It was about 24 hours till kickoff, and the Bills Mafia had taken over the Hotel Lafayette’s bar in downtown Buffalo. They numbered in the 50s, though possibly there were many more. Other hotel patrons and passersby also wore Ryan Fitzpatrick jerseys and T-shirts with proclamations that said BE LOUD, BE PROUD, BELIEVE! Buffalo the team and the town, so long locked in a spiral of mutual hardship, seemed more culturally entwined than any other city and its professional sports franchise. I headed there during the run-up to the Bills’ September game against New England, a festive time known locally as “Patriots Week.” The Bills Mafia was observing the occasion by replaying the entire telecast of last year’s Bills win over the Pats, watching the game with a holiday’s gaiety, reflection, and thanks. Their celebration of the Bills was the third I had stumbled upon in two days. As early as Thursday, the game-day blimp already appeared to be pacing the skies overhead, as if personifying the teeming anticipation in the tiny-seeming people down below.
The Bills Mafia called its gathering a pre-tailgate party, since members also planned to convene outside Ralph Wilson Stadium early the next morning. The Mafia was a Twitter group whose 9,000 followers include Fred Jackson, Aaron Williams, and several other current Bills players. Linebacker Nick Barnett sent a gift basket and signed gear to the bar for a Bills Mafia raffle. LaMark Brown, a 23-year-old tight end on the practice squad, joined the meet-up, talking to fans for three hours. (At the time I thought this noble and possibly expedient, a way to build a grassroots following that would lobby for his signing and extended playing time, but come Monday he was cut.) Del Reid, the group’s co-founder, showed me a fist-size tattoo above his heart, the colors still moist, of the Bills Mafia logo — the Twitter bird in navy blue with a Bills red streak running along its side.
Del explained that the group formed by accident, not long after Stevie — that’s Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson — dropped that pass against the Steelers; you know, the one that would have won the game back in 2010. “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!” Stevie had tweeted. To God. The true Buffalo fans reacted by sending Johnson tweets of support. They were intimate with anguish and loss. Forget the disappearance from the city of factories and jobs and more than half the population, the Bills hadn’t won a title since 1965, back when they still played in the American Football League. And over the past 12 seasons, the team hadn’t even managed a wild-card berth in the playoffs, finishing above .500 just once in that stretch. Real Bills fans implicitly understood that a period of amnesty existed for no less than a day after any game, a window in which you were forgiven for whatever batshit form the enduring despair took until by, say, Tuesday, an unrequited hopefulness again took flight. But ESPN’s Adam Schefter was no true fan. He retweeted Johnson’s words a whole day later, which in Twitter time, Del said, might as well be 100 years. And so the social media mob dealt with it, bombarding Schefter’s account with barbs for piling on so late. Someone referred to these stalwarts as the Bills Mafia, and the group was born. They became made men.
Thomas DeLaus, a 24-year-old front-end supervisor at Walmart, and Nick Primerano, 31, who sells communications systems to the federal government, broke down the ethos of the group, and really of the Bills faithful more generally.
“It’s been a rough decade,” Thomas said.
“But we’re a positive push for growth,” Nick chimed in.
“The hashtag can’t be used for negativity.”
“No matter what, we’re about team.”
“Whether wide right … ”
“And no matter what happens at ‘The Ralph’ tomorrow … ”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s zero degrees at the game … ”
“We back the players.”
“Community,” said Thomas.
“Once Bills Mafia, always Bills Mafia.”
The two of them seemed perfectly in sync, like a quarterback and receiver who after many seasons learn to anticipate each other’s moves. Despite some differences in appearance — Nick’s black goatee to Thomas’s wispy blond one, Nick’s bench-press bulldog build and Thomas’s willowy frame — they were even dressed alike. Both wore Bills Mafia caps backward and cocked at the same leftward slant, rubber Bills Mafia bracelets, and Bills jerseys hanging loosely over jeans. So I was surprised to learn that they had met in real life only a few moments before. Up until today, they had known one another only through the tweets of @RandomlyRufus and @RealNickPrim.
“I saw Fred Jackson at the mall,” Nick said of the Bills running back. “I said ‘Bills Mafia’ to him. He said it back and gave me a pound. Now it’s part of Bills nomenclature.”
Another fan there worried aloud that I might think them pitiful for rewatching last season’s game. On the television, the year-old contest had reached the fourth quarter, and most everyone had thronged in front of the set. “I don’t care if you do,” the fan decided, clearly relieved. That 2011 game against the Patriots had been particularly special. Buffalo had lost 15 in a row to New England until then, dating back to the season opener in 2003, and 20 of the last 21. Tom Brady ruled them. An old-timer at the bar compared the victory last year to one in 1980 that snapped a 20-game losing streak against Don Shula’s Dolphins. After last year’s win, the fans remained in the stadium for 40 minutes; security ringed the field while groundskeepers preemptively took down the goalposts. Fred Jackson lofted a Bills flag and raced across the turf. The Bills were 3-0 at that point and had vanquished their nemesis. Buffalonians started debating who among them were the diehards and who were the Johnny-come-lately bandwaggoners. Bills management quickly worked out a six-year, $59 million contract extension for their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was with his third team and had tossed almost as many career interceptions as touchdowns. The Bills ended up losing 10 of their next 13 games. “It says a lot,” a 25-year-old fan reflected, “that the greatest moment in my life is a Week 3 win over New England.”
