Here’s the stat sheet from November 15, 2012, at Ralph Wilson Stadium: 94 ejections; 55 traffic tickets; 28 arrests (18 inside the stadium; 10 outside, including two DWIs); quadruple the average number of ambulance requests for the sick and injured; two dead football fans.
They were two men who never met. Two men who were rooting for opposing teams that night. Two men with so much in common. Two men who couldn’t have been more different. Two men whose stories shed light on the uncomfortable intersection of stadium security, alcohol, and fan culture. Two men who’ll forever be linked by tragedy. Two men who are gone.
Sometime late in the second quarter of that Buffalo Bills home game, David Gerken Jr. left his seat in Section 114 to use the bathroom. His beloved Miami Dolphins were crashing toward another defeat, but 26-year-old Gerken, from nearby Palmyra, New York, wasn’t feeling dejected. He had reason to celebrate, regardless of what the scoreboard read. The next day was his friend Chris Stenshorn’s birthday — David, his younger brother Chuck, and Chris had made the 90-minute drive to Orchard Park for the Thursday-night game. With a raspberry vodka and iced tea cocktail in hand, Gerken pontificated loudly during the trip, mostly about the genius of Biggie and Tupac. As usual with Gerken, it was a largely one-way conversation littered with calls of “Hold on!” and “Let me finish!”
Once settled in a parking lot about three-quarters of a mile from the stadium, Gerken told Stenshorn that attending the annual Bills-Dolphins game in Orchard Park should be their new tradition. Then they drank another raspberry vodka and iced tea concoction and smoked some weed with a group of strangers1 before ambling to Ralph Wilson Stadium. Bills fans heckled Gerken along the way for his knit orange Dolphins pom-pom hat. He shrugged it off. Gerken was a good sport, a rare breed of ballbuster: He could take it and dish it out.
Chuck didn’t drink or smoke.
Gerken was active during the first half. He drank a beer, got up, went to the bathroom, sat down, rose from his seat again, then bought another beer from a concession stand. He even smoked a cigarette; Gerken stubbed out his Newport without protest after being admonished by another fan. Ten minutes later, he got up again, turned to Chris and Chuck, and said, “Save my seat.” He never returned.
No one knows how David Gerken wound up face-down in a shallow creek near the stadium, but the chain of events started shortly thereafter when he unwittingly wandered into a women’s restroom. Two Buffalo Bills security officers responding to complaints quickly nabbed him as he made his way out. Though visibly intoxicated, Gerken was cooperative. “His face was very pale,” says Adam Cole, a witness who saw officers escorting Gerken through the walkway. “He looked scared, like he had done something really bad.” At 9:55 p.m., Gerken was ejected for disorderly conduct. The first thing he did was call his brother Chuck.
No, Gerken said, he had no clue why he’d been kicked out. No, he didn’t want them to leave the game.
A plan was quickly hatched: After the game they’d reconvene at Tailgaters, a nearby sports bar. A few minutes later, when Gerken called to confirm, Chuck suggested meeting right away. Once more, Gerken declined.
It was an eerie case of déjà vu for Chris Stenshorn, who was ejected from the December 18, 2011, Bills-Dolphins game for smuggling alcohol into Ralph Wilson Stadium. On that afternoon, Gerken left with Stenshorn and went to Tailgaters, where they watched the rest of the game. “I felt like shit,” Stenshorn says about not doing the same for Gerken. “When I got kicked out, he didn’t ask any questions. He just left with me.” Chuck called David several times throughout the second half — every call went straight to voice mail.
Within five minutes of the final whistle, Chris and Chuck arrived at Tailgaters. Police were already on the scene breaking up a scuffle — the surly bouncer perched on his stool surely had more pressing issues than a missing 26-year-old man. But no, he told them, he hadn’t seen their friend. From there, they retreated to the car. Stenshorn tried lightening the mood, cracking that David probably hooked up with some girl after leaving the stadium. But it didn’t calm Chuck, and at 12:34 a.m. he called 911 to report his big brother missing. Then he called his parents.
