At age 93, there's nowhere else Marv Levy would rather be
By TIM O'SHEI | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: July 27, 2019
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — Marv Levy’s daughter is trying to convince him to create a special family memory. But this particular moment would be focused on him, and tied to his celebrity, which is a harder sell.
“We need to go together to see your bust,” Kimberly Alexopoulos said to Levy.
Alexopoulos, who is technically Levy’s stepdaughter (though neither of them uses that word), is talking about his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. After a long coaching career highlighted by leading the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, Levy was enshrined in the Hall in 2001.
“All right,” allowed Levy. He seemed to sense how important this is to her. “We’ll see.”
They were sitting by a tall window in her parents’ downtown apartment that resembles a large, airy suite in a European hotel. Kimberly’s mother, Fran Levy, was plating a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Her husband, Greg Alexopoulos, was sitting on a nearby couch, working on his laptop. He had just arrived back in Chicago with their 10-year-old daughter, Angela. Their 4-year-old son George played nearby.
This is the Levy family, and Kimberly wants them to go see Papa’s Hall of Fame bust as one group. Levy, whom she calls “papa” to differentiate from her biological “dad,” returns to the hall every summer for the enshrinement ceremony, which this year lands on the same day as his 94th birthday, Aug. 3.
He’s only visited his bust a few times. For anyone who knows Levy, that’s unsurprising. As a coach, he was focused on his players — which is to be expected. But that hasn’t changed in the 22 years since he retired. He advocated for his former backup quarterback, Frank Reich, to get a head coaching job, which Reich now has with the Indianapolis Colts. Late last year he wrote a letter to Bills co-owner and President Kim Pegula urging that his former linebacker Cornelius Bennett be named to the team’s Wall of Fame. He’s also campaigning for his longtime special teams star, Steve Tasker, to be selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He’ll do it for them. But not for himself.
“Here’s the deal,” said Kimberly, who is a lawyer and real estate agent. “He’s not about himself, so he doesn’t go see his own bust. Do you?”
“I know what I look like,” said Levy, whose tall face, combed-back silver hair and distinctly professorial, almost stately voice remain unmistakable.
His family has seen the bust during the annual enshrinement weekend, but never with Levy. (Returning Hall of Famers follow a busy schedule of parties, autograph signings and photo ops, which keeps them largely separate from their families.)
“We need to make the time, Papa,” Kimberly said.
“I’m not sure I’m going this year,” Levy told her. He’s been struggling with balance issues for over a year now, which makes walking tiring and travel difficult.
Greg Alexopoulos looked up from his laptop to remind his wife that the enshrinement weekend is loaded with fans, which would make it difficult for the family to walk through the hall unencumbered.
Kimberly nodded and offered her dad another option: Maybe they could all go together on a different weekend.
Levy liked that. “OK, we’ll go together,” he agreed.
“We need to do that,” Kimberly said.
While Kimberly is eager to create special Papa moments with her own children, who are both now old enough to lock in those memories for life, Levy’s motivations are unchanged from his younger years. Ever the coach — which is to say the leader on the sidelines, not the star — he remains focused on being of service to others. I saw that during our interview, which included the entire family and was full of chatter, winding stories, and in the case of little George, who wanted more of his mother’s attention than he was getting, a bit of yelling too.
“Are you getting what you need?” Levy asked me above the din.
“Absolutely,” I promised, insisting that the chaos was good, because it’s real. But that didn’t stop him from checking in again, and again, just to be doubly, triply certain that my traveling to Chicago was turning out to be worth it.
It was. My motivation for the visit was to capture Levy as a husband, father and grandfather, in the city where he grew up, and where he returned after retiring as the Bills’ head coach in 1997. (During a brief return to the Bills as general manager in 2006-07, Levy kept his home in Chicago.)
So simply by walking through the door of his home, and by touring the office where he displays photos and game balls and his father’s Purple Heart from World War I, it was worth it.
It was worth it, too, when Levy and I met for dinner later that evening at Harry Caray’s, a famous downtown Chicago restaurant where he is part-owner. Throughout our dinner, fans approached, uniformly polite. A couple of middle-aged men with Buffalo roots thanked him for his Super Bowl teams. One added, “I always wished we had won the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup, because it would have changed Buffalo.”
Levy nodded politely and said, “Well, hang in there. It may happen yet.”
A woman who didn’t appear to care at all about the Bills thanked Levy for visiting her granddaughter’s school to read his children’s book, “Go Cubs Go!,” which celebrated the baseball team’s long-awaited World Series championship.
Levy, who goes out to dinner most nights with Fran, had been at Harry Caray’s a few days earlier with one of his former Bills players, wide receiver Don Beebe. The dinner party also included Fran Levy, Beebe’s wife Diana, and Bill Kozlowski, Fran’s first husband, whom she divorced 12 years before meeting Marv. (Kozlowski, who worked with the Chicago Blitz’s equipment managers when Levy was the USFL team’s coach in 1984, actually played a role in Fran and Marv meeting, and they all remain good friends.)
Beebe, who is starting his first season as a college head coach at Aurora University in Illinois, wanted to pick Levy’s brain. He also asked Levy to speak to the team before their homecoming game this fall, an invitation the coach accepted. “Marv might be the most humble NFL Hall of Fame personality that I’ve ever met,” Beebe said. “Anybody can approach him. Anybody can talk to him. He doesn’t think he’s above anybody else."
