During his 46-year football coaching career, Marv Levy gained a reputation for delivering pithy quotations. His so-called “Marvisms” could be motivating, funny and educational — occasionally prompting players and sportswriters to groan or scramble for a dictionary or encyclopedia.
"If Michelangelo wanted to play it safe,'’ Levy once mused, “he would have painted the floor of the Sistine Chapel."
Levy will never be accused of playing it safe. And, at age 95, he's still looking for chapel ceilings to paint.
Born: Aug. 3, 1925, in Chicago
Coaching legend: Winningest coach in Buffalo Bills history. Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Man of letters: Published four books, including a New York Times best-selling memoir in 2004.
Education: Bachelor's degree in English literature from Coe College and a master's in English history from Harvard University.
Veteran: Served in the Army Air Forces from 1943 to 1946.
Cancer survivor: Underwent prostate surgery in 1995 and made a full recovery.
Songwriter: Wrote “Go Bills!” fight song while coaching the team in the late 1980s.
Laughter as medicine: “I believe it's a blessing to have a sense of humor, especially when you grew up during the Great Depression, like I did."
Few football coaches have enjoyed more interesting second acts than Levy, who has spent the last quarter-century putting pen to paper. After leading the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls and more victories than any coach in franchise history, Levy retired in 1998 at age 72. He's tied with Chicago's George “Papa Bear” Halas as the oldest coach in National Football League history.
For several years, Levy kept his hand in the game, working as a national studio analyst for Fox Sports and even returning to Buffalo to serve briefly as Bills general manager.
But since retirement, his main focus has been on writing. The 2001 Pro Football Hall-of-Fame inductee published his first book — a memoir titled Where Else Would You Rather Be? — at 79, and it earned a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Five years later, he coauthored a book about the greatest plays in Bills history.
At 86, Levy wrote his first novel, a mystery called Between the Lies. And three years ago, at 92, he penned his first children's book, a never-give-up tale about his beloved Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series after a 108-year drought. He's also compiled a still-unpublished collection of poems.
War injury spurs reading
Levy's mother, Ida, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a voracious reader, and her love of storytelling rubbed off on him. Still, it wasn't until he was serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, as an 18-year-old, that the reading bug bit him. “I had injured my leg badly and was in the hospital for a stretch, and one day I hobbled down to the tiny library,'’ he says. “There was only one book available: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.”
It was a book Levy had tried to read in high school, without success, but this time “it blew me away.” He was hooked on Dickens and many other authors after that.
Following the war, Levy earned a bachelor's degree in English literature at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a master's degree in English history at Harvard University. Throughout his coaching career, writing a book was always in the back of his mind.
"After I was done with football, I'd ask myself, ‘Well, what am I going to do today?’ ‘’ he says. “And I'd say, ‘I'm going to sit down and write some poetry.’ Or ‘I'm going to write a short story.’ And it all just sort of flowed from there."
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Still moving and learning
These days, Levy spends much of his time with his wife, Fran, and their daughter and grandchildren. The former runner's exercise routine now consists of hour-long walks through Chicago's Lincoln Park and light weight lifting. He and Fran were scheduled to travel to London next month for a World War II history trip that included a boat ride across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches in France, where the D-Day battles were waged. That vacation was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Levy hopes to make the trek next year.
In the meantime, he might try writing another novel. “There are some plotlines and characters that have been bouncing around in my head,'’ he says. “It's probably a long shot I'll bring them to life on paper, but you never know."
The old coach stays in touch with several former Bills, including general manager Bill Polian, quarterback Jim Kelly, special-teamer Steve Tasker and running back Thurman Thomas. Although it's been 22 years since he coached his final game in Buffalo, Levy remains revered there. There's even been a recent movement by fans to rename the Bills stadium after him.
The nonagenarian remains intellectually curious, which conjures another Marvism: “You don't grow old until you lose all your marvels.”
Levy clearly hasn't.