“I told him, ‘Relax, he’s probably walking or maybe he went to a different bar. Don’t panic yet,'” says David Gerken Sr. “I had no reason to think anything would be wrong. He went to a sporting event. How many people go to sporting events and don’t come home?”
Even for a franchise noted for its passionate fan base, the November 15 game between the Bills and Dolphins drew a rowdy crowd. Erie County Sheriff’s chief of police Scott Joslyn told reporters afterward that he had sensed an “obvious excitement” in the air for the Bills’ first home night game in four years. And he was right. One day earlier, Robert Sitter, 31, a lifelong Bills diehard from Hamilton, Ontario, updated his Facebook status: “Buffalo this thursday is going to be awesome, so stoked … LETS GO BUFFALO!!!”
Game day started like any other for Sitter. After his morning coffee, he fed his 1-year-old daughter, Sydney, kissed his wife, Kim, good-bye, and drove to work, where he installed and repaired swimming pools. Even with seasonal layoffs approaching, he was in buoyant spirits that week. Back home at 3:30 p.m., he showered quickly before picking up his longtime friend Dave Main for the drive across the border. Along the way, they bought a case of Budweiser and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the Niagara Falls Duty Free Shop, for the purpose of pregaming at their hotel room.
Upon arriving later that night at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Sitter and Main combed through the concession stands lined along the parking lot. Money burned through Sitter’s pockets when it came to Bills gear. This night was no different. He purchased Bills boxers and a reversible Bills sweater, plus a pink Bills sweater for his daughter. What happened over the next few hours is hazy.
With the Bills leading 19-7, Sitter and Main left the game early in the third quarter. “I don’t know why Rob wanted to leave,” Main tells me. “I can barely remember.” Main says they were both “loaded.” He says that during the walk from the stadium, the two friends “were horsing around,” fell into a ditch, and argued with a Dolphins fan. There was talk of hitting the local bars or returning to the hotel to “party more.” Soon, they reached Southwestern Boulevard. But instead of walking west to Abbot, a large intersection with a police presence and a pedestrian crosswalk, they decided to cross.
With no traffic heading eastbound, Sitter and Main casually jogged across the first two lanes. At this point, Richard Laporta was in his cab, a 2008 Chevy Uplander, driving west on Southwestern toward a Tim Horton’s. His wife followed behind him in another cab. Anticipating a crush of fares once the game let out, he figured a cup of coffee would get him through his shift. He remembers the darkness; only a sliver of the moon was visible that night. It was 10:40 p.m.
Both Sitter and Main paused momentarily at the median — a turning lane, really. Sitter then started across the westbound lanes. James Whittaker, who was a few feet behind Sitter and Main as they walked through the parking lot, saw Sitter make his dash. He yelled frantically. “Hey buddy, stop — stop!”
“And he didn’t. He went right into the road and got hit,” Whittaker says. “The [driver] didn’t have time to make any moves.”
“I tried to avoid him,” Laporta says. “I swerved to the right but he caught the corner of my car.”
Police and ambulances arrived quickly. Laporta stopped, took a Breathalyzer, and was later found to be without fault. Still, he thinks about that night often. “You have nightmares. You think, ‘Was there anything I could do differently?’ I wish he was still here,” he says, his voice cracking. “I felt so bad for the family. They just had a little baby.”
Back in Hamilton, Robert Sitter Sr. got the news first. He immediately called his son’s wife, Kim — but without a passport, she was forced to stay in Canada.2 Shortly after midnight, Sitter Sr. and his daughter Samantha arrived at the Erie County Medical Center, where Robert was in the intensive care unit. He was not expected to make it through the night.
Rob Sitter doesn’t have a passport, either, but he made it into the country after Buffalo police notified the border.
