ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It’s three hours before kick-off, and the party has begun. Barrel fires are cracking to life. Grills are clicking on. The parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium smells like Sunday: hot dogs, sausages, breakfast toasted on thick pans over hot coals, a touch of whiskey to stay warm.
Never mind that it’s the 25 degrees outside, or that the only restrooms are a string of seven silver porta potties with snow on the inside. Forget that it’s Dec. 30, the last day of the regular season in the National Football League, and that the Buffalo Bills are 5-10, and that they haven’t made the playoffs for 13 years, the longest drought of any team.
“I’m hoping they lose,” says Gary Manka, 61, a retired electrician from West Seneca. Like other discerning fans, Manka, a season ticket holder for every year but one since 1965, has calculated that a loss would benefit the Bills by catapulting them into a higher draft position.
He’s here today for the same reason that just about everyone is here: tradition.
He thought about skipping the game but succumbed to custom. He comes with family — his sons, his cousins and their sons — and this morning, they have Sahlen’s hot dogs and a pot of chili he cooked the day before, dicing up onions, slicing habanero peppers, stirring in cheddar cheese.
Hungry for tailgating food? Download Gary Manka’s chili recipe, which calls for stirring in sharp cheddar cheese as one of the final steps.
Tomorrow, Head Coach Chan Gailey and the Bills’ entire coaching staff will be fired. But today, the tailgate is on, and revelers are laughing, telling stories, throwing back shots.
The scene is classic Upstate New York. In the back of a gray Ford ranger pickup truck, cans of beer and a bottle of Frank’s RedHot, a local cayenne pepper sauce, roost in a bed of snow.
Lines are forming for the “restrooms.”
Peeing in a snow-capped portable toilet is uncomfortable, but no big deal; Bills fans are used to hardship.
The team came to Buffalo in 1959 when Ralph Wilson Jr., a businessman from Detroit, established the franchise as one of the founding members of the American Football League, which later merged with the NFL.
The Bills faithful will tell you that the heartbreak they’ve experienced over the past half century is unmatched in the league. That sounds like an exaggeration until you realize that the team made it to the Super Bowl four years in a row — 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 — and lost every time.
Wilson, who was born at the end of World War I, remains the Bills’ only owner ever. Supporters credit him with keeping football in Western New York, resisting the lure of larger, richer markets.
Loyalty is something Bills fans understand and hold in high esteem, and because of that, many speak of the 94-year-old Wilson in warm terms.
But that’s no excuse poor performance. Buffalo’s most recent trip to the playoffs took place in 2000, ending on the first game with a 22-16 wild card loss to Tennessee on a last-second kickoff return lateral play.
“The people that I talk to are really more disgusted, I think, by — they’ve stood by this team as long as they have, and they’ve gone all these years delivering an inferior product,” said Bob Lelio, 56, who made the trek from Webster, N.Y. to see the game with his 18-year-old son (who must have been about 5 the last time the Bills saw the post-season).
The pair had seats in Section 113 near the 30-yard-line. As Lelio recounted a few days later, “The guy that was sitting to my [left] at the game, I’d never met before, but nice guy, and he had a paper bag over his head, and we asked about that and he was talking about how he was so ashamed [of the season] that the team had had this year.”
Heading into the final game of 2012, there was plenty of frustration to go around. Sports talk radio was (as usual) heavy on sullen callers and angry analysts. The secondary market for tickets was hopping, with sellers looking to unload goods for cheap.
Some sales pitches were straightforward, but others, like this one, posted on Craigslist at 6:53 p.m. on Christmas Eve, were crafted to make an impression. To laugh or cry?:
BILLS VS JETS DEC 30 – $50 (SEC 116,ROW 31, SEATS 1-6)
COME WATCH TWO COACHES LAST NFL GAME FOR THE 2012 SEASON. BE THERE TO LET YOUR HOME TEAM KNOW HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT ANOTHER BUMBLED SEASON, WHETHER IT’S THE BILLS OR THE JETS. THE BEST WAY TO END 2012 — AND THEN GO INTO 2013 WITH RENEWED HOPE.
