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July 1996

Marv Levy - Beyond the Headset

by Tim O’SHEI

Marv Levy tends not to forget lessons taught to him.
    He learned self-discipline and patriotism from his father ... a love of literature from his mother ... the virtues of courage and leadership from Winston Churchill ... the importance of individuality from his college football coach ... the value of fitness from his own athletic pursuits ... and passionate love from his wife Fran.
    Over time, these attributes have become the foundation of the man Marv Levy is today. He is still a student and will never stop learning.
    But time, and the wisdom that comes with it, have granted the Buffalo Bills head coach another special role - that of a teacher.

A Father Of Self-Discipline; A Man Of Few Words
    Marv’s father, Sam Levy - who came to the U.S. from England at the tender young age of 6 - left home at age 16, lied about his age and enlisted in the Marines at the outset of World War I.
    He was wounded and gassed at the famous Battle of Belleau Wood in France, and was awarded a Purple Heart.
    After the war, Sam and his wife, Ida, had two children - Marv, the elder, and his sister, Marilyn.
    A former Marine, Sam embraced the military’s sense of discipline and passed it on to his son.
    Not that the Levy household was anything like boot camp.
    “He wasn’t the tough Marine Corps drill instructor-type,” Marv explains. “He wasn’t that kind of man. His were sensible disciplines.
    “I remember that even in his latter days after my mother passed away, his bed was always made with tight hospital corners. And when I opened his bedroom closet, his clothes were all neatly folded and squared away side-by-side. When I opened his kitchen cabinets, he had his food cans in alphabetical order: apricots, beans, corn, etc!
    “I’m certain there was some carry-over from his Marine Corps days. In other respects, he was also a good role model.”
    Sam possessed a strong sense of patriotic pride that also swelled in Marv, who joined the Army Air Corps the day following his high school graduation in 1943.
    That deeply rooted pride showed more in actions than in words. And it’s still evident in Marv today.
    “My dad was a totally honest, hard-working person,” Marv said of the central figure in his life. “He disliked braggarts. He hadn’t been one, and he didn’t want his children to be either. He conveyed those sentiments more in the manner in which he conducted himself rather than by words.
    “But I do recall him telling me something which I have repeated to our team members on frequent occasions: ‘What you do speaks so loudly that no one can hear what you are saying.’ ”

Reading With Mom   
    Recently, Marv was relaxing in his Hamburg home with a book titled “1,000 Beautiful Things.”
    About 30 small strips of paper marked different pages of the book. Many years before, those makeshift bookmarks had been inserted there by Marv’s mother to cite poems that were of special meaning to her.
    “He began reading the poems to me - those she had checked off - in order to find out what it was about each one that had intrigued her so much,” recalled Marv’s wife Fran, who had been making dinner at the time. “I just thought it was so sweet - him sitting there reading the poems she found so meaningful.”
    Marv is famous - both among his players and in public - for frequently quoting Winston Churchill, freely spinning old-time war stories and often alluding to classic literature.
    That’s of little surprise, considering he earned a master’s degree in English History from Harvard and still reads every night before going to bed.
    “I try to read material that’s worthwhile,” he said. “I don’t disdain fiction, but I don’t read it often.”
    That’s the student in him. By all accounts, Marv’s academic interests come from his mother, who read all of Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. It’s hard to believe that her formal education was limited to first grade.
    “She was so well-educated,” Marv claimed with admiration. “And it was all her own doing.”
    “She was very intelligent,” added Fran, who was not fortunate enough to meet her mother-in-law but has heard enough first-hand accounts from Marv and other family members to pass judgment. “I’m sure Marv gets his intelligence from her.”

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Sam Levy with his children Marv, age 10, and Marilyn - at Jackson Park in Chicago, Illinois in 1935. Marv’s mother, Ida Levy,
at age 42 in 1945.
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Marv Levy at age 17, preparing to graduate from high school in 1943. Sam, age 75, and son Marv, age 50, enjoy time together in 1975.
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Sam Levy (kneeling, holding a ball) and his family gather for a
photograph in England in 1905, prior to joining Sam’s father who had already journeyed to the U.S. to make a new life for the Levy clan.

The Wisdom Of Winston Churchill
    “When you’re young,” Marv stated, “you’re impressionable. At the outset of World War II, even before the U.S. had entered it, I developed a keen interest in the events that were taking place. I knew they were momentous. I knew almost instinctively that Hitler was an evil person representing an evil philosophy. You know it now as a historical fact, but I knew it then, too.”
    It’s another lesson Marv hasn’t forgotten.
    Adorning the walls of both his Rich Stadium office and his den at home are several framed pictures and speeches of Winston Churchill.
    Like most people, much of the man that Marv is today took shape in his younger years.
    And so it was with his love of Churchill. Young Marv would sit in front of a crackling radio set, awed by the oratorical powers of Britain’s great leader.
    “What fantastic eloquence, what inspiring words - not just the words, but the tone and the measure of his thoughts,” Marv affirmed. “I became enchanted by him then, and as I grew older I realized what he had accomplished and I began to study this man I admired so much.”
    Marv learned that Churchill was a fascinating figure - orator, historian, writer, artist and, as Marv explained, “probably the greatest statesman of the 20th century.
    “He rallied the English people and the rest of the free world at a time when defeat was almost certain. He inspired men of good will to find in themselves the fiber, the character and the determination to overcome odds which were incomprehensible.
    “He is the one person in the 20th century most responsible for saving Western civilization from the barbarities that threatened it. And he did it all with such style.”