The bar fell silent in the waning seconds of the year-old telecast. Bartenders stopped serving, craning their necks screenward. Older folk dining in booths laid down their utensils. “I have butterflies,” Del said. When they again watched Rian Lindell kick the winning field goal as time expired, the bar shook with exultation. Fans started a chorus of the team’s anthem, a version of the “Shout” song that is chanted heartily at many a Western New York wedding. “Hey-ay-ay-ay! Let’s go, Buff-uh-low! The Bills make me want to SHOUT!” Someone yelled, “Fandemonium!” Jacob Gauda, a hulking 30-year-old prep cook who dressed up for games in a kind of carnival-cum-Hun regalia of zebra-print Zubaz pants, beads, helmet, and tie-dyed leg compressors, was recalling with astonishment his reaction from a year before. “I was hugging people,” he announced. “I was just hugging everyone.”
Then last year’s broadcast showed the instant replay of the very same kick. And the scene inside the bar became its own instant replay: All eyes locked on the screen, sound stopped, the patrons enrapt.
The Friday of Patriots Week, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown agreed to meet with me to talk Bills. The city’s first African American mayor, Brown grew up in Queens an avowed Giants and Jets fan. But he attended Buffalo State College in the 1980s and stayed on here as he entered politics. “Bills fans possess a faith in their team that is unshakable,” he told me, intoning his words with a cadenced, stentorian flourish. “Their belief in the team symbolizes their unwavering belief in the city. That enthusiasm quickly made the Bills my no. 1 New York State football team.”
We were standing along a marina where Lake Erie squeezes itself into the Niagara River. It was a magnificent fall day, the air apple-crisp, leaves hueing to plum and amber. I went to college in nearby Rochester, and I remember weather like this — the bait-and-switch before the winter deluge. Brown was there to tout his administration’s efforts to transform the city’s Erie Basin Marina into a major warm-weather destination, telling a tiny claque of local media about a new ice cream gazebo and a second-floor patio addition to a burger-and-beer joint called The Hatch. The mayor told me that the city was undergoing a “tremendous renaissance.” Indeed, both Buffalo the team and the city seemed on the mend. In the offseason, the Bills landed the pass-rushing phenom Mario Williams, having to offer only the most expensive NFL contract ever for a defensive player to lure him to Western New York. The team had also retained its other key players and was now 2-1 as it prepared to face the 1-2 Patriots.
Maybe more surprisingly, and certainly more importantly, the city was again growing economically, particularly in the financial and biomedical fields. An expanded medical campus alone, Mayor Brown told me, would bring 10,000 new jobs to Buffalo. Because the recession hit there decades before 2007, the city missed the boom and the bust of the housing crisis. Brown said he had been able to increase the municipal credit rating multiple times in the past few years as other cities’ ratings had plummeted. Buffalo looked like a 100-year-old major metropolis that you discovered cobwebbed and dusty in your grandparents’ attic. So little had been torn down; almost nothing new had been constructed in decades. With young professionals — long the city’s chief export — now beginning to find careers at home, developers had started to dust off and restore the lavish art deco office towers and the thousands of ornate Victorian homes. If much of Buffalo had the weathered, faded feel of a flea market, its poorer neighborhoods still looked more like a junkyard, with a patchwork of vacant lots surrounding sagging single-family homes, many with windows and doors missing. But the city’s rebirth, as it were, was even beginning to breathe life into these areas. On the predominantly African American east side, Pastor Michael Chapman, the head of St. John Baptist Church, was spearheading a $500 million, 42-block development project. Hundreds of millions of dollars had arrived from the state to rehab the city’s schools. Aaron Bartley, who ran an organization that had already repurposed 50 vacant properties on the formerly working-class Italian west side, told me he ranked among the bottom third of Buffalonians in terms of his Bills fandom, though he had put himself to sleep the night before by watching highlights on YouTube of Andre Reed catches from the 1990s. Bartley sat on the board of a group that was now figuring out how best to distribute another billion dollars New York State was investing in the region’s economy.
While the rest of the media packed up, I asked the mayor about his critical decision in 2009 to welcome Terrell Owens to Buffalo with a grand ceremony. Several teams had already discarded Owens, each thrilled to see him leave. But after the Bills signed the receiver, Mayor Brown stood shoulder-to-shoulder with T.O. in front of the Grecian columns of the city’s famed Albright-Knox Art Gallery. There he presented Owens with a key to the city. It seemed a bit much, I suggested, to say nothing of premature. Owens ended up catching just five touchdown passes in one season with Buffalo, a dispiriting 6-10 campaign. The mayor nodded sagely. Then he spoke about Terrell Owens as he did credit ratings and capital improvements, without a grin or a drop in his oratory.
“The team made a gutsy move — a bold move — to say, ‘We want to excite these fans and let the people of this community know that we’re committed to being a champion.’ I wanted to say as the leader of this community that I shared this excitement. I, too, was willing to take bold action for this city. I did that as part of the Buffalo spirit of trying to make something happen. We are willing to strive.”
