For Special Teams Legend Steve Tasker, the Hall of Fame Is Still Out of Reach

If the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a blindspot, it's special teams. Steve Tasker, the former Buffalo Bills gunner and arguably the best special teams player in NFL history, has been in it for 13 years now and counting.

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Nov 10 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by James D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Tasker sat an empty table in the middle of the NFL media room at One Bills Drive. The lights were dim. The room was quiet. For a moment, he glanced up at the podium where Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan would be making his weekly appearance in front of a crowd of reporters less than an hour later.

"I don't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame," he said, shifting in his chair. "That's for other guys, not me. I mean, I appreciate the conversation. But I'm uncomfortable talking about it."

For Tasker, 54, making it to the NFL Hall of Fame is as farfetched an idea as making it on to a NFL roster had been decades ago, when he was playing football and running track at Leoti High School in Kansas. At five-foot-nine and 180 pounds, Tasker was a small fry by football standards. But he was smart and he was fast. He figured a couple of years at Dodge City Community College might help him catch the eye of a Division I program. He was right. Northwestern University scooped him up as a wide receiver and kick returner. By his senior year, Tasker was not only stronger, he had grown even quicker, and NFL teams took notice.

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The Houston Oilers drafted Tasker in the ninth round of the 1985 NFL draft. He shrugged off his disbelief and headed to Texas, not even knowing who the head coach was. "I just wanted to play," Tasker laughed. "I mean, I get down there and Warren Moon is their quarterback? I was thrilled."

Tasker would spend less than two seasons in Houston as a special teams player. After he hurt his knee halfway through his rookie year, a second minor knee injury sidelined him at the beginning of the 1986 season and he was put on injured reserved (IR) for a month and a half. Tasker was ready to come back in November but Houston had already added other players to the active roster. So they put him on waivers, thinking they'd pick him right back up as soon as there was an open active roster spot.Instead, Tasker was snatched up by the Buffalo Bills—a chance move that allowed Tasker to become arguably the best special teams player in NFL history.

"The coaches wanted me to stay in Houston. They put me on a 'procedural' waiver, which was like a placeholder," he explained. "When a team does that, other teams know that player is off limits. But in '86, the Bills had just hired Marv Levy, who was a special teams guy. And when my name came through the waiver wire, Marv said, 'Pick him up.'"

Tasker blocks a punt during Super Bowl XXVII. Photo by Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Tasker headed up north to Buffalo on a Saturday afternoon and played his first game as a Bill on Sunday. It was also Levy's first game as head coach of the Bills, beginning what would be an 11-year run in Buffalo and the last head-coaching job of his career. The special teams guru saw something in Tasker that he believed could spark a resurgence in Buffalo. The Bills hadn't made the playoffs since 1981, and were in the middle of another losing season at 2-6 when the team fired its previous head coach and brought in Levy.

Levy would go on to rebuild the Bills into an AFC powerhouse, with All-Star and Hall of Fame players including Andre Reed, Jim Kelly, Kent Hull, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Daryl Tally, and James Lofton. With Tasker, Levy believed the Bills could make an immediate impact at special teams.

"As a special teams coach, I had an eye for special teams players," said Levy, who at 91 is long retired and now an aspiring poet living in Florida. "I knew he was a good one. He had leadership and heart. I'm not the only one who could see it. Opposing coaches used to tell me that the player they had to prepare for most was Steve. Not Jim Kelly. Not Bruce Smith. Not Andre Reed. But Steve."

Tasker primarily played special teams for the club from 1986 to 1997. Yet, he was an integral part of the team's dominant run in the early 90s, when the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls (and lost all four—an unfortunate yet also incredible NFL record). Over the course of his twelve-year career, he was elected to the Pro Bowl seven times, won the Pro Bowl MVP in 1993—the only special teams player ever to win that honor—and was voted Special Teams Player of the Year in 1995.