Individuality: “Just Be Yourself”
    “I think it’s important for a person to have role models and heroes,” Marv admits. “But I don’t want to convey the impression that you pattern yourself after heroes and role models all the time.”
    Dick Clausen, Marv’s football coach at Coe College for whom he later served as an assistant coach, insured that his young protégé learned that lesson early.
    Marv recalled the days when he was about to begin his coaching career ... “Dick called me into his office and asked which coaches I admired the most. I told him that Bud Wilkinson, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown and Woody Hayes were at the top of my list.”
    “They are outstanding,” Dick replied, “but if you try to be like any of them you won’t be Bud Wilkinson; you won’t be Bear Bryant; you won’t be Vince Lombardi; you won’t be Paul Brown and you won’t be Woody Hayes. And I’ll tell you something else - you won’t be Marv Levy either.
    “Just be yourself!”
    Another bit of wise advice Marv never forgot.

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A 20-year-old Marv Levy (third from right), visits with his former high school teammates while all were on furlough in Chicago, Illinois right after V-J Day in 1945. Marv Levy (left) and fellow Coe College
track team member and friend, Chilly Hopkins, successfully complete a planned event -
winning the 440-yard dash in a dead heat.

A One-Man Bandwagon
    Marv may not depend on heroes too much, but, being the consummate student, he has never been shy about trying to learn from his role models.
    In his earliest coaching days, Marv would pack a suitcase every summer and criss-cross the country attending coaching clinics. One of his favorite coaches was Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, who Marv eagerly followed from state to state.
    “I’d attended his clinics in Nevada, in Missouri and in New Jersey,” Marv said. “After about the seventh time, Bud inquired ‘Are you here again?’ He began to recognize me and I got to know him after a period of time.
    “He was a very nice man and very helpful to me.”

Healthy Mind
    Fran Levy loves to share this spousal tidbit: “I think this is important. Marv knows the music and words to almost every college fight song there is.”
    A long time ago - Fran doesn’t know why - Marv just memorized virtually every college fight song in existence. He even wrote some for his own teams.
    The “Go Bills!” song he sang at a press conference in 1994 is fairly well-known. Marv also wrote the official song for the Kansas City Chiefs, whom he coached from 1978-1982.
    Still, as smart as he is, Marv may not be a genius.
    Fran confided that her husband recently took a newspaper
intelligence quiz - and he only ranked a near-genius.
    “Somehow I feel better now about our relationship!” she quipped.
    That intelligence test was merely for fun. Marv enjoys exercising his mind.
    Of course, a good laugh is always appreciated too, which explains his affinity for country music - particularly the song titles.
    “I heard one just yesterday,”
Marv said. “ ‘It tears me up when you go to pieces.’ But the one I like best is, ‘I kissed her gently on the brow and left her behind for you.’ ”

Healthy Body
    During his high school years in Chicago and his undergraduate career at Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa - Marv was a solid running back, a decent basketball player and a star sprinter in track.
    His most noteworthy athletic attribute was his speed. In his early schoolboy days, nobody could beat Marv in a race.
    “From the first time I started to run,” he recalled, “I could beat everybody in kindergarten. We used to come out of the school door, and the end of the block was about 80 yards away. Somebody would say, ‘Come on, I’ll race ya!’ So we’d run, and I’d win it every day! All through grade school I was always the fastest kid.”
The high school starter’s gun shot a quick end to that. Once Marv started racing kids from all over Chicago, he found some feet that were considerably swifter. His toughest opponent was Buddy Young, who went on to play pro football for the Baltimore Colts.
    “I’d never lost a race in my life until Buddy,” Marv said. “I ran 22 times against Buddy Young and never beat him. About 15 years ago I met him and requested, ‘I want to shake your hand, because, until now, I have never seen you from the front!’ ”
Marv is no longer running wind sprints, but healthy eating habits, long walks, stairmasters and weight training have been a way of life for a long time.
“That is a part of his life every day,” confirmed Fran. “If Marv doesn’t exercise, he’s an unhappy man.”
When he returned home from the hospital and was recuperating from prostate surgery last year, Marv would go for hour-long walks despite the catheter in him.
“No one’s ever heard of that,” Fran claimed. “He would complain all the while that he was very uncomfortable with the catheter, but he never stopped.”

