dakota State, the man who knocked Joe Montana out of the AFC championship game.

The first NFL game Hansen saw live was the first one he played in.

"I slipped through the cracks, but in a good way," Hansen said. "I still don't know how Buffalo found me."

Keith McKeller, fifth on the team in playoff catches with 26, was thinking about selling cars when the Bills found him at Jacksonville State in Alabama.

He was a four-year letterman--in basketball. He caught 26 passes in his college career.

"I remember watching a movie about Hank Gathers and how he always dreamed of the NBA," McKeller said. "That was never me. I never thought about the pros until the Bills showed up."

Every spring, it seems, the Bills surprise someone by showing up.

One spring it was standout nose tackle Jeff Wright of Central Missouri State in Warrensburg.

Last spring it was special teams standout Monty Brown at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich.

That's Ferris State, training ground for some of this country's finest pharmacists and optometrists.

Last winter at this time, Brown watched the Super Bowl with two friends in his apartment.

"If somebody had walked through the door and told me I would be playing for those same Bills in the Super Bowl this year, I would have said, 'What lunatic asylum did you escape from?' " Brown said.

Sometimes, the Bills wonder that about Butler. Heck, sometimes Butler wonders that about Butler.

"But the way I look at it, it's a bigger gamble to take a big, good-looking kid from a fine program who you think will come around," Butler said. "Those are the kids that raise expectations and get you in trouble."

With a small-school athlete, well, remember how Beebe sneaked up on the Cowboys' Leon Lett in last year's Super Bowl?

Small-school athletes make those kinds of plays every day in training camp, or they are sent back to those small-school towns.

"When you are pampered your whole college career, you come to expect it," Beebe said. "Guys from small schools are not pampered. They will work."

Hansen knew about work. He grew up on a 2,000-acre farm in North Dakota.

When he played football for Oakes High, enrollment 195, he drew plays in the sand. When his coach, Wade Kuehl, mentioned that he might qualify for a full-ride scholarship to North Dakota State, Hansen had one question.

"What's a full ride?"

After four years in Fargo, Hansen landed in Buffalo as if he had landed on Mars. He was immediately struck by the big city's racial diversity.

"This is a guy who really didn't have many relationships with blacks because he didn't grow up around any," Kuehl said. "That's just one of the things that small-town kids have to learn."

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