"Looking back, I wish I could have also used him more at wide receiver," former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who was elected into the Hall in 2002, said during a phone call from his Buffalo office. "But [special teams coach] Bruce DeHaven said to me, 'You're messing with my job security now. Leave Steve Tasker where he's at.' Because he knew how important Steve was to the special teams unit. And I did, too, but I always thought I could also use him as a wide receiver because there were not that many people that could cover him one-on-one."

Jim Kelly during Super Bowl XXV. Photo by USA TODAY Sports

"Steve wasn't only a great teammate, he was an emotional guy who got us all pumped up. He was a gutsy player and he made those plays that we needed at certain times of the game that got the crowd in it, the offense in it and the defense in it. He was that guy," former receiver Andre Reed added, his voice rising on the last sentence. Even while playing golf on a breezy sunny day in San Diego, he said, thoughts of Tasker still got him "pumped" and ready to go. "He played so low to the ground that it was hard to block him, and when he reached the returner he'd hit him with everything he had. He made me a better player. He made a lot of us better players. We saw how hard he worked and it made us want to work harder."

Whereas the modern NFL is a passing league with more emphasis on outscoring opponents, in Tasker's day it was all about slowing the game down and focusing on field position. Back then, the Bills gunner could change the momentum and direction of a game with one hit, and essentially helped turn prioritizing field position into an effective strategy. Whether it was sticking a hit on a punt returner the moment they caught the ball, blocking a punt, forcing a fumble, or breaking through tackles for long kick return, Tasker turned special teams into a valuable asset as well as an art form. No one else in the league came even close to doing what he did. But he wasn't particularly focused on perfecting the skill position; he was simply capitalizing on an opportunity to play football. Tasker knew he'd only get on the field for maybe 20 to 25 snaps per game. So every time he stepped in for a play, he intended to make the most of it.

"I knew that was the only way I could be part of the team," Tasker said. "Early in my career, when the rosters were expanded to more than 36 guys, there was room at the bottom on the rosters for guys to just cover kicks. I got in on that. I knew that I wasn't going to get on the field over Andre or James Lofton, and I wanted to be on the team. And I was successful at it."

"I knew I'd get one shot to make an impact," he continued. "And I just wanted to give it everything I had. I wanted to win."

During the early 90s, that's exactly what the Bills were doing—winning. Tasker soaked up every last second of it. No matter where he went throughout Western New York, he said, people treated him like family. They patted him on the back, and called him by his first name. Even after the four lost Super Bowls, the love and appreciation of Bills fans never wavered. Tasker always felt welcome. He always felt at home in Buffalo. When he retired from football in 1997, he decided to stay in the area and work as a NFL broadcaster for CBS.

"My first game in the booth was a Bills game in San Diego. When the ball was kicked off at the start of the game, I realized I didn't care who won," he said. "That's when I knew I made the right decision."

These days, Tasker still covers games for CBS. He attends local events throughout the Buffalo area, and makes surprise appearances at youth football practices. Whenever he comes through One Bills Drive, he makes a point to stop and chat with everyone from the security guard in the lobby to media representatives and coaches. The conversations vary, but they tend to circle back to one prevailing topic: the Hall of Fame.

"Some people feel obligated to tell me I belong in there, as a conversation starter. But I don't need that," said Tasker. "It's great and I love it, and my teammates are all rooting for it, but for me ... it's a hard sell, I think."

"With the Hall of Fame, it comes down to numbers, numbers, numbers." Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, the Hall of Fame voting process unfolds a bit like a judicial case. But instead of 12 jurors deciding an individual's fate, 48 members of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee—comprising sportswriters from every NFL market, a handful of "at large" members from national media outlets, and two Hall of Famers (currently Dan Fouts and James Lofton)—are responsible for deciding who gets in and who doesn't.

