Marv Levy, the Biggest Must-Win in History, and “The Runner”

Marv Levy

Among Buffalo Bills fans, Marv Levy is about as beloved as they come. A Pro Football Hall of Famer, Levy’s 123 wins including regular season and playoffs are by far the most in franchise history. Factor in his time as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and his career win total expands to 154 which is 20th all-time among NFL coaches.

2019 is providing us with quite a few major historical milestones, both within sports and the world at large. The NFL is just months away from commencing its 100th season and, in that time span, it has emerged as America’s most popular professional sports league. Levy certainly played a part in cultivating that popularity during his time as a head coach, especially in Buffalo.

But America and indeed the world are commemorating a much more somber event this week. Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the start of a military offensive known as Operation Overlord, with June 6, 1944 becoming forever known as D-Day. The most seminal event of World War II and the largest amphibious assault in human history, it involved Allied Forces storming the beaches of Normandy in France with its ultimate aim of liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Marv Levy and the NFL Connections to World War II

Levy himself served in World War II, enlisting in the Army Air Corps in December 1943 at the age of 18. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he didn’t have 20-20 vision and so he underwent military meteorology training. And since the war eventually ended roughly a year and a half after he joined the Armed Forces, Levy didn’t see any combat. He told Stars and Stripes in September of 2017 that there was “nothing dramatic about my service time.”

The now 93-year-old Levy was one of many who were either associated with the NFL at the time or who would later become a part of the league that served during this conflict. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 994 NFL personnel enlisted in the military during World War II including 12 who are currently enshrined in Canton. Of those, 23 lost their lives, the most prominent of which was New York Giants tackle Al Blozis. A two-time all-Pro and a member of the NFL 1940s All-Decade team, Blozis was killed while scouting enemy lines in the Vosges Mountains of France in January 1945.

His is one of countless examples of American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure victory over what then British prime minister Winston Churchill once called “the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny that has ever darkened and stained the pages of history.” Levy counts Churchill as one of many world leaders he admires and, after the war, he earned a master’s degree in English history from Harvard.

The Ultimate Must-Win Situation

The Bills coaching great never let the necessity of Allied success in World War II escape his mind. During his tenure in Buffalo, a reporter once asked him before a game whether or not it was a must-win. Levy proceeded to give one of the more poignant quotes you’ll hear out of an NFL head coach, one that showcased his continued appreciation of his fellow soldiers who got the job done.

“This is not a must-win,” Levy went on to say. “World War II was a must-win.”

There’s an additional modicum of profundity in such a statement when you consider Levy’s background. Though not religiously observant, Levy comes from a Jewish family. His mother, Ida, emigrated to the United States from Russia at a young age and was fluent in Yiddish. The success at Normandy which eventually ensured an Allied victory was necessary not only to free Europe from the crushing authoritarianism of the Nazi regime. But also to expose and put an end to the most infamous example of state-sponsored mass murder in history, the Holocaust.

Levy was among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish-Americans who did their part in helping achieve victory over such evil. Over half a million served in the U.S. Armed Forces in some capacity during World War II, including NFL players. Perhaps the most prominent was legendary Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, a five-time All-Pro and four-time NFL champion who volunteered after winning NFL MVP honors in 1943. That year, he became the first signal-caller in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game.

Paying Tribute to a Fallen Friend

Few NFL head coaches, past or present, are as intellectually astute and endowed with a “learn something new every day” philosophy as Levy. As mentioned before, he possesses a postgraduate degree from an Ivy League institution. Even to this day, the Chicago native takes humanities classes at Northwestern University. There’s no doubt that, for his age, he’s as sharp as a tack.

Levy has also published numerous books since his retirement as Bills head coach in 1997 (he had a brief stint as the team’s general manager in the mid-2000s). Among them are his memoirs along with a collaboration with Buffalo football historian Jeffery Miller detailing the greatest plays in Bills history. But one of his most distinguishable works, and to some possibly his most eccentric, is a collection of poetry entitled “It’s Time for a Rhyme.” Included are over 100 poems composed by Levy which deal with an extensive array of topics, including both World Wars.

There’s certainly a reason. Levy’s father, Sam, enlisted in the Marines upon the U.S. entering World War I. He fought at the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 and endured the agony of being exposed to chemical weapons. There’s, of course, Levy’s own service over two decades later. And then there’s his tribute to D-Day in the form of an entry simply known as “The Runner.”

Levy wasn’t the only member of his South Shore High School class to join the military during World War II. Over 20 of his fellow classmates did so, including someone by the name of Bobby Merrick. Merrick was a champion track and field athlete in high school and, no more than two years later, was in one of the landing craft that attempted to secure Omaha Beach. Sadly, he was one of the 4,000+ Allied soldiers who lost their lives on day one of the Normandy invasion.

Levy’s tribute to his fallen comrade is as heartfelt as it is poignant, as evidenced by the following excerpt:

The vile Nazis had to be brought to their knees,
And Bobby was now heading overseas.

His unit was about to enter the fray.
From England they set sail; it was D-Day.

The seas were rough, but at last they did reach
The waters near Normandy at Omaha Beach.

They disembarked and waded toward the shore.
Once they arrived Bobby sprinted to the fore.

Forward they pressed never thinking to quit.
By deadly fire many soldiers were hit.

And Bobby too, despite how fast he could run
Couldn’t run faster than the bullets from a gun.

Many decades have passed, and Bobby is still there.
Along with ten thousand buddies in the cemetery they share.

A Life Well-Lived

Levy and the Bills players he coached will never be able to live down the fact that they lost four straight Super Bowls. That much is certain. Worshipping championship winners is as American as apple pie and that’s undoubtedly a good thing. Hard work and dedication towards achieving a singular goal should always be rewarded and that’s what winning everything from the Lombardi Trophy to the World Cup embodies.

But sports aren’t a matter of life and death. The same can’t be said when facing an implacable enemy whose job it is to kill you on the battlefield. Thousands of men faced this situation on June 6, 1944 and, in many cases, the odds of their survival were slim. Many gave their lives, but history vindicated their sacrifice. They were part of a generation that stared down some of the worst evil the world has ever seen and eventually chalked up the biggest W of all-time.

Levy may not have been on the ground when the D-Day landings took place. But there’s no doubting he was part of the proverbial team effort as a member of the Armed Forces at the time. 75 years later, this treasure of both the Bills and the NFL as a whole is as appreciative as ever of what the Allies accomplished in the mid-1940s. Add in how well-rounded an individual he is and you have a man that everyone should emulate. In the game of life, Marv Levy is a champion.

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