Our series on the 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 41 Mark Kelso, originally published on Jan. 11.
The Buffalo Bills hold the distinction of being the only NFL franchise to appear in four consecutive Super Bowls. They also hold the dubious record of losing all four.
Mark Kelso, who played in all four Super Bowls, prefers to focus on the former rather than the latter.
“There was a six-year stretch where we were a really good football team,” Kelso said. “It was a blessing to play with such a great collection of players. We weren’t able to climb over that hill, but it was important that we were all pulling in the same direction and demonstrated a resiliency that helped all of us throughout our lives.”
Kelso, a 5-11, 180-pound safety, was a 10th-round draft choice out of William & Mary in 1985. He was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but caught on one year later in Buffalo, where he played his entire eight-year career.
He was part of a nucleus of 22 Bills who appeared in all four Super Bowls, a group that also included Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.
The Bills’ title game run began in the 1990 season, when they lost Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants 20-19 in Tampa — Scott Norwood’s infamous wide-right field goal miss from 47 yards that would have won the game.
The following year, they lost to Washington 37-24 in Minneapolis. They were swamped by the Dallas Cowboys 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII in the Rose Bowl. They fell to the Cowboys again 30-13 in Atlanta in Super Bowl XXVIII.
“Would I trade four for one?” Kelso asked rhetorically, referring to Super Bowl appearances for wins. “I’m not sure. I would trade four for two, that’s for sure.”
Each game was unique and its own story, Kelso said. He mentioned Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition of the national anthem, and the flood of patriotism leading into Super Bowl XXV, the first championship game following U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War.
With the Bills holding a 10-3 lead in the second quarter, Kelso recalled Smith sacking Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone for a safety. Hostetler held the ball in one hand, and a defensive touchdown and 17-3 lead might have changed the game.
“How he didn’t fumble, I don’t know,” Kelso said.
In Minneapolis the following year, Kelso said that the hospitality was exceptional, much better than the Bills performed. Washington led 17-0 at halftime and 24-0 early in the third quarter, as Kelly threw four interceptions and fumbled once.
The Bills led Dallas 7-0 in Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif., and were within 14-10 late in the second quarter when the bottom fell out. The Cowboys scored twice in a span of 18 seconds, the second after a Thomas fumble, and suddenly led 28-10.
“We were playing pretty well,” Kelso said, “and then we committed a couple of turnovers.”
Buffalo was within 31-17 going into the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys put away the game with two more quick touchdowns, the second again off of one of the Bills’ nine turnovers.
The last of Buffalo’s Super Bowl appearances was perhaps more frustrating than the first. The Bills led Dallas 13-6 at halftime, but the Cowboys scored a defensive touchdown after a Thomas fumble to start the third quarter and tie the game.
Kelso remembered the Cowboys’ eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive, with Hall of Fame back Emmitt Smith running seven of them.
“Eight plays on the ground,” Kelso said, “and they never looked back.”
Had Norwood made that field goal against the Giants and the Bills won that first one, might they have won two or three more? Kelso isn’t sure. He wondered if they could have mustered the collective will to keep returning, or might they have become complacent.
Two decades later, Kelso readily admits that the Bills fell short of their goals, but prefers to focus on the journey rather than the results.
“There’s great value in the quest for excellence,” he said. “We learned valuable lessons about so many things along the way. If you look at the accomplishments of so many of us after football, I think what we took from our experiences served us well.”