The process begins in September, when the initial list of Modern Era nominees is released. Over the next few months, the committee votes remotely to whittle the list down to 25 semifinalists by November and then 15 finalists by January. The members finally meet face-to-face the Saturday before the Super Bowl to choose that year's Hall of Fame class: between four and eight players, each of whom need to be approved by at least 80 percent of the committee.

Tasker has been on the preliminary list for the Hall since 2003 and made it to the top 25 six times—2004, 2008-10, and 2012-2013—but that's as far as he's gotten, even though he is widely believed to be the best special teams player in the history of the league. In fact, that could be part of the reason for his exclusion.

"Tasker is an intriguing candidate because he doesn't necessarily incite passion as with some other polarizing candidates," said Clark Judge, writer and host of the Talk of Fame Network and an at-large selector. "There's a lot of grey area there. It has nothing to do with him, it has to do with what he played—which is special teams.

"With the Hall of Fame, it comes down to numbers, numbers, numbers. Like sacks. We know double-digit sacks over the course of a season is a high number. What do we know about special teams tackles? We don't.It's difficult to measure what Tasker did, because there aren't exact stats to measure."

"In this day of advanced stats, there are more sophisticated numbers," Judge later added, "but people on the outside don't know about them and don't care. The only numbers we really hear about with special teams is punt averages, return yards, and field goal percentage."

Marv Levy is among those Hall of Famers who want Tasker to join them. Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Still, Judge believes that special teams doesn't get the respect it deserves. In the 53-year history of the Hall of Fame, only one two special teams players have been inducted—pure place kicker Jan Stenerud, in 1991 and Raiders punter Ray Guy, in 2014. For Guy, it took more than a quarter-century to get there. (Guy was a senior candidate, meaning he had been out of the league for at least 25 years and involves a different voting process than Modern Era candidates.)

Mark Gaughan, a sportswriter for The Buffalo News for the past 32 years, was in the room for those discussions during the 12 years he sat on the Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

"Tasker is thought of very highly among the voting members," he said. "He is widely recognized as the best special teams player, coverage man, ever. And there are a lot of people on the committee who would like to see him make the final 15 so there could be a real discussion about his merits. But from 2000 to 2013, the Bills have had a string of candidates that you couldn't put Tasker in ahead of."

Many of those candidates, especially Levy, Kelly, and Reed, have advocated on Tasker's behalf after being elected. Levy even wrote a personal letter to the members of the Selection Committee stating his case.

"We always talk about three equally important aspects of football—offense, defense and specials teams. Yet, there has never been a hardcore special teams player that was selected for the Hall of Fame. We have one kicker. One punter. So, it's so obvious to me that Steve belongs there. I used to tell my players all the time, what you do speaks so loudly that no one can hear what you're saying. His career speaks for itself."

Tasker, Darryl Talley, and Andre Reed during halftime of a Bills game this season. Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Reed, who experienced his own Hall of Fame limbo before being elected in 2014, knows firsthand how emotional and frustrating the process can be and has tried to pass on some of that knowledge to Tasker.

"I talk about it with him sometimes," he said. "And he's like, Forget about it. You know, he doesn't think about it. It's really up to the writers and the committee. But everybody knows the kind of player he was, and deep down inside he knows what kind of player he was."

"It's hard to get in the Hall of Fame and it should be hard," Gaughan said. "But we may never see someone like Tasker again. There is less opportunity to be as dominant as he was in both punt and kickoff coverage, with the way the NFL is changing. Even since he's retired, there hasn't been a special teams player of his caliber or that has had a career in special teams like his. That could help him down the road as a senior candidate."

There are currently 94 Modern Era candidates for the 2017 NFL Hall of Fame class. Yet again, Tasker is one of them. And he's OK with that. In the end, it doesn't matter. To Tasker, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. It won't define his career. Sitting in that empty media room, where the lights and cameras had once been focused on him, Tasker can only look back at his NFL career and smile.

"I'm grateful to the game for what it gave me," he said. "When the Bills picked me up, it was like striking it rich. I won the lottery. And I'm still cashing in on it."

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