Around the same time the Sitter family made it to ECMC, across town Chuck Gerken and Chris Stenshorn had intensified their search efforts — calling local hospitals, police stations, and firehouses, and scouring local dives and cheap motels. By this point, David Sr. and Marion Gerken were on their way. Gerken’s pickup truck was packed with gear, as tomorrow was the first day of deer hunting season. Once he reached Orchard Park, he slipped on his hunting boots and a bright-orange jacket.
A few minutes before 6 a.m., the Erie County Sheriff’s Office notified Orchard Park Police that a ping of Gerken’s cell phone showed that it was located near Smokes Creek, a wooded area3 east of Ralph Wilson Stadium — the opposite direction of Tailgaters. The Gerkens and Stenshorn then drove to an apartment complex on the other side of the creek where more police were stationed. With the Erie County Air 1 copter hovering above the woods attempting to detect body heat emanating from Smokes Creek, police waited on deploying a search party on foot. Finally, David Gerken Sr. grew agitated. He asked for the fire department’s whereabouts. The officer said he didn’t know. He asked if they had entered through the north end of the creek. Perhaps, the officer said. And then in a moment conflicting with everything most people know about police search parties, Gerken asked for, and was then granted, permission to enter the woods.
At most 700 by 400 yards.
Being a hunter, he immediately surveyed the landscape. He saw flatland to his right; a steep gulley lined the side closest to Ralph Wilson Stadium. If David had gotten into any trouble, he thought, it would have been on the hillside near the ravine. And that’s where he found his son, facedown in three inches of water.
Like most industrial cities, Hamilton, Ontario, has had a long, slow decline since the early 1980s. The Great Recession brought more pain: After purchasing Stelco (the Steel Company of Canada) for $1.9 billion in cash and assumed debts in 2007, U.S. Steel laid off 2,190 workers in 2008. “You see that empty field over there,” a cab driver said to me, pointing to a plot adjacent to an old steel mill. “That used to be a parking lot. This place once employed 20,000 men. Now, only about 3,000.” Just days after my visit, U.S. Steel announced that it would cease iron and steelmaking operations at its Hamilton mill at the end of the year.
Kim Walsh and her 2-year-old daughter, Sydney, live in a maisonette-style apartment on a side street in the city’s Stoney Creek neighborhood. Children’s toys are strewn along the front yard, and I’m welcomed into the house by Robert Sitter Sr., burly and mustached, wearing a T-shirt that reads “I AM PAPA.” His rich, gruff baritone recalls the manager from Major League.
Inside the living room, Kim tends to Sydney, her cheeks flush from a possible virus. A small brunette with a pleasant but wounded smile, Kim hasn’t returned to her job at a women’s clothing store since Sitter’s accident. “I haven’t dealt with a lot of my emotions,” she says. “Sydney has kept me too distracted to really think about what actually has happened.”
Sitter’s death created a huge void. “He was an outgoing kid, always the life of the party, center of attention,” says his older sister, Carolyn, sitting on a couch next to middle sister Samantha. “He was the baby of the family, the only boy.” Even as the family moved from town to town in Ontario, Sitter never had trouble making friends growing up. Rob Sr. worked at Georgia Pacific making plaster and also in the mines for a period. His mother, Cheryl Jones McLean, was a cook. They divorced when Rob was 15.
Enthralled by superheroes, Sitter dreamed of becoming a police officer. But he dropped out of high school a half-credit shy of graduating, toiling mostly as a spray washer afterward; the grueling manual labor, however, did fill out his lanky 6-foot-3 frame. To get a sense of his hobbies, all you had to do was examine his tattoos: The two members of Insane Clown Posse were tattooed on the back of each calf; “Diablo,” his nom de guerre from his backyard wrestling days, was inscribed across his stomach à la Tupac’s “Thug Life”; a palm-size Buffalo Bills logo covered his heart. “I did think it was a bit much,” Walsh says. “I tried to get him to reconsider about placement. ‘You have a child coming too. Perhaps you want to save that place for his or her name.’ But he was adamant. He wanted that tattoo for years and finally had a little extra cash to get it done.”
