San Diego's Gilbert isn't buffaloed by his Super past

January 25, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

MIAMI -- Just when you thought the Super Bowl finally was safe from the nap-inducing influence of the Buffalo Bills, there was Gale Gilbert standing inside a circle of reporters yesterday at Joe Robbie Stadium.

"If there is anything to the law of averages, anything at all," he said, "we have a chance Sunday."

Just when you thought you could count on watching someone from the dead-lame AFC other than Thurman, Jim and Marv get splatted in the NFL's annual Ultimate Game, there was one of those long Buffalo faces from each of the past four Super Bores, back for yet another round of punishment.

"So, where are we going to do this next year, guys?" Gilbert said, a wry smile slowly spreading across his Huck Finnish face.

He was the Bills' third-string quarterback for five seasons, a uniformed, clipboard-carrying witness to Norwood's Wide Right, Thurman's Lost Helmet, Kelly's Grimace and each of the other thousand points of darkness composing the Bills' grim Super history. No, you didn't notice him. But he was there. ("Every year," he said, "I sat in the corner on Media Day and did a crossword puzzle.")

Mercifully, the Bills finally didn't make it back to the Supe this year after four straight losses, but Gilbert, 33, has finagled a reprise performance as a backup with the San Diego Chargers, whom the San Francisco 49ers figure to paddle Sunday in much the same fashion that the Bills were paddled all those years.

Five beatings in a row?

"Are you a glutton for punishment or what?" someone asked Gilbert yesterday.

He laughed. "Hey," he said, "the way I look at it, I've never lost a Super Bowl. I have a perfect record."

He believes as such because his job with the Bills was small to the point of irrelevancy. He backed up Frank Reich, who backed up Kelly. He never took snaps in practice. In five years that included more than 75 regular-season and playoff games, he threw exactly 15 passes -- all in one meaningless December game against the Redskins five years ago. He was in uniform for each of the four Supes, but never took the field.

"I never wear my four [AFC championship] rings from Buffalo, because I didn't feel like I was a part of the team," he said. "Two years ago [when the Cowboys beat the Bills, 52-17, in the Supe], there was some talk on the sidelines of me getting in with four minutes to play, but it didn't happen. I was very disappointed. What difference did it make when we were so far behind? It bothered me that [Bills coach Marv Levy] didn't put me in."

His lot has improved considerably with the Chargers, with whom he signed as a free agent last summer. He has moved up to second-string behind Stan Humphries and played a significant role for the first time since his early NFL days as a Seattle Seahawk. He played one entire game and half of another because of injuries to Humphries, and led the Chargers to a victory over the Seahawks in November.

Although he started slowly, missing his first four passes (and giving rise to the apt nickname "Tin Man"), by the end of the season he had completed 41 of 67 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Nice numbers.

"It's been a great season for me, getting to contribute for real after all those years of watching," he said. "I mean, they do pay me to play, supposedly. It makes all the difference. I feel like I'm a part of this team. I had a hand in us getting to the Super Bowl. I would trade this one year in San Diego for all four in Buffalo combined."

He was a hotshot at Cal in the early '80s, throwing for almost 7,000 yards, but quickly hit the ceiling in the pros. Those 15 passes he threw in one half against the Redskins in 1990 were the sum of his statistics from 1987 to 1993. The good news is he developed senses of humor and humility, as must any career backup.

"Do you have a favorite memory from the Buffalo Super Bowls?" someone asked him yesterday.

His pause was deadpan perfect. "Did you watch the games?" he asked.

His teammates chided him about his Buffalo past on the giddy flight back to San Diego after the Chargers had surprised the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game 10 days ago.

"They dogged me bad," he said, smiling. "They told me they'd used me as a good-luck charm to get this far, but now it was time to get rid of me. For some reason, they didn't think I was a Super Bowl good-luck charm."

The funny part is that this year, of all years, a beer company is running a television commercial about a mysterious, obscure backup quarterback who was in uniform for each of the first 28 Super Bowls. The commercial is fictional, of course.

"Have you seen it?" someone asked Gilbert.

"Yeah," he said, grinning.

"What was the name of the quarterback?" someone else asked.

"Gilbert," Gilbert said.

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