I was able to brush up on some Bills history later that evening. As it happened, a couple of locals, guys who grew up in the Italian neighborhood of North Buffalo, were premiering their documentary about the team at an arthouse theater downtown. Almost a Dynasty: A Fan Story focuses on the Bills’ unparalleled run, at the start of the 1990s, when the team reached the Super Bowl four consecutive years. That the Bills lost all four of these championships makes the feat at once an achievement and a failure of spectacular proportions. Phil Gangi, a special-ed teacher at a city public school, and Peter Tasca, a sales and marketing man for a Buffalo FM radio station, spent two years writing and directing the film. They interviewed players, coaches, family members, and numerous Bills fanatics. The question animating the documentary is whether these Buffalonians would be willing to trade the collective experience of four Super Bowl losses for a single title, just one year in which the city could say it was the best. In the lobby before the film, Peter was bouncing on his toes in a Bruce Smith jersey. He told me, “Those four Super Bowls, the four losses, that’s the heart and soul of Buffalo.”
Consider the team’s first Super Bowl defeat, against the Giants in January 1991. In the AFC championship game the week before, the Bills, with their explosive no-huddle offense, had overwhelmed the Raiders, 51-3, sparking a week of unrelenting partying in Western New York. As a city, Buffalo had pretty much hit bottom in the preceding years. Bethlehem Steel, Westinghouse Electric, and Trico, the world’s largest maker of windshield wipers, were among many companies to shut down production in the area in the 1980s. One of the city’s two daily papers, the Courier-Express, ceased operations. The population had fallen from a peak of 600,000 to about 300,000, and has since dropped to 260,000. The city could hardly even boast anymore of being a working-class, blue-collar town, since for the first time in its existence more people held low-wage trade and service-sector jobs than worked in manufacturing. Buffalo had once roamed among the world’s industrial powerhouses, owning one of the nation’s largest economies. In 1901 it hosted the Pan-American Exposition and a World’s Fair, and, yeah, President William McKinley was assassinated there, but many of the monuments remained. Frederick Law Olmsted himself had traveled up to Buffalo to design the city’s parks and interconnected parkways. Because Buffalo had fallen so far, it clung all the more to its football team — a last vestige of its former prominence as a “major league” town. At least for 16 games a year, the city remained part of a national conversation. And then there suddenly was a chance again to be on top. The Bills offered a possibility of redemption.
In the Super Bowl, the Bills were down 19-20 to the Giants with eight seconds left when the team’s kicker, Scott Norwood, lined up a 47-yard field goal. He missed, of course, and the phrase “wide right” instantly turned into a mantra, a declaration of the city’s decay. I heard natives refer to it as “our Cuyahoga moment,” a reference to the burning river that came to symbolize the demise of Cleveland, another Rust Belt catastrophe. In Buffalo ’66, Vincent Gallo’s comically grim 1998 film about the grotesques of his hometown, the sallow-eyed Gallo plays Billy Brown, who bet $10,000 on the Bills to win the Super Bowl. After a prison stint he serves to pay off his debt, Billy returns home to kill “Scott Wood,” the field goal kicker who ruined his life. First, though, he visits his parents, Bills zombies who have plastered every square foot of their bungalow with team paraphernalia. Asked to bring out pictures of little Billy, his mom returns with a photo album filled only with images of Jack Kemp, O. J. Simpson, and other players. At one point Mickey Rourke’s gangster tells Billy, “If Buffalo ever makes it back to the Super Bowl, bet against them. Now get the fuck out of my sight.”
Rather than try to murder the real Scott Norwood, Buffalonians embraced him when the team returned from the 1991 Super Bowl. At a rally held for the team in downtown’s Niagara Square, 30,000 fans chanted for Norwood to come to the dais. “I know I’ve never felt more loved than right now,” a weeping Norwood told the crowd. The people in the sold-out showing of Almost a Dynasty also had tears in their eyes as they relived that moment onscreen. I spent a lot of the film looking at the illuminated faces around me, the silly grins, the nail-biting grimaces. I felt like I was seeing people pore over old photo albums of their actual beloved children. They were simultaneously experiencing love and loss, something both maudlin and irrevocably defining. They nodded with recognition at Phil Gangi’s Uncle Mike, who after the first Super Bowl loss decided he could not endure another Bills game. He spends his Sundays during the season secluded in a grove beside his house, rocking on a swing. And while his wife is forbidden from mentioning a game’s outcome, they’ve worked out a wordless exchange: Upon his return, the porch light is on for a Bills win and off for a loss.
By the time the film delved into the third and fourth Super Bowls, the people around me were laughing a bit hysterically at their own shared past, the inconceivable absurdity of what had transpired. For four straight years, they had swelled repeatedly with renewed hope only to be punctured yet again by defeat. It was ridiculous that they had expended all that emotion on these games. Yet they were also laughing with glee, a pride in the documented fact that something so extraordinary and mythic had happened to them.