Sitter was a father figure to his nieces and nephews, and embraced fatherhood once Sydney — named for the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby — arrived. “He stopped being the party guy,” says Pat Reed, a friend. “He would finish work and instead of going to the bar, he would go home to be with his kid and wife.” He even combined his two loves, turning Bills into the acronym Boy I Love Little Sydney. Tired from missing her afternoon nap, Sydney points to the basement door and softly says, “Dada house.” Kim stands from the couch. “We should go check out the man cave now.”
Sitter’s man cave represents a lifetime of devotion to his favorite team. Jerseys of Bills current (Mario Williams, Fred Jackson) and long forgotten (Eric Moulds, Drew Bledsoe, Terrell Owens, Roscoe Parrish, Ryan Fitzpatrick) line the walls over the upholstered hand-me-down couch. A Jim Kelly Hall of Fame plaque, Kim’s Christmas gift to Rob during their second holiday together, hangs next to the big-screen 3-D television. There are also Bills banners, a Bills blanket, and a Bills welcome mat. A pile of Sydney’s toys, including a pink Disney Princess castle, stand out among the deluge of red, white, and blue memorabilia.
“We only had a little baby swing down here. This stuff has just accumulated over the last couple of months. It’s gotten too cluttered upstairs. I think because we’ve been hanging out here for the past two months, playing games, that’s probably why she is doing that whole ‘Dada house’ thing,” Kim says. “I can’t come down here by myself, I get too weirded out. I have to come down here with her. If you sit on this couch, and you just get a glimpse of the jerseys behind you, I just think he’s there.”
The family says Rob opened his eyes two weeks after the accident and was eventually able to give a thumbs-up and raise his left arm. By mid-December, he was deemed safe to travel and Ontario Patient Transfer paid for his relocation to Hamilton General Hospital. Rob’s condition took a turn, however, in early January after doctors capped his tracheostomy. Respiratory distress was reported on January 7. The next day, Rob was clinically brain dead. All that was left was the decision to take him off life support. The family knew what he would’ve wanted. “[In the past,] Bobby had said, ‘Don’t let me live like that.’ We knew he was serious,” says Samantha Sitter. “We respected his wishes.” He fought for 10 days after the removal of his feeding tubes. Robert Sitter died on a Sunday, January 27.
In addition to their loss, there are also the piling medical costs from the Erie County hospital — the most recent bill totaled more than $120,000, Walsh says. An Ontario Health Insurance Plan spokesperson told the Hamilton Spectator that it would cover up to $400 a day of Sitter’s medical costs incurred at ECMC, but without traveler’s insurance, Sitter was not insured outside of Canada.4 According to the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA), 25 to 50 percent of Canadians are without traveler’s insurance; Canadians made more than 26 million same-day and overnight trips to the United States in 2011. Walsh says she recently signed up, paying $80 a year for up to a million dollars in coverage.
Canada has a single-payer health care system; Sitter’s medical expenses would have been covered were he hit by a cab exiting a CFL game or anywhere else in Canada.
Friends came to her aid after the accident. Pat Reed and other members of Rob’s Juggalo family hosted a benefit right before Christmas, raising over $500 and a bag of toys for Sydney. A bank account was created for donations and two benefits were held at an area Moose Lodge. “The benefits got us through some bills and groceries,” Kim says. By this point, I’ve noticed that Rob Sr. has left the room. Deep sobbing can be heard echoing from the top floor. “The ashes are upstairs,” Carolyn says.
David Gerken Sr. walks into the Staybridge Suites, a hotel on the Genesee River near the University of Rochester campus, carrying a manila folder filled with documents related to his son’s death. He’s a stern-looking man with a severe crew cut and thick forearms. His wife, Marion, is already seated inside a conference room.
