A start that rang true after midnight and Sunday night, when the Bills lost to the Chiefs to miss the Super Bowl, melted away on Monday morning. Brian Stamm sat in his kitchen with his wife Melissa and daughter-in-law Lisa Schult, with music playing in the background and thoughts of Buffalo.
We have to go to the airport, Lisa said.
Then it’s almost 1:30. It was only about 20 degrees outside (it was the west side of New York and all), which means it was a bit cold, at least in that part of the state. They had only arrived at the airport a few weeks earlier, after the Bills took over the AFC East, and were preparing for their second trip when the Bills won that night. Then came the game.
Lisa wrote to her half-brother, who is something of an aviation enthusiast. He followed the Bills’ plane to find out when they would leave Kansas City and when they would likely land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Armed with a route, Brian, Melissa and Lisa jumped in the car to drive 10 minutes south to meet their undefeated heroes at home.
The Bills’ crowd showed their undying love, often from afar, when Buffalo returned to the AFC championship game for the first time since January 1994. Brian Bennett/Getty Images
They weren’t the only Buffalonians with the same idea about the Kakamas – about 500 locals – so they parked at the airport a few blocks away and walked to the tarmac, where they were joined by a steady stream of people. The Bills’ plane was still 30 minutes away, so they were happy.
With the cowgirl fans, Brian, still dressed as Zubaz, borrowed from a stranger to wake up the crowd.
And fans with break tables (it’s Western New York and all). Lisa says we break tables in this town.
And fans are enjoying in their gut this season they’ve been waiting for, and the season they didn’t know they had. The team finally began to shake off its failures, one by one as springs – a Division I title in 25 years and the first playoff win in a quarter century. Buffalonians have loved their unfortunate team for so long, and with so much talent, that fan base has grown. Today, Bills fans and Bills fans are waiting to see how this next chapter will unfold.
Sure, the Bills just lost the AFC championship, but Bills fans have found something long at this stage. They threw optimism overboard and tried. They thought it was appropriate.
When the substitutions finally came, fans shouted MVP for Josh Allen, even though he didn’t play as such against the Chiefs. They named Sean McDermott coach of the year, although he wasn’t much of a coach either. But Allen could also be a laureate in the not too distant future. Just like McDermott. And if they managed to win this season, even if it didn’t end with a Super Bowl, it was worth celebrating for the fans. On this cold night, in this strange and isolating year, it was worth going. Lisa had a webinar at work at 9:00. Brian? He’s a lawyer and told his office before the game to take his Monday morning, win or lose (but he actually thought the Bills were going to win). Sacrifices had to be made.
They’ve been looking for our faces in the stands all year and haven’t seen us, Brian says. We wanted them to see our faces.
Are you afraid you’ll be mistaken for the legendary Tom Brady? Or a budding juggler in Kansas City? I don’t care about mob accounts. AP Photo/Adrian Kraus
They sing like a choir, these Buffalonians, their crescendo calling.
Yes, of course.
Of course, this is going to happen this year.
Of course, that will be the case for us this year.
They couldn’t see our faces.
Because you wouldn’t know: The fans in the community most obsessed with professional football…. couldn’t communicate. At least not in the way they wanted. And certainly not in the same way as before. In a tragicomic reversal of Billsiana’s fortunes, this team deserved to be encouraged – just when the complete and massive entrenchment of this city was being demolished as an art form.
Even if the Bills crowd couldn’t do what they do best, even if their communities were closed for the regular season because of the coronavirus pandemic, they were up to 6,700 in the postseason, even if they couldn’t celebrate in that big, beautiful Buffalo style … They didn’t want to neglect the very good football. Deep in the darkest corners of their bodies, loving Bills, there was not one atom of their being that begged for mercy, but for general satisfaction.
What if the Bills were playing on the moon? It’s all the same to me. I just want to win, says Del Reed, one of the founders of the mafia movement. And if the rules said we can’t go to the moon – only the team can go to the moon – I would say: Let’s go, Moon Bills, he adds, pushing the limits of logic.
But never accuse Bills fans of being logical. Rich Foley is also a member of Bills mafia, not by birthright, but by choice. He grew up in New Jersey, made Buffalo his team in the ’90s and moved to Bills Country five years ago – mostly for the Bills. Rich talked about the merits of a socially distant I-90 Super Bowl victory parade for the Bills’ elimination. Because it makes sense.
Josh Allen’s season, with 4,544 yards and 37 TDs, is a dream come true for Super Bowl fans. AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes
The hope for this football team has been irresponsible and inconsistent for so long. One generation passed on the despair to the next, infecting the gene pool. But there is something new in the DNA of Western New York, a strange and wonderful phenomenon called trust.
The fifth trip to the Super Bowl will be a fluke, Del joked, but, you know, no.
Are you worried that one day Tom Brady, the patron saint of Buffalo, will show up at the Super Bowl? What, are you worried?