Before the Bills moved to their current stadium, located in the southeastern suburb of Orchard Park, the team played in the heart of black Buffalo, in a neighborhood called the Fruit Belt for its many streets with such names as Grape, Peach, Cherry, and Lemon. War Memorial Stadium, known as “The Rockpile,” seated only 46,000, nowhere near enough to sustain a modern NFL franchise. When the Bills left in 1973, though, it compounded the suffering of a community that had already borne the worst of the city’s decline. “Football season used to be opportunity season in the Fruit Belt,” Michael Brown, a representative for Buffalo’s African American firefighters and president of a group called MOCHA (Members of Color Helping All), told me. “People would rent out their driveways for parking. All the businesses benefited. We were a part of what was going on in the city. Buffalo still remained segregated. We might not be with white people earlier on Sunday at church, or on Monday at work, but we were all together during the game. A civic enterprise was removed, extracted, from the Fruit Belt. It became a Western New York enterprise.”
My sense was that black Buffalo was as football-crazy as the rest of the town but that at least as much of that fervor was dedicated to youth leagues as to the Bills. I had a chance to pass part of a morning in A Fresh Start, a barbershop in East Buffalo. Thomas Worley, the store’s owner, also coached a 13-and-under team, with all his players weighing less than 130 pounds. They were the Ravens and they were 5-0, and Worley believed that with their hurry-up offense they would win not only a local tournament but also a national one in Florida. I took a seat beside a guy in his 20s who was introduced to me as Worley’s offensive coordinator, one of five Ravens assistant coaches. His name was T.J., and he wore a Dallas Cowboys cap and was busily reviewing video footage of the Ravens’ next opponent in a digital camera. Worley had only recently moved into the shop, and he wanted to decorate it in a little league football theme — trophies and photographs and words of inspiration. He turned on a flat-panel television, reaching amid DVD boxed sets of The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, to show me a video of a game his Ravens had played against a team from Niagara. The walls of the store displayed not a single Bills poster or pennant. Worley, who moved from North Carolina and wore a Chicago Bulls cap, declared himself “anti-Bills.” “The team’s involvement in the black community sucks,” he said. He asked the others who were sitting around the shop if they felt any deep connection to the Bills. There was a woman with a short flattop named Miss Dee, and an older white-haired gentleman referred to as Pops, and T.J., and another young guy who smiled sheepishly when Worley talked about trying to get him to coach. They constituted an entirely unscientific sample, but there wasn’t a Bills diehard among them. Miss Dee simply shrugged dispassionately and said, “They a’ight.”
I had come to A Fresh Start to meet Dorian Gaskin, who was sitting in the barber chair, shaving cream outlining his hairline and trim goatee. Gaskin worked nights at the local General Motors plant, making engine blocks, and he also owned a construction company that specialized in “green” rehabs, enabling guys from the neighborhood to learn the building trades. A former football player at Grover Cleveland High School, on the city’s west side, and later the University at Buffalo, he loved both the kids game and the Bills. He began to tell me how drug dealers pretty much took over youth football in Buffalo a few years ago. Maybe because they also religiously followed the kids games, the dealers began coaching and forming their own teams. Then they started betting big on the outcomes — $10,000, $20,000. The gangbangers recruited ringers, offering sneakers or cash to the best players. One dealer allegedly flew in a star player from North Carolina for Saturday games. At the fields, players with dubious age prerequisites would step out of cars they were driving themselves before suiting up. Gaskin said you’d see knuckleheads holding the yardage markers while rolling blunts. Fights would break out, coaches throwing down with other coaches. After a referee made a call to end one game, the fellows from the losing team caught up with him in the neighborhood later and administered a ferocious beating. But Gaskin said people had worked hard to clean up the sport. Coaches were now required to go through a certification process, which includes a background check. A dozen years ago, after a shooting at what was then his daughter’s elementary school, Gaskin co-founded a group called FATHERS, which recruited men of values to tutor and mentor children. The group sponsored a couple of football teams, Worley’s Ravens among them, the idea being that in this football-mad town the game could help kids elude off-field dangers.
After his haircut, Gaskin drove me to nearby Burgard High School, a mostly African American school where his son played linebacker. About 10 players, all of them in their game jerseys, met me at the school’s entranceway. They were playing Lackawanna that night. I asked them about the Bills — only one of them considered himself a fan. The others rooted for the Redskins, the Ravens, or (gasp) the Patriots. Their favorite players all came from other teams. But age as much as race might account for this lack of Bills identification. Howard Simon, a Buffalo sports radio commentator and a white guy, told me that his son and his son’s friends knew the Bills only as a failure. To them the playoffs existed as a kind of rumor, like eight-track cassettes or some other unrecognizable concept their dads yakked about. His son adored Peyton Manning.
It was difficult for me to grasp how football-obsessed kids didn’t gravitate to their local professional team. I grew up in Chicago with a hapless Bears team that also showcased Walter Payton. I never missed a game, sitting in front of the television with a Bears helmet by my side, the likely outcome a Bears loss with “Sweetness” high-stepping and extending for 100-plus yards and Bob Avellini or Mike Phipps or Vince Evans throwing a couple of picks. But here were Buffalo youth who seemed to have moved on from the Bills. Clinton Williams, a Burgard junior linebacker, wanted me to understand, so he explained the phenomenon in plain terms.
“The Bills be losing,” he said.