Sunday, October 6, which would have been David’s 27th birthday, was rough for the Gerken family. Clayton Woodard held a fundraiser that morning at the Erie Disc Golf Club, where he dedicated the course,5 now dubbed the DMG Memorial, to his late friend.6 Later that day was Chris Stenshorn’s wedding, where an empty chair was left at the bridal party table in honor of David. The Gerken family left early. “Chuck was having a hard time,” Marion says.
Instead of hitting balls with a club into a hole, disc golfers throw discs toward a Disc Pole Hole. Like golf, the objective of the game is to complete each hole in the fewest number of throws.
The family, which declined to accept money for their son’s loss, returned the $800 donation to the club in Dave’s memory.
Chuck Gerken didn’t accompany his parents to Rochester. “He’s working today. He wasn’t really comfortable, anyway, to be honest,” David says. “He kicks himself in the ass for not leaving the game — a survivor’s guilt kind of thing.” Born two years apart, Chuck and David were tight — they shared a bedroom together until their teenage years. Both brothers were living at home at the time of David’s death. The house is a lot quieter these days.
“A little skinny Italian kid with a big mouth” is how Gerken’s friend Eddie Ballanca lovingly described him. David Gerken played disc golf on the weekends, took in the occasional Yankees game, rapped as Infamous Dizzel as part of Belligerent Entertainment, and was rarely without a Red Bull or pack of Newports. A recent employee of the month, Gerken worked as a supervisor at Heritage Packaging. He told Stenshorn he planned on taking the day off on the Friday after the Bills game.
Gerken’s body was found at the bottom of a steep 40-foot hill near the end of 1 Bills Drive. No one knows how, when, or why he entered the wooded area — Gerken either climbed a fence or walked through a lot on the far end of the stadium. In the police report, one Orchard Park detective noted “loose dirt, a broken branch, and disturbed leaves” in an area near the fence where Gerken might have fallen. Another detective, however, didn’t believe anyone had recently walked near the fence. Though a large boulder stood a few feet from Gerken’s body, the autopsy noted no signs of blunt-force trauma aside from an abrasion over his left eye and bruising to both knees and lower legs.7 The cause of death was drowning with hypothermia listed as a contributory factor. The case is considered closed.
Gerken’s father insists the abrasion over his left eye was a birthmark.
There’s also debate over whether Gerken made it to Tailgaters. According to the police report, a regular named Corey later told a bartender he bought drinks for Gerken at the bar that night;8 Tailgaters did not have video cameras installed at the time. With all these questions, David Gerken Sr. hired a private investigator and an attorney and filed a Notice of Claim with a local court. A story posted on Pro Football Talk in June reported that a lawsuit was imminent. Gerken insists that all of it — the P.I., the lawyer, the Notice of Claim — was merely done to protect their interests.
Cory Gebler, a Facebook “fan” of Tailgaters, told me that he was not at the bar that night. The three other Facebook fans of Tailgaters named “Corey” were unreachable or did not respond to requests for comment.
“I never once said I was suing them,” he says. “We never found where they did something wrong where we should follow through with a lawsuit.” Gerken withdrew the Notice of Claim on September 4. “You could always follow through and squeeze a couple of dollars out of someone because they don’t want to go to court, but that’s not me, that’s not us. We pick up our pieces and move on. I’m not trying to get nothing from anyone if they didn’t do anything wrong.”
But did the Buffalo Bills do anything wrong by ejecting David Gerken Jr.? The team declined comment to Grantland, but explained its ejection policy and procedure in an email to WGRZ News last December. “The individual is … escorted out of the stadium, unless it is determined by security personnel that the individual poses a danger to himself/herself. Security personnel then may attempt to contact family or friends of the individual or seek medical assistance at the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) location at the stadium. Depending upon the circumstances, the Designated Drivers Program of Buffalo or the Safe Way Home program may be utilized. Naturally, the range of options varies depending on the level of cooperation of the individual.”