(He has a 32-3 record against Buffalo, the most wins by an NFL quarterback against a single team).
Tom Brady takes nothing from him, Del says, two days after the quarterback became a seven-time Super Bowl champion. I’m still not worried that the Bills will play him.
Tempted by the prospect of being a very good team and having the misfortune of competing with a great team in Kansas City? They laugh in the face of intimidation!
(Although, wouldn’t that be the same as letting the Bills get to, say, four AFC Championship games in a row – without a Super Bowl berth?)
Bills won’t be the only good team, says Nick Papagelis, one of the bill’s key people. Like many other Buffalo residents, he sees a bright future ahead, thanks to the team’s young and solid core (Allen, Stephon Diggs), the productive coaching staff (McDermott and competitive head coach Brian Daboll) and the general feeling that Buffalo is now an attractive landing pad for the league’s best free agent talent. There will always be another great team, he adds.
The team, it should be noted, seems equally unstoppable. In the aftermath of the AFC championship loss, McDermott has clearly drawn the line between his team and the Chiefs. There is still a gap between our current situation and theirs, he said. There is more than one answer to this problem. But he was also indestructible. They are in eighth grade and we are in eighth grade, he added. The chef’s guarantee of success is on the table in Buffalo? No. Are you sure what it could be? Yes, of course.
In other words: Nobody’s going after Buffalo now. The team will be there, the fans are sure. This might explain why about 500 weightlifters went to the airport in the middle of the night to cheer on the losing team. They more than made up for the excitement of the season. They raised their glasses to tomorrow.
I don’t even know what the Buffalo sports fan base will look like if the Bills win the Super Bowl, Del says. But I’m very glad to know. I’m very curious to see what it is.
Ken Pinto’s Ron Johnson made the Spice World trip for a game this season, but don’t expect it to happen again. Brian M. Bennett/Getty Images
Five months ago, a lifetime ago, 90 miles east of Orchard Park, New York, and the Bills’ stadium and the Bills themselves, Nick Papagelis held a trial for a house with a beige facade in nearby Fairport, New York.
We’ve decided to make ketchup, he roars, announcing the return of one of Buffalo’s oldest and most ridiculous traditions. It was September, the first crazy Sunday of this crazy NFL season, and if you thought a global pandemic could undo the shaken head habits of Bills fans, well … No, whatever, absolutely no one thought a global pandemic could destroy Buffalo.
They made ketchup. Well, they made ketchup, so to speak. Well, they tried to make a ketchup version.
On a random Sunday in the year, Ken Johnson – affectionately called Pinto Ron here – stands in the middle of a circle of invading Bills fans, hundreds and hundreds of them, waiting for his baptism in a bath of ketchup and mustard. With his red 1980 Ford Pinto parked off to the side, a gang of ketchup and mustard shooters climbed onto the roof of a nearby pickup truck and sprinkled him with condiments, then threw condiments at him, as they have done for more than 30 years now.
But this year, as COWID-19 raged on, the crowd could not gather outside Hammers Lot stadium, the usual site of this deranged ritual. They couldn’t agree on anything. Instead, a handful of supporters here, a pro-pandemic group (of sorts), gathered around a knee-length mannequin. They fitted the model with glasses and a fake beard – a delightful attempt to get close to their hypnotized Pinto Ron – and then sprinkled him with ketchup and mustard.
If Del Reed wants to know what the Bills fandom looks like with all this new and great success, that’s all. It’s his masterpiece. Tail is their art. It is an absurd and devoted community, their muse.
For years – decades, generations, whatever you want to call it – these fans have been waiting to marry him. Differences in football and poetry of the tail. That the coronavirus made it impossible for them to meet, that it made the ships pass in the night, is a dark irony that is not lost here.
Nick Papagelis, host of Red Pinto Tailgate and Bills Isler: It’s the worst thing that can happen to a bill.
Pat Duffy, amateur radio operator and, yes, Bill’s fanatic: I made a joke on a TV show in August. They’re gonna win the Super Bowl because we can’t go.
Donnie Darts, known only as his alter ego and, surprisingly, Bills Eifert: That’s the Buffalo way.
They joke and joke and joke. They joke around, so desperately that it becomes almost manic, until it becomes clear that the humor of the gallows is their survival. They joke to keep moving forward, to ward off the sadness that swings at their feet like ebb and flow. For therein lies the essential and human truth: It hurts.
Many fans can’t imagine what a loyal opponent would be like, but they can’t wait to find out. AP Photo/Adrian Kraus
Nobody misses Kenny, says Eric Matwijo…. No jokes, no jokes at all! -about his old friend and tenant, Pinto Rona. Eric owns the Hammer property. He, Hammer, and the man primarily responsible for cleaning up the mess Pinto Ron and his cronies make in the hours before the Sunday night football game. Kenny doesn’t miss Kenny enough to be nostalgic about the 0.8 tons of trash he has to pick up from his parking lot after every Bills home game (non-pandemic).