For Bills partisans, white, black, or anything else, the greatest fear is not that the team will lose a game or suffer another demoralizing season. A far more distressing concern is that the team will follow industry and investment and generations of young Buffalonians before it and abandon the region for good. Ralph Wilson, who founded the Buffalo Bills in 1959, still owns the team. He’s 94. For a few of those years it seemed one of his daughters, the NFL’s first female scout, was being groomed to replace him, but she died of cancer in 2009, at the age of 61. Wilson has refused to announce a plan of succession or to comment further on the team’s future without him. Upon his death, his heirs appear ready to sell the Bills to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, fans exist in a suspended state of disbelief and existential terror. They are sure one moment that Mr. Wilson must have a backroom deal set up to keep the team in Buffalo, a city he’d stuck with for the past half-century, even if often at a distance from his mansion in Michigan. But the next instant they can’t figure why he’d then let them suffer. The old man had done all right for himself in Buffalo, paying just $25,000 for a team currently worth about $800 million, while Erie County has covered the costs of stadium renovations. Yet now he seems ready to allow Toronto, with its armada of newly built glass and steel towers, to pirate away their team. Since 2008, the Bills have been playing one “home” game a season in Toronto, which for many in Buffalo feels like an unwanted trial separation. Maybe more threatening is Los Angeles, with its mega-market revenues and media, which is angling to lure not just one NFL franchise but two. When Bills management negotiated a lease extension on its current property, they signed up for only a year. Hardly the long-term commitment of a Bills fan’s dreams.
“The Bills leaving is always on our minds, always lurking. Even when we’re sure we’re not thinking about it, we’re thinking about it,” Chris Parker, a sports radio jock known as “The Bulldog,” told me. The thing that buoyed the city, that saved it from becoming Syracuse or Camden, could soon disappear. Without the Bills, Buffalo would no longer be a city in decline; the condition would be complete. “I want to get back to worrying that we have the wrong quarterback,” The Bulldog said. “I want to be able to treat it as just a football team, even a bad one.”
Buffalo natives say they’ll raise the money to bid against the likes of Toronto and L.A. A group of businessmen have floated a proposal to build a new downtown stadium that would be part of the city’s revitalization. Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback from the 1990s teams, told me, “The Bills won’t leave Buffalo in my lifetime. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep them here.” Kelly spoke to me from his New York State lodge, where 25 guests had joined him for the opening of archery hunting season. After retiring, Kelly settled in Western New York, becoming what people there pridefully call “a Buffalo guy.” He told me he married a local girl, and that his son Hunter, who died at age 8 a few years ago from Krabbe disease, was also buried there. “People in Buffalo came to my side when I needed them. It’s like what Coach Levy said,” Kelly went on, becoming about the 10th Buffalonian I heard use Marv Levy’s pregame words as an expression of civic pride: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”
On the same night as the screening of Almost a Dynasty, 150 other Bills fans were meeting a couple blocks away, again at the main bar of the Hotel Lafayette. They were there as part of the Buffalo Fan Alliance, a group of businessmen, politicians, and other local powerbrokers who had organized to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Brian Cinelli, a 36-year-old trial lawyer, and Matt Sabuda, a 30-year-old real estate investor, had been talking in the offseason about the looming uncertainty created by Ralph Wilson’s silence when they realized there had to be thousands of Bills fans like them — professional types. There had to be a way to monetize the depth of their love. The NFL no longer allowed equity ownership of teams, having grandfathered in the Green Bay Packers model. So Brian and Matt had the idea to create a fund, contributed to by regional businesses and fans, that would lend money to the owners of the Bills, whoever they might be, on extremely favorable terms. The money might be loaned well below market interest rates, or with the potential of debt forgiveness, but it would come as well with restrictions on relocation. Buffalo would never top other cities’ revenue streams, but a stay-put buyer could justify a highest bid by showing these savings on the debt side. With the nonagenarian Wilson in and out of the hospital, Brian and Matt wasted no time forming a board consisting of executives from various local institutions, and the group had already retained a national law firm that specializes in deals with the NFL. They were introducing their plans that night at the Hotel Lafayette, where they were joined by a U.S. Representative Brian Higgins, who said he “represents a Bills constituency,” as well as by scores of other young professionals. Matt said, “We sent out word, and people told us, ‘This is the Bills. What can we do to help? We’ll give whatever you need.'”
Brian stressed that this first gathering of the Buffalo Fan Alliance was being held at the perfect location. The recently renovated Hotel Lafayette stood as an emblem of Buffalo’s former grandeur, its collapse, and the promise of revival. Built in an opulent French-renaissance style for the Pan-American Expo, it opened late, in 1904, a jewel in booming Buffalo, one of the nation’s most extravagant hotels. By the end of the century, however, it had turned into just another scary relic, functioning, if at all, as a boarding house for single-room occupants. In 2009, a Buffalo developer named Rocco Termini bought the hotel for $500,000, spending $45 million on a renovation that attempted to restore or re-create the building’s art deco crystal ballrooms, its marble columns, and 110 stained-glass windows. Like the other big redevelopment projects in town, the hotel was careful to highlight any ties to Buffalo’s heyday. The Lafayette opened only in June, but there were 1,000 people drinking and dining in its refurbished bars and restaurants the night of the Bills Fan Alliance event. Termini had created a vertically integrated wedding center — the hotel included banquet halls, a gown shop, a florist, and a bakery that made both wedding cakes and, as Termini insisted I grab, Buffalo Bills cookies. Four weddings were taking place that weekend alone, and 250 were already booked through the next year. All of the 115 apartment units on the top floors were already rented.