The Family Levy
    A Levy clan photograph of 1900s-vintage - taken in their home in England - forecasted
the family’s future-to-be in America.
    Kneeling in the center, cuddling a ball, is 5-year-old Sam Levy, whose son would one day become one of football’s finest coaches.
    Standing at the far left is Sam’s older brother, Sol, holding a violin. His son, Marv’s cousin Lou Levy, would become a famous pianist, working as an arranger/accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and more recently, Frank Sinatra.
    Marv did not have children of his own. But when he married Fran three years ago, her daughter Kimberly, now 28, became his loving daughter - and they both cherish the relationship.   
    Fran’s voice softened when she recounted Marv’s decision to have prostate surgery during the football season last year.
    “He would take long walks,” she reflected. “One day he came into the house and declared, ‘I’ve decided to have the surgery during the season, even though it may be disruptive. I hope it won’t be; I’ll try to make it so it’s not. But I want to see Kimberly’s children someday.’ I was really touched by that.’ ”

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Marv with daughter Kimberly (left) and wife Fran
at a reception in Phoenix, Arizona earlier this year.
Marv Levy and his younger sister, Marilyn, in 1994 at Kimberly’s graduation from law school.

An Able Teacher
    Marv’s first ever coaching job came in 1951, when he was recruited from Harvard Graduate School by the headmaster of St. Louis Country Day School. Marv moved to Missouri to coach football and basketball and to teach English and History.
    His football team was undefeated (13-0-1) during his two-year tenure at the school. As Marv moved up the football coaching ladder, he would never leave teaching.
    “If there is one common trait which distinguishes all good coaches - it is the ability to teach. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, a constant verbal volcano or a soft-spoken person, it is still the ability to teach that remains the key ingredient,” Marv exclaims.
    Sometimes orally, but more often by well-crafted actions - just like his father - Marv might do that better than anybody.

Football’s Winston Churchill
    Sitting on a coffee table in Marv’s office is a small, silver-covered book titled “Motivational Quotes - Especially for Sales and Management.”
    Marv could surely have written such a book himself.
    As able-tongued as he is, Marv’s best lessons are unspoken, whether it be guiding a team to the Super Bowl year after year or beating prostate cancer.
    In recalling the surgery, Fran said, “I saw a man who just put it on his ‘to-do’ list for that day.”
    Though humility would probably find him dismissing the comparison, Marv could easily be consid- ered football’s Winston Churchill.
    “He helps bring out the best in everyone,” stated Bills owner Ralph Wilson, “the players, the coaches, the staff - and he brings out the best in me.”

A Blanket Impression
    Countless stories have documented the football life of Marv Levy. Each includes some sort of testimonial from a long-time player, coach or member of the staff .
    Many of the Bills’ football professionals attribute their lengthy careers to Marv and their thoughts have been collectively summarized as follows:
    Marv Levy is a great organizer of time and a great manager of people. He doesn’t yell and he doesn’t scream. He motivates, he uses a phrase or a couple of sentences to put everything into perspective and he gives you something to think about.
    He lets you know exactly what is expected of you and he focuses everyone into one frame of mind.   
    Anyone who has left the Buffalo Bills to work for another team finds out quickly just how important and how very special Marv Levy really is.

In Pursuit of Love
    Fran calls her husband stubborn, but in a positive way - in the same light as tenacity and determination.
    In many ways, he’s a perfectionist. Marv doesn’t give up.
    Fran met Marv, unexpectedly, during breakfast at a coffee shop where they were introduced by a mutual friend.
    “I walked up to the table,” Fran said, “and Marv looked up, jumped out of his seat, and offered me a seat next to him in the booth.”
    His sense of humor had Fran laughing all through breakfast, though she didn’t eat a thing.
    “I was like a schoolgirl who didn’t want to eat in front of her first date because she’s afraid she’s going to make a mistake or look funny,” Fran related. “I knew something was going on with me, because I couldn’t eat, yet I was having a good time. Finally, I excused myself after a while because I was almost, like, too excited, and I left. I went home and then had breakfast.”
    Marv called Fran for a date and their romance blossomed into marriage three years ago.
    “We’re very passionately in love,” Fran added. “It was there, from the day I sat down next to him. I remember feeling something about the man that I just adored, and I do to this day.
    “When we met,” Fran admitted, “Marv did pursue me. He would not let me get away. That’s just part of his personality.”
    For that, much of the credit goes not only to Cupid, but to his trait of stubborn determination.

Stubborn Determination
    How determined is Marv Levy?   
    A cute but convincing story that has been passed along through several Levy generations lends a clue:
    When Marv was about 3 years old, he held a cookie in his small hand. Much to his dismay, it fell to the floor and broke into pieces.
    His mother offered another cookie to her teary-eyed son.
    “No!” he cried, pointing to the floor. “I want that cookie. Put that cookie back together!”
    Little Marv would not settle for a replacement. He wanted the real thing.
    Sixty seven years later, not much has changed.
    Just as prostate cancer and the Dallas Cowboys won’t stop him from reaching his objective, neither will gravity.
    Marv Levy give up? That’s not the way the cookie crumbles.

Tim O’Shei is a free-lance writer from Hamburg, NY.
Photos courtesy of Marv and Fran Levy.


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