Security personnel never contacted Gerken’s family or friends or escorted him to the EMS location even though the security officers who ejected Gerken noted the involvement of alcohol in their report. All Bills game-day staff, including APEX security officers, is TEAM (Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management) trained, ensuring their expertise in identifying levels of intoxication.
TEAM training is divided into two levels. Level 1 certification is attained by completing a two-hour course and a 20-question certification test. Level 2, which focuses on blood alcohol levels, is taught only to concessionaire employees, meaning it’s possible the security officers responsible for judging whether Gerken “posed a danger to himself” had only two hours of training on the matter.
The family also has grievances with how police handled the investigation, specifically the absence of an immediate search once the complaint about Gerken’s disappearance came in. According to the private investigator hired by the Gerkens, Orchard Park police chief Andrew D. Benz shrugged his shoulders when confronted with the question, telling him that they receive a number of complaints after football games about intoxicated people.
I contacted Chief Benz, who retired in January 2013, regarding the Gerken case. “Don’t call me again,” he said angrily before hanging up. He didn’t respond to subsequent text messages or calls.
Earlier this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars stumbled upon an idea for luring fans to EverBank Field: free beer. During the week of the Jaguars’ September 29 game with the Indianapolis Colts, a promotion offering two free drinks (soda and water were also included) with the purchase of certain tickets was posted on the team’s official Twitter account with the hashtag #DrinksOnUs. Though swiftly criticized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Jaguars’ marketing ploy merely acknowledged what the league and even its star players9 know: For many fans, drinking enhances the stadium experience.
“It’s a 4:15 game. [Fans] have a lot of time to get lubed up, come out here and cheer for the home team.” —Tom Brady, September 2011
The NFL has a different, more lucrative relationship with alcohol, or, in this case, Big Alcohol. In 2010, Anheuser-Busch signed a six-year, $1.2 billion deal with the NFL, making Bud Light the official beer sponsor of the league. Around the same time, the league instituted a number of public deterrents to combat binge drinking. Prior to the 2009 season, the NFL made recommendations to teams about the maximum serving sizes for beer and other alcoholic beverages, the number of drinks a fan can purchase at one time,10 and recommended limiting tailgating to three and a half hours before each game. Still, 7,000 fans were ejected from NFL stadiums during the 2011 season, according to the league. Then in 2012, it ruled that any fan ejected from a game had to complete a four-hour online course on alcohol abuse, anger management, and general bad behavior before being allowed back.
The Bills were among seven teams to reduce the size of their largest beer from 24 ounces to 20 ounces.
Even with the new guidelines, ugly incidents continue to haunt the league. The fan who died after falling over a pedestrian overpass at a September 49ers game, the male Jets fan who slugged a female Patriots fan at MetLife Stadium this October, the dead man found in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot during the December 1 Broncos-Chiefs game — all reportedly alcohol-related.
The drinking culture also looms, of course, over the tragedies in Buffalo. Although neither tailgated, both Sitter and Gerken pregamed earlier that evening — Sitter in his hotel room; Gerken in the car and briefly in the parking lot — which may have contributed to their deaths.
We know Gerken consumed at least two vodka cocktails and two beers before disappearing,11 but his blood alcohol content (BAC) registered at .18. Drinkers are disoriented and dizzy at that level, lack muscle coordination, and have trouble walking. Someone Gerken’s size, roughly 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, must consume five or six drinks within an hour to blow a .18 — which raises the possibility he was at a bar, any bar, between the time of his ejection from Ralph Wilson Stadium and his death.
The police report stated two vodka cocktails, but Stenshorn says that Gerken consumed an additional drink on the walk to the stadium.
According to his friends, Gerken could handle his liquor. But he had his troubles, as evidenced by his arrest in May 2010 for driving while intoxicated.