As Termini showed off the Lafayette’s many wonders, he reminded me that Tom Brady had cast aspersions on the city’s lodgings last season. “I don’t know if any of you guys have ever been to the hotels in Buffalo,” Brady said in a press conference when illustrating the lengths his father had gone to watch his games, “but they’re not the nicest places in the world.” Termini had offered a luxury suite to Brady’s parents for this weekend’s game, free of charge. He took me upstairs to one of the rooms. A mural of the Pan-American Expo covered one wall. A platform bed faced a gas fireplace and a full-length mirror. Termini described the décor as a blend of classic and contemporary. I imagined Brady’s mother and father enjoying their stay there. Termini said Mayor Brown even offered to throw in a key to the city if the Bradys showed up. But they never did.
I arrived at the stadium at 8 a.m. on Sunday, five hours before kickoff. On the radio, the sports jocks were declaring themselves “optimistic, cautiously optimistic.” “We beat this team last year,” one reasoned. “We’re better, and let’s face it, Brady and the Pats have lost a step.” Despite the light rain and the morning chill, revelers were already filling the acres of surrounding parking lots. I sought out a Bills tailgater of some notoriety, a Rochester man with a graying Santa beard named Ken Johnson. I found him running around in a muddy Marcell Dareus jersey, drinking a beer, while helping his neighbors set up their own tailgates. He was better known as “Pinto Ron,” for the 1980 Ford Pinto wagon he parked at home games (a reporter once misidentified him as “Ron,” and his friends refused to let it go). Pinto Ron said his claim to fame was that he hadn’t missed a Bills game — home or away — since the season opener in 1994. He had declared bankruptcy earlier that year, and he figured he might as well check out a game or two. He ended up making all 16 that season. Then, suddenly, it seemed, he’d attended 30 straight, then 50. It wasn’t as hard as you’d imagine, he told me. He didn’t have any more debt, thanks to the bankruptcy. And as a software engineer, he could work remotely. Plus, most of the away games were chip shots: short road trips to Indianapolis, Cleveland, New Jersey. Pinto Ron did a little kick motion with his leg, pantomiming a 25-yard field goal. Wooden numbers positioned on the Pinto’s roof indicated where today’s game stood in his streak: 297.
A cult of regulars, most of them much younger than Ken, congregated around the Pinto, enacting a set of formalized ministrations. In Zubaz, with faces painted, with Mohawks dyed blue and red, they drank shots of a sickly sweet cherry liqueur from a bowling ball’s finger holes. Upon completion, a drinker ceremonially dropped the ball, tossing back another shot if the holes faced downward and otherwise blowing a long signaling note in something like a ram’s horn. “No matter what you end up eating or drinking, your puke at the end of the day has that cherry taste,” a young man noted. There was an elaborate staging of the “Opening of the Ketchup,” a ritualized drama in which Pinto Ron was doused in a consecration of ketchup and mustard. Pete Papagelis, who went by “Pizza Pete,” met Ken 20 years ago and now helmed the tailgate’s bricolage cooking: wings prepared in an army helmet, hot dogs broiled on a rake’s tines, pizza baked in a file cabinet. Much of this cooking was done on top of the Pinto’s now char-blackened hood.
The Bills Mafia had set up a tent nearby, and its members were recognizable by name tags bearing their Twitter identities. “The Bills nerdia,” a Pinto Ron acolyte said. But most of the tens of thousands of tailgating fans seemed to be flaunting a sentimental sense of community. Every few years Pinto Ron put together a collection of photographs of his tailgate’s regulars, the kind of collage you’d find in a middle school girl’s locker, which he then mounted atop the makeshift bar, just beneath the bowling ball. A few rows away, I stepped into a short bus that Chris and Koni Cerne had painted entirely in a Bills camo design and rigged up so that a goalpost extended from its roof. It was their fifth “Bills Buggy” over 16 years, previous buses having been painted in a Zubaz pattern or with hundreds of tiny Buffalos. Elsewhere, people tossed footballs or walked dogs amid the township of RVs. A bare-chested dad, a “B” painted on his prodigious belly, strolled with his young sons, the three of them in matching face paint. The fans I saw in O.J. Simpson jerseys, or “Da Juice,” as one shirt announced, were all African American. A couple in line at the Port-A-Johns, he in eye black and hard hat, she in a Thurman Thomas jersey, leaned in for a tender kiss. Irene Brickmeyer, 83, who was tailgating with her middle-aged son and his friends, said she felt like a teenager when she sat down at the stadium for each home game. She told me she’d sworn she’d quit smoking if the Bills somehow made it to that fourth Super Bowl in January 1994, and she hadn’t taken a puff since. Her husband was now in a veteran’s hospital, with Alzheimer’s, she added. “He doesn’t know there’s a Bills game anymore,” Irene said. “He doesn’t say ‘The Bills play tomorrow’ or ‘I’m going to watch the game.’ It’s so sad.”