SEATS ARE $50 EACH IN SECTION 116, ROW 31, SEATS 1-6. FURTHER DISCOUNT FOR ALL 6. CANNOT ATTEND GAME DUE TO CONTINUED NAUSEA FROM 1999.
GREAT VIEW OF THE FIELD AND THE QUIZZICAL LOOKS ON COACH GAILEY’S FACE AS HE FORGETS WHAT DOWN IT IS; PUNTS FROM THE OPPONENTS 35 YARD LINE; OR HOLDS SPILLER OUT SINCE HE ONLY AVERAGES 6 YDS. PER CARRY.
EVERYONE ENJOYS WATCHING A TRAIN WRECK, SO HERE’S YOUR CHANCE FIRST HAND. THIS GAME COULD BE ONE FOR THE AGES !
SEATS CAN BE SPLIT BY PAIRS. CASH ONLY. CANADIAN FUNDS WELCOMED.
Sarcasm and nausea (whether induced by the play on the field or too much Labatt Blue) were staples of the season for Bills backers everywhere. There were some truly shocking losses.
The 28-52 collapse against the much-maligned New England Patriots on Sept. 30 was notable. The Bills were up 14-7 at the half, only to see New England come back with 45 points in the last two quarters. It was the kind of game where fans, too nervous to watch, turned the TV off midway, leaving the outcome to fate, and returned at the end to wonder, “What the fuck?”
Even so, renewed hope, as the Craigslist blurb put it, is what sustains the diehard Buffalo supporter. It’s the belief that the next season could be The One, that the team can turn it around, that the Bills will make it back to the playoffs — that the fans will finally have the chance to celebrate together.
“I just got a place in my heart for the Bills, and I’ve just been hoping this is the year.”
— Bob Lelio, Dec. 30 game attendee, chief financial officer of a manufacturer of window components
Buffalo just wouldn’t be the same without the Bills, Manka says: “We’re one of only 32 cities that have a team, and I think it’s a big deal that we have professional football.”
“If the city did lose the Bills, I know I would miss them, and I think most people would because even the fans that say, ‘I wouldn’t miss them,’ they still turn on the TV every week and watch,” Manka says.
On the morning of Dec. 30, as the Bills prepare to take on the Jets, hope is once again in the frigid air.
In the parking lots hugging the stadium, the faithful are making predictions. Beth Baker, 49, forecasts a score of 24-17, Bills. Daniel Heiser, 33, also thinks the home team will win, but by a thinner margin: 24-21.
The opening whistle blows, and Bills kicker Rian Lindell bangs the ball out to the Jets’ six-yard-line. Jets running back Joe McKnight carries it back 18 yards for New York.
But lower in the stands, the mood is merry, with fans wearing furry mascot hats and waving signs of support. They’re dancing with every touchdown. They’re kissing for the Jumbotron. They’re heckling the Jets.
Some are there for the first time ever, others are regulars, and they’re all going to have a good time today, weather and crappy season be damned.
Manka doesn’t find the game particularly memorable. But Heiser, who has never been to the stadium before, has a spectacular time. He’s from Renovo, Pa., a small town, and says he was struck by the friendliness of fellow fans.
He notes that while other stadiums in the league are gleaming palaces, the Bills’ home venue is a modest facility in a residential neighborhood. You can still pay $20 to park in someone’s yard for the morning tailgate.
They say there’s no place like Buffalo in the NFL. It’s hard to tell if that’s true without visiting each of the league’s 30 other cities, but there’s no doubt that Ralph Wilson Stadium is a special place.
It’s the last game of an eighth consecutive losing season, and the fans are on their feet. In Section 113, where Lelio is sitting, a neighbor who’s feeling festive is throwing handfuls of homemade confetti into the stands to celebrate first downs.