How much Robert Sitter drank is uncertain. Dave Main says he and Sitter drank 10 beers each and split half a 1.75-liter bottle of Jack Daniel’s before the game, and then had five or six beers each at the stadium. Sitter’s family disputes this. Kim Walsh, Sitter’s wife, says he didn’t drink hard liquor. Robert Sitter Sr., who along with Samantha went back to his son’s hotel room the night of the accident, says the Jack Daniel’s bottle had barely been cracked — “Maybe a shot or two each,” he says — and that seven or eight beers remained in the case of Budweiser. Samantha Sitter says it was a 15-can case; Niagara Duty Free sells only 24-can cases of Budweiser. Sitter Sr. also says Main, who was passed out drunk at the hospital later that night, has frequently changed his version of events from that evening.
Then there are the firsthand accounts. Melanie Vickers, a cousin of Kim Walsh, who shared a cab with Sitter and Main from the hotel to the stadium, says they did not appear inebriated. “They were totally sober,” she tells me. “I don’t know what they did after.” And while Main claims both he and Sitter struggled walking in the minutes before the accident, James Whittaker, who witnessed the accident, says, “As far as stumbling all over and falling, I didn’t see that.” Richard Laporta, the driver, says Sitter “was stumbling” into the street.
It’s 10 a.m. on a gray Sunday and I am standing on the corner of Southwestern and Abbott holding an 18-can case of Miller Lite. Three young women in pink Bills gear stomp by holding a funnel. Men wearing Bills Zubaz pants roam everywhere. A few Bengals fans are scattered here and there. Someone is blasting Billy Squier. Fourteen Erie County sheriff’s deputies direct traffic along the intersection, down the street from the location of Sitter’s accident. I head east on Southwestern. Cars zoom past the spot where the Chevy Uplander hit Robert Sitter.
About 30 minutes later, I’ve made my way to the “Hammer Lot.” Two scavengers covered in pockmarks brush by the entrance hauling a large recycling bag of empties. I make my way though the throng and stop near the beer pong table.
“Hey, is this the Hammer Lot?” I ask a guy in Ray-Ban Wayfarers. “I was told this was the best tailgating spot.”
“O-kaaay,” Gordon [a pseudonym] says cautiously. “Do you want to hang out with us?”
“Yeah, and I brought beer.”
Gordon introduces me to Paul and Heather (both pseudonyms), my tour guides for the morning. Paul wears a white Bills sweatshirt, white Bills sweatpants, aviator shades, and a backward baseball cap. He is adroit at talking with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. Looking down from the top of a small hill, he sips on a beer while explaining the Bowling Ball Shots, the Pinto Grill, the Ketchup Dance, and other provincial traditions Bills fans adore. “We lose every year, but we do this every week,” he says. “We come to the Ralph. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” He tells a story about a couple who moved to Buffalo and didn’t know anyone in the city. Season tickets, they decided, were the quickest way to make friends. Within a few weeks, they were entrenched. Paul recently attended their wedding.
Later, Heather and I lean against the back of Paul’s pickup swapping stories about our shared Greek heritage. I then ask her about what happened to David Gerken Jr. “Everyone here that age gets drunk and does something stupid,” she says, sighing, “so people weren’t surprised that that kid got drunk and did something stupid.”
Gordon weighs in. “Nobody wants some kid to get drunk and drown in a fucking puddle, Jesus Christ. But we live in this shitty city.”
Buffalo, as the saying goes, is a drinking town with a football problem, so when HBO’s Real Sports wanted to capture drunken revelry for a 2008 segment on binge drinking, they came to Ralph Wilson Stadium. What they filmed — the puking, the staggering lushes swaying their limbs — justified the city’s reputation. Most jarring about the segment, however, was the impotence of the police amid the sloshed tailgaters. An Erie Country sheriff’s deputy told Real Sports that “sheer numbers” made it impossible to enforce public intoxication laws.
“Alcohol-related incidents at the stadium probably account for 99 percent of what we do,” he later said. “When you get a large number of people and alcohol, people just get stupid when they start drinking. They think they can do anything they want. They get that proverbial beer balls. That’s what happens. They think they can do anything.”