I stopped to speak to three Ottawans, 20-year-olds who were stalking the parking lots in Patriots garb. I could tell that the one wearing the white Tom Brady jersey was their leader. He walked ahead of the pack, moving with a hunched, simian gait, announcing himself an aggressor. I asked what sort of things Bills fans had been yelling at them. Despite the intensity of Bills fandom, its outer edges seemed more blunted than you’d find elsewhere. I didn’t check with security at Ralph Wilson about actual crime statistics, but I didn’t see passions readily spill over into real threat, the way they might at, say, a Red Sox or Eagles game, where fans always seemed eager to stamp their love of the home team on the bodies of visiting rivals. The Ottawan said, “You know, ‘Brady takes it in the ass.’ ‘You’re an insignificant piece of shit.’ But I love it here, eh. It’s what I would be saying if they came up for a hockey game.”
At 12:20, as the lots emptied, I hooked up with Donny Kutzbach, a music promoter who returned home from New York City to buy another mothballed building in downtown Buffalo, a former hot spot called the Town Casino where a couple of generations ago showgirls and crooners and gamblers once caroused. He and a partner reopened it as a music venue called the Town Ballroom, the name itself a shout-out to past glory. “We won a few games. There’s a reason to be excited again,” Kutzbach told me, his boostering almost immediately blurring any distinction between city and team. “But there are a lot of games left, a lot of buildings still vacant. We’re still one of the poorest cities in America. Those of us who stay, though, we stay for a reason. We embrace the things that are here. We have the spirit back.”
I‘d like to pause before the start of the game to reflect on the significance of Zubaz. If you consider these zebra-print pantaloons solely an artifact of a previous age, associating them with the early 1990s and beefy guys in mullets and high-top fades, then you haven’t been to Buffalo lately. Brazenly unstylish and common-man, a marker of extreme devotion, Zubaz are as much a part of the Bills fan uniform as a Jim Kelly jersey. They operate like a metonym for Bills love itself. You see women tucking them cutely into socks. For cold-weather games, fans slip them on over jeans or snow pants. Before the game, I tracked down a fan named Brian Koperski, who was described to me as the guy who wore Zubaz to the Grand Canyon and flew a Bills flag there. He and his tailgate mates were all similarly clad in Zubaz. I clumsily asked if he and his friends wore the pajama pants ironically. “We’re not making a mockery of ourselves, if that’s what you mean,” Brian said. “We feel they look pretty cool.” He then told me about a tailgating partner, Jack, who was getting married, and how the fiancée had specially made for Jack a Zubaz vest and bow tie. Brian figured she was about the coolest girl he knew.
I called Dan Stock, who along with a partner created the Zubaz brand in Minnesota in 1988. He told me the name came from a bit of slang he and his friends invented as kids — “zooba,” meaning “in your face.” I asked him to use it in a sentence. Stock said, “You know, you dunk on someone, and then you go up to them and shout, ‘Zooba!'” He characterized Buffalo as “Zubaz ground zero,” reminding me that the golden era of Bills football coincided with the peak of Zubaz popularity. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas were spokesmen. The Bills’ second Super Bowl loss, a beatdown by the Redskins, took place at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and Stock said both teams visited the company warehouse and loaded up on product. He sent me old images of Kelly in Zubaz pants and cap, of James Lofton holding a pair of red-and-blue zebra-striped knickers. A 50-year-old tailgater told me he always saw Jim Kelly in press conferences wearing Zubaz. “I thought to myself, ‘I want a pair of those,'” he said. The pair he still wore were faded after a hundred Sundays. But in 2007, after a hiatus in production, the company began churning out new Zubaz. Like the city’s restored architecture, younger fans today are able to hark back to a better Buffalo past while simultaneously offering something fresh and promising. “If I throw back with Zubaz,” a youthful fan explained, “then maybe the Bills will be good again.”
The game itself, I was later told, perfectly encapsulated what it meant to be a Bills fan, past and present. I’ll skip the summary here, since much time has passed and by now NFL Films has translated the events into a beautiful slow-motion epic. Needless to say, the lines for concessions were long, even after the multi-hour meat-and-beer orgy outside. I came upon a fan in the walkways who called out for cocaine and I watched as others leaned in blearily to introduce themselves to passing women, their pleasantries coming out as “Ughh, yahh!” But most of all, Bills fans paid attention to the events on the field. The sellout crowd of more than 70,000 stood for almost every play of the game’s first two possessions. On each Patriots third down, they raised a collective din, urging their guys to stop the dreaded Brady. Any Bills score was answered with a raucous, “Hey-ay-ay-ay! Let’s go, Buff-uh-low!” Their team really did make them want to shout.