With a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Bills go for it on 4th-and-4. Backup running back Tashard Choice shoots forward 13 yards for a touchdown. The final score will be 28-9, Bills, and the crowd that remains breaks out into the Bills Shout song:
The Bills are happenin’ now
They’re makin’ it happen’ now
We’ve got the spirit
A lot of spirit, yeah!
We’ve got the spirit
Just watch it happen now
LET’S GO BUFFALO!
In explaining the loyalty of Bills fans to their struggling team, it’s an oft-heard refrain that Buffalo embraces the Bills because both have suffered for so long and experienced such terrible declines. Buffalo feels a kinship with the Bills, the thinking goes, because the team is a vestige of the region’s proud past, a time when factory jobs were plentiful, the population larger and the city a destination, not an afterthought.
“There’s something admirable about the underdog mentality that people not just here but all across the country can appreciate.”
— Jeff Fischer, 32, Dec. 30 game attendee, IT manager from Buffalo
It’s easy to draw these connections, between the plight of the team and the city. But maybe Western New York’s love for football also has a simpler explanation — something rooted in family and community, in the clan-like devotion that natives feel toward their hometown and toward each other.
These are things that matter in Buffalo, things the city never lost. It’s the reason we shovel our neighbors’ driveways on winter mornings when the temperature is in the 20s and the skin on our hands is already cracking. It’s the reason that so many young people who left Buffalo for better jobs in bigger cities are moving back.
It’s not that Buffalonians revel in the disappointments and the suffering and the label of being tough. No one wants to be a loser. As much as we stick together through the losses, what we really want to do is celebrate the wins — as a family.
Manka came to the Dec. 30 game for the company, to be among like-minded spirits one last time before the season closed. Lelio was there because his son asked if they could get tickets.
Heiser’s journey to Ralph Wilson Stadium began when he was a kid playing backyard football with two brothers in Beech Creek, Pa. Each boy would choose a team to represent, and Heiser would always pick the Bills.
Pretty soon, he was collecting football cards, learning what he could about players like Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and quarterback Jim Kelly — who, by the way, still tailgates on Sundays at the Ralph.
Heiser’s sons, 8 and 4, were roughly negative 5 and negative 9 years old the last time Buffalo made the playoffs.
“They love the Bills now, and now it’s a generation-passing thing,” Heiser says. “Now that my kids are interested in it, it motivates [me] to like them more.”
Like them more? Yes. Like them more.
“Somehow, I manage to convince myself to be there on opening day. … I’m sure I’ll be there next year, barring unforeseen disaster.”
— Jeff Fischer, 32, Dec. 30 game attendee, IT manager from Buffalo
It may seem like some sort of sick self-flagellation, the way Bills fans keep coming back season after season. But there’s a feeling that 2013 really could be different.
Asked whether the Bills are the worst team in the league, Heiser offers a standard answer: “Not by far. … You look at Kansas City and Jacksonville, those guys are in bad shape.”
He points out that Buffalo has talent like running back C.J. Spiller, who finished 2012 with 6 yards per carry, the seventh player in NFL history to hit that mark with at least 200 attempts, according to the Bills, and wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who just had his third straight 1,000-yard season.
The Bills will start 2013 with a new coach and possibly a new quarterback. Russell Brandon, who took over as franchise president on Jan. 1, told The Buffalo News that he’s interested in bringing Moneyball-style analytics into management decisions.
Perhaps most importantly for Western New York, the long-time fear that the Bills will leave Buffalo has been put to rest for the moment. With Wilson aging, locals have worried for years that a city like Los Angeles, with more money and more people, would lure the Bills away.
But in December, the team approved a lease that carries heavy financial penalties if the Bills move before the end of seven years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the agreement, presenting it as a win for New York State (which, as Buffalonians will remind you, has only one football team, as the Jets and Giants play in New Jersey).
The deal was the ultimate silver lining at the end of a season with so little to celebrate. The Bills may be bad, but Buffalo loves them. They’re terrible, but at least they’re ours. The faithful describe a cautious optimism about 2013: Come September, they’ll be back at the stadium.
Love hurts, but sometimes, you just have to believe.
Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited this story.