For the people in the Hammer Lot, many of whom are in their late twenties, Sundays are a time to abandon responsibility. They’re conscious of what happened on November 15, 2012, but tailgating is a break from the reality of adulthood that work is forever. For the next 40 years or so, this is life.
The party wraps around 12:30 p.m. The beer pong table has been folded and collapsed, someone chugs the remains of a Tanqueray bottle, and I hear a woman scream, “Oh my god, he made me eat my boogers!”
After parting, I walk past the Bills Fieldhouse, through the parking lots on the far southeast end of the stadium and into the woods, attempting to make my way toward the ravine where Gerken was found.12 The leaves have turned. The low-hanging branches graze my forehead. With each step, the dirt becomes muddier, the ground steeper. I see the apartment complex on the other side, but not the creek below. I can feel the anxiety creeping in my arms from the shoulders on down. I turn, find my ticket, and jog toward the stadium.
Based on the position in which his body was found, if Gerken did not climb the fence, he probably entered the woods through the north end.
Once inside “The Ralph,” I settle into Section 312 and park myself next to a thirtysomething man who looks like the former professional wrestler Tommy Dreamer, and we hit it off, leaning on the two pillars of “guy talk,” sports and work. Twice during the first half he offers to buy me a beer as he and his wife alternate runs to the concession area. He’s drunk, but not shitfaced — unlike the fan sitting directly behind me.
At first I found him amusing, his cries of “Get him! Kill him!” whenever a Bengals player had the ball, and “Goddamnit!” at every minor Bills miscue. But things turn serious when he threatens nearby Bills fans for taking group pictures. I want to see this guy’s face but abstain from turning around; people have had their asses kicked at football games for less. Finally, early in the third quarter, I catch my glimpse as he leaves his row. He’s a hulking blond kid in his early twenties.
Intoxicated Bills fans made news again last month after a fan tumbled off the 300 level down into the section below. He was unharmed, but the fan he landed on suffered head and neck injuries. It was later reported that the falling man told Bills security he was drunk.
There have been changes at Ralph Wilson Stadium since last season. As part of the new lease agreement, the Buffalo Bills hired 128 Erie County sheriff’s deputies to work inside during each home game. One hundred sheriff’s deputies patrol outside the stadium; the Bills would not divulge the number of private security guards employed per game.
Incidents have declined this year, says Erie County undersheriff Mark Wipperman, with approximately 12 arrests through the first four home games. I asked Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz if the increased badge presence was a response to the events of November 15, 2012. “No, we had been in conversations with the Bills for some time about increased security even before the new lease had been signed,” he says. Approved earlier this year, the Bills’ new 10-year, $271 million lease includes $130 million in renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium; state and county taxpayers are responsible for $226.8 million.
The Sitter and Gerken families are now left to reflect on what went wrong that night. Mourning periods can’t end when so many questions are left unanswered. But at least both families know someone else who can relate. And in an inevitable occurrence, the mothers of Robert Sitter and David Gerken are now Facebook friends. “I haven’t been on Facebook a whole lot so I really haven’t had a chance to talk to her,” says Cheryl Jones McLean, Sitter’s mother. “I hope to.” Both families observed the one-year anniversary of the game in similar respects.
After dinner on the night of November 15, the Sitters released white balloons into the sky. The Gerken family waited until the 16th, the day David’s body was found. Friends and family met at 3:30 p.m. at David’s grave site, where they lit Chinese paper lanterns that were let go at dusk. There was a memorial mass afterward.
Soon, Marion and David Gerken will reclaim the two bags of their son’s property still languishing in the evidence room of the Orchard Park Police Department. It’s just his clothes, phone, a money clip and its contents, and an iPod. The screen is cracked.
“My son Chuck asked me, ‘Why do you want his stuff?'” Marion says. She pauses, straightens her chin, and firmly answers the question. “Because I do.”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, Wired, the New York Observer, and Spin. Previously he wrote about Menace II Society star Tyrin Turner.