There’s one play I’ll recount. At the start of the second half, with the Bills leading 14-7, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a short strike to a crossing Donald Jones, who managed to evade a defensive back and sprint another 60 yards for the touchdown. Seconds earlier I had walked up a tunnel leading to the 100-level seats behind the Bills end zone. A thick painted yellow line indicated that this definitely was not a spot where I was allowed to loiter and watch. Before the guard stationed there could bounce me, though, the Bills had scored, leading to a riot of emotional release. No one was wilder in his celebrations than the guard. He leapt and high-fived and ricocheted off the tunnel walls. A paroxysm of fulfillment shook his body. When his darting eyes settled on me, he pounced, wrapping his arms around my middle, elevating my lanky 6-foot-3 frame with a little three-quarter turn as he unleashed a joyous primal whoop. He looked back at the field, taking it all in. Then he lifted me again, this time more tenderly. After the extra point, I watched as the guard began to catch his breath. I could almost see his heart start to settle into its normal rhythms. He turned to me. “Ooh,” he breathed, a kind of post-coital sigh. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I know that’s totally unprofessional after mauling you like that. But I’m sorry.”
The mood in the stadium took an unmistakable turn. The fans weren’t merely cheering a fantastic touchdown. They were beginning to believe. It was possible that Brady and the Patriots really were done. New England was 1-2 to start the season, and they had lost to the Bills last year before falling again in the Super Bowl. Maybe the Bills had surpassed them. I overheard people repeating one of the talking points from the chatter that had dominated the week — this would be the first time Brady had lost three in a row since his second pro season. Here was the end of one era and the start of another, never mind that Ryan Fitzpatrick had thrown inaccurately for much of the game, or that Mario Williams with his $100 million contract had barely come anywhere near Brady, or that the Buffalo defensive linemen had been turning on their heels and chasing after the scurrying Patriots running backs on most plays. People were beckoning one another with that wide-eyed look of being a witness to history, as if to say, “Remember where you were on this day.”
Back in the press box, a local sportswriter named Nick Mendola told me that he still expected the worst. He knew how the Patriots owned the Bills. Until proven otherwise, he’d consider last year’s game the aberration. He refused to start his recap of the game, even a mock-up of a few paragraphs about it being close. His instincts were correct. In what seemed like no time, Brady led his team to two touchdowns, tying the game by the end of the third quarter. In the first four and a half minutes of the fourth quarter, the Patriots racked up 21 unanswered points. When the Bills finally scored again, the game was out of reach, and the fans couldn’t even muster the words to their “Shout” song. The final score: Patriots 52, Bills 28. The bathrooms, normally clamoring echo chambers, were so quiet you could hear the soft symphonic whiz of many streams striking linoleum.
I made my way down to the runway outside the players’ locker rooms. The Bills emerged from the field, many of them with helmets still on and heads bowed. The young man whose job it was to dash around snapping a Bills flag back and forth after each Buffalo touchdown looked like he could barely heft his banner. Brady exited the field with an arm around Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the quarterback patting the business magnate on the back while leaning over to say something assuring in his ear. Brady seemed not just a consummate star of the NFL but also a man of stature, as much senator as gladiator. Fitzpatrick, for his part, agreed with a questioner during the postgame press conference that he should feel embarrassed. I heard departing fans recalibrating the upcoming season, forecasting the possible losses ahead. “We could be 3-and-6 by the middle of November.” “Don’t say it!” another fan cried.
But outside the stadium, the disappointment was already shifting into comforting routines. With the Bills playing their next two games in San Francisco and Arizona, Pinto Ron talked about his impending cross-country road trip, hardly a chip shot. Plus, his 300th consecutive game would be back home against the Titans in three weeks. Pizza Pete didn’t write off the day as an utter defeat — he believed his pizza with homemade sauce and dough and his Philly-style pulled pork were neck-and-neck for the game’s big culinary winners. “Buffalo is used to this stuff,” Pinto Ron said. “We expect the dark cloud. Everything is a cycle. A very long cycle.”
One night when I was walking to my car in downtown Buffalo, I beheld a vision of this long cycle in the city. As I passed Lafayette Square, I thought I heard a homeless man behind me shout something about the Bills and the Super Bowl. I debated whether to circle back. It was late, and despite the efforts of Rocco Termini and Donny Kutzbach and others, at this hour the area remained a shadowy ghost town. I had just watched a man on a bike spot an unsecured two-wheel dolly, emit a small cry of triumph, and then ride off in the direction he’d come from, the two-wheeler towed behind him. But curiosity got the better of me, and I turned around.
“Can you spare something to help a starving man?” the homeless man asked me. He might have been 50 or 70, with a weather-scarred face and a two-toned beard like a pall over his chest, inky black roots turning into a gnarled white somewhere past his neck. His pants and soiled Bills jacket were several sizes too large. I handed him the change in my pockets, certainly no more than $2. Had he said something about the Bills? I ventured.
“Bills 20, Packers 7 in this year’s Super Bowl,” he announced.
I felt a little writerly thrill. In this city where football strangely penetrated everything, maybe here in front of me was an embodiment of its deep reaches. Or maybe this broken man stood as a casualty of a fandom gone too far. Or better yet, he represented Buffalo’s past of economic devastation and its hoped-for future of recovery, the two impossible to separate from the Bills. Or maybe he really possessed a madman’s second sight, a true prophecy. I asked him how he knew, what made him so sure, eager to hear more.
“Defense,” he said matter-of-factly. “Both teams are getting stronger on defense.”