Red Pinto has been abandoned this season. Ken occasionally took the wheel and drove a few laps around Rochester to prevent the gearbox from freezing up. These trips always took place at night, always under cover of darkness, as Ken said, so as not to provoke a narrow-minded frenzy among the inhabitants. For the rest, Pinto has remained intact, unloved as it was in the past. For the joy of the season. Before the pandemic. Before the world comes closer. Like many things, he was trapped in amber.
As the wins piled up, the 13 (most regular season wins since the Super Bowl) and Josh Allen became magical (81.7 QBR in 2020, third in the NFL behind only Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes), these fans – even in the Amber Trap – longed for normalcy.
2,200 miles from Bills Stadium: Normally, Ken only exposes himself to ketchup and mustard at home games, but this year, when he came to Arizona in November, he made a unique exception for away games. He thought he owed it to the Wild West Backers, who managed to recapture four acres of land where 200 Bills fans could walk around and watch him get sprayed from afar. It’s probably the only time he talks about his claim.
And 0.2 miles from the stadium: On Bills Drive, a long, winding road that ends at Bills Stadium, Shane Prouty has taken up residence in the self-proclaimed Bills Mafia House. It’s a one-story white bungalow, Shane’s project, with Buffalo Bill painted blue on the back and #BillsMafia proclaiming his football affiliation in bold letters. Shane also has subscriptions (not all of them) and has rented out the apartment via Airbnb in the past. But this year, with no home games, he has taken over. He sat outside, ready to build a fire, in the tent in case Mother Nature got bored, and watched the football. Not normal, facsimile. The house across the street was scary. Ghost towns. And reality found him anyway. He watched most home games from that seat, except for one week when he tested positive for VIDOC-19. But there was always the campfire, music and football. That was something.
A few years ago, the team placed a fence along Bill’s Drive, and that fence blocked the view of Shane’s white house and the blue Bill and the onrushing crowd. The obstacle was temporary. A few days after installation, the 2-metre fence was lowered about 1.5 metres when asked to do so from the ground.
I heard the request came directly from Terry Pegula, Shane says.
It turned out that the account holder loved this perspective.
And because Shane was visible thanks to Pegula’s appreciation of good team play, Bills players leaving the stadium that year expected to see him parked in their yard and took the liberty of thanking him for his passes. Brian Daboll, the Bills’ offensive coordinator, even took some shots to break a strong fist.
They offered a kind of comfort, these little exchanges. Eric, who also lives in the area, knows which players drive which cars – wide receivers are in Corvettes, line players in trucks and defensive backs in Jeeps – and it’s reassuring to have that connection to the team to keep the thread going that the pandemic hasn’t broken.
In a stupid, weird way, he says it calms me down.
Eric grew up here, on roughly the same property where Bills Stadium is now, when there were only farms, fields and the creek he used to swim in; his grandparents bought their property in Orchard Park in 1932. Shane? His stepfather took over as bartender at the Big Tree Inn, a Bills establishment down the street, where he talked to legends of the team who became regulars at the bar. For a long time, there was a Gordian knot of ties between the city and the team, so they always felt like less Bills fans and more just Bills fans, period.
They raised nearly half a million dollars for Louisville’s favorite charity, Lamar Jackson, after the quarterback left the league’s playoff game with a concussion. They raised more than $1 million for the Buffalo Children’s Hospital in memory of Josh’s grandmother Patricia Allen, who passed away in November. I never want to leave Buffalo, he said, especially the people of Buffalo.
You’ve missed so much this year. They missed the smell of the tailgate grills, the difference in smell and how it becomes more obvious in the fall. They missed their friends in Toronto who, like them, are Bills fans but can’t cross the border in this new world order. They missed their Gordian knot.
I try not to think about it too much, Del says. I want to believe that next year will be different.
Melissa Stamm braved the cold in the middle of the night to welcome her undefeated heroes. She was far from alone. Thanks to Brian Stamm.
That’s all they have, again. Next year.
Despite all the differences this season, there are also a lot of familiar things. The Bills lost to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, and even that seems to be a mild understatement. The Bills were wiped out by the Chiefs, so these fans went back to an area they know well. A land of hope for better times to come.
At least with a small hint: a land of faith, deep down, that better days are coming.
The day after the loss, after Brian and Lisa and hundreds of daredevils had returned home from the airport, Shane returned to his Mafia Bill home. He brought the TVs and DJ equipment back to the warehouse and stacked the tables (not broken). Everything that the pandemic era brought in terms of shorter tailgates is gone, put back on the ice of the face until the new season.
It’s a strange season. It has been a wonderful season. During all this time, the ethos, if not the implementation of this community has continued.
We always do what we do, Shane says.
They’re going to do what they’re going to do next year. Maybe together again. Maybe even a game longer than this season. That would be great, they think.