Levy has a Teflon-like ability to deflect adulation, but he does realize he has a platform and a skill with words. His “Marvisms,” as both his players and family call them, are both legendary and still flowing. The most famous one — “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” — is of his own creation. Levy first said it, spontaneously, to his University of New Mexico players before the opening game of the 1954 season. He’s used it ever since, both as a coach before kickoff, and as a speaker. He still gives speeches, including one this month to the Harvard Club of Chicago. (Levy has a master’s degree in English history from Harvard.)
He uses the Marvisms at home, too.
“He says them all the time — you just have to be paying attention and hopefully it’s going to resonate,” said Kimberly, whose most impactful Marvism came years ago, when she was engaged after a long relationship but unsure whether she wanted to go through with the marriage.
“Papa was very instrumental in helping me figure things out,” she said. “He said, ‘Honey, I can’t make this decision for you. You have to make this decision yourself. But I will say: If you don’t know, you know.”
If you don’t know, you know.
Kimberly then knew she had to end the engagement, which she did. That, of course, opened her to meet Greg and have the family they do today.
“That’s my favorite Marvism I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she said.
Levy has written several books since leaving coaching, including a memoir, a collection of poems, a novel, a Bills history book with writer Jeff Miller, and the Cubs picture book. I asked if he’s doing any writing nowadays, and he said, “I’ve written a letter or two, one in heavy support of Cornelius Bennett for the Wall of Fame to Kim Pegula, but I don’t know if it’s reached her or not. She hasn’t responded.”
He then excused himself to his office, and came back minutes later with a copy of the letter he wrote in November 2018 to Pegula, the team’s president and co-owner. In it, he referred to Bennett, whom the Bills traded for in 1987, as “THE MISSING PIECE that helped us soar to championship level in the several years that laid ahead.”
Levy addressed in the letter what he has heard is keeping Bennett off the team’s Wall of Fame: a 1997 charge of sexual misconduct to which he pleaded guilty. “I understand (the committee’s) concern,” he wrote, “but I also feel that he has already dearly paid the price, and that he has directed an overwhelming amount of attention to atoning for that action.”
Levy referred to Bennett and his wife and children as “a lovely and loving family,” and drew attention to Bennett’s “many challenging, inspiring and high character endeavors” for charities and on behalf of former NFL players.
“How thrilled he and so many of his former teammates and so many of his admiring fans would be if he is accorded this well deserved honor,” Levy wrote.
(A Bills official told The News that Kim Pegula did receive Levy’s letter, but the team is not naming anyone to the Wall of Fame this year, and is instead focusing on the festivities around the 60th anniversary of the Bills and 100th anniversary of the NFL.)
Levy is a steadfast supporter of his former players. He wrote a passionate letter to the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters urging them to select his former special teams star, Steve Tasker, for enshrinement. He speaks frequently with his Hall of Fame defensive end, Bruce Smith, and checks in regularly on his superstar quarterback, Jim Kelly, who has faced ongoing health battles.
Levy’s sense of patriotism and his military roots – his dad fought in World War I, and he served during World War II — still drive him. Last year, he turned his pen toward the issue of players kneeling during the national anthem: He’s against it, because he feels it dishonors the country and the men and women who fight for it. Levy wrote a letter that he submitted to a Chicago newspaper, but it went unpublished. (Those letters, Levy noted, were supposed to be limited to 400 words, and he wrote 910 words.) Levy shaped the letter around how he would have addressed the issue if he were coaching Colin Kaepernick, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback who knelt during “The Star Spangled Banner” in 2016 to protest racial injustice, thus beginning a wave of players joining in and a flood of attention around the issue.
“I would, of course, let them know that there is a proper place and time to speak out against bigotry and injustice,” Levy wrote, “but by doing it during the playing of our national anthem on game day it hurts — it doesn’t help — their cause.”
He ended with this thought: “And finally I’d say, ‘Okay, guys, that’s it. Now let’s go get ready for Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins, and, Colin, the only time I hope you kneel down is when you might have to run the final 30 seconds off the clock in order to preserve our narrow lead.’ ”
It’s been two decades since Levy has delivered a pep talk for a game he’s coaching, but his words — those Marvisms — have an allure that transcends sports. One game day last fall, the Levy family was being escorted through the walkways of New Era Field on a golf cart. Kimberly Alexopoulos took note of one fan: a dark-haired, square-jawed man. She immediately recognized him as Jason Tartick, the Buffalo-bred star of the ABC reality show “The Bachelorette.”
Kimberly asked the driver to stop, hopped out of the golf cart and approached Tartick. The TV star didn’t know who she was, and meanwhile, Levy wasn’t sure why they had stopped.
Kimberly recalls saying, “Jason, I’m your biggest ‘Bachelor’ fan,” and asking him to come over to take a photo. She also recalls Tartick seeming hesitant — he hadn’t yet noticed Levy — and she urged him, “Trust me, you’re going to want to come to this golf cart.”
So he did, and in the process, Kimberly introduced Tartick to her famous father, who, unsurprisingly, was not familiar with the “Bachelor” franchise but politely said, “Nice to meet you, Jason.”
Months later, she saw Tartick on TV hosting a “Bachelor”-related event and remembers him telling the crowd, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”
“He just quoted my dad!” Kimberly said during our interview in Chicago. She turned to Levy and asked, “Do you remember how I heard him quote you?”
“Yeah?” Levy said. He nodded, smiled and added a warm, “OK.” To him, it’s not a big deal. He’s got a family, friends, former players, his sense of patriotism — he’ll celebrate those. But things like a Hall of Fame bust, or a “Bachelor” quote? He’ll leave all that for the rest of us.
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