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In Buffalo, Bills Mafia tries (and fails) to keep it together as 2021 title dreams seem weirdly within reach


THE CLOCK TICKED past midnight, and the Sunday night when the Bills lost to the Chiefs, falling short of the Super Bowl in the process, melted into Monday morning. Brian Stamm sat in his kitchen, with his wife, Melissa, and his sister-in-law, Lisa Schult, with music in the background and Buffalo on the brain.

“We should go to the airport,” Lisa said.

It was creeping ever closer to 1:30 by this point. It was dipping into the low 20s outside (this being western New York and all), which meant it was actually kind of balmy, at least for this corner of the state. They’d made their way to the airport just a few weeks earlier, after the Bills had captured the AFC East, and they had been planning their second jaunt for “when” the Bills won that night. Then the game happened.

Lisa texted her stepbrother, who fancies himself something of an aviation buff. He tracked the Bills’ plane, what time they’d be leaving from Kansas City, when they’d likely land at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and armed with an itinerary, Brian, Melissa and Lisa jumped in the car to make the 10-minute drive south to welcome home their non-conquering heroes.

They weren’t the only Buffalonians with the same cockamamie idea — 500 or so like-minded locals showed up in all — so at the airport, they parked a few blocks away, then walked over to the tarmac area, a steady drip of humanity joining them on their pilgrimage. The Bills’ plane was still 30 minutes away, so they rejoiced in the interim.

With fans with cowbells, which Brian, still clad in Zubaz, borrowed from a stranger to stir up the crowd.

And fans with tables to break (this being western New York and all). “Without fail, we are breaking tables in this town,” Lisa says.

And fans with gratefulness in their bellies for this season they had been waiting for, and the season they hadn’t known to expect. The team had finally, mercifully started to molt its failures, shedding them like feathers one after the other — their first division title in 25 years; their first playoff victory in a quarter-century, too. Buffalonians had loved their hapless team for so long and with so much flair, the fan base grew a fan base. Now, fans of the Bills and fans of fans of the Bills wait to see how this next, decidedly not-hapless chapter unfolds.

Sure, the Bills had just lost the AFC Championship Game, but Bills fans had found something long-abandoned in this place. They dusted off optimism, tried it on for size. They found it fit just fine.

When the Bills finally did touch down, the throng of fans yelled “MVP” for Josh Allen, even though he didn’t play like one against the Chiefs. They hollered “Coach of the Year” for Sean McDermott, even though he hadn’t coached like one either. But Allen might yet be an award winner in the not-too-distant future. McDermott, too. And if this season was the year they got their feet wet, even if it didn’t end in a Super Bowl berth, well, the fans figured that was something worth celebrating. That was something worth trekking out for, on this frigid night, in this strange, isolating year. Lisa had a webinar training for work at 9 in the morning. Brian? He’s an attorney and had told his office before the game, win or lose (but, really, he thought the Bills would win), to take Monday morning off. Sacrifices had to be made.

“They’ve been looking for our faces in the stands all year, and they haven’t seen us,” Brian says. “We wanted them to see our faces.”

THEY SING IT like a refrain, these Buffalonians, their crescendoing lament.

Of course.
Of course this would happen this year.
Of course this would happen this year to us.
They couldn’t see our faces.

Because wouldn’t you know it: The most community-driven, communal-gathering-obsessed fans in professional football … weren’t able to commune. At least not like they wanted to. And certainly not like they used to. In a tragicomically Billsian twist of fate, this team was worth rooting for — right when the full-throated, en masse rooting this town has mastered like it’s an art form was canceled.

And yet.

Even if the Bills masses couldn’t do what they do best, even if their congregations were outlawed for the regular season because of the coronavirus pandemic, then capped at 6,700 strong for the postseason, even if they couldn’t celebrate in that big, beautiful, Buffalonian way … they didn’t wish to postpone all this really good football. Deep down, in the darkest recesses of their Bills-loving bodies, there wasn’t an atom of their beings that begged for delayed, but communal, gratification.

“If the Bills played on the moon? I don’t care. I just want to win,” says Del Reid, one of the founding fathers of the Bills Mafia movement. “And if the rules say that we’re not allowed to go to the moon — only the team can go to the moon — then I’d say, ‘Let’s go, Moon Bills,'” he adds, stretching the bounds of logic.

But don’t ever accuse Bills fans of being logical. Rich Foley is also a card-carrying member of Bills Mafia, not by birthright but by choice. He grew up in New Jersey, adopted Buffalo as his team back in the ’90s, then moved to Bills country five years ago — primarily for the Bills. Rich touted the merits of a socially distanced Super Bowl victory parade down I-90 before the Bills were eliminated from contention. Because “logic.”

Hope for this football team was feckless and fickle for so long. One generation passed down despair to the next generation, infecting the gene pool. But something new is in the DNA in western New York, a foreign and wonderful phenomenon called confidence.

“The fifth trip to the Super Bowl will be the charm,” Del says, kidding but, you know, not.

Afraid at the prospect of one day facing Tom Brady, Buffalo’s very own patron saint of devastation, in the Super Bowl? What, them worry?

(He only has a 32-3 record against Buffalo, the most wins by one NFL quarterback against a single team.)

“Tom Brady, taking nothing away from him,” Del says, two days after the quarterback became a seven-time Super Bowl champion. “Still not scared for the Bills to play him.”

Cowed by the prospect of being a very good team that has the misfortune of coming along at the same time as a great team in Kansas City? They laugh in the face of intimidation!

(Although wouldn’t it be just like the Bills to make it, say, to four straight AFC Championship Games — with no Super Bowls berths to show for it?)

“The Bills aren’t going to be the only good team,” says Nick Papagelis, one of Bills tailgating’s Very Important People. Like many a Buffalo native, he sees a rosy future ahead, thanks to the team’s young, locked-in core (Allen; Stefon Diggs), prolific coaching staff (McDermott, but top head coach contender Brian Daboll too), and a general sense that Buffalo is now an attractive landing spot for the league’s premier free-agent talent. “There’s always gonna be another great team,” he adds.

The team, it’s worth noting, seems similarly undeterred. In the postmortem to the AFC championship loss, McDermott was clear-eyed about the distance between his own team and the Chiefs. “There is still a gap in terms of where we are and where they are,” he said. “It’s not just one answer that solves that problem.” But he was stalwart too. “They’re in Year 8 and we’re in Year 4,” he added. A guarantee the Chiefs’ success is coming down the pike for Buffalo? No. Confidence that it could be? Certainly.

In other words, there’s no bogeyman stalking Buffalo right now. The team’s turn is coming; fans are sure of it. Which might explain why 500 or so diehards would take a middle-of-the-night trip to an airport to cheer on a beaten team. They were doing more than toasting the thrill of this season. They were lifting a glass to the thrill of tomorrow.

“I’m not even sure what Buffalo sports fandom looks like when the Bills win the Super Bowl,” Del says. “But I’m really excited to find out. I’m really excited to discover what it is.”

LONG BEFORE THEY whispered things like Super Bowl to themselves — five months ago, a lifetime ago — and 90 miles east of Orchard Park, New York, and Bills Stadium, and the Bills, themselves, Nick Papagelis held court in front of a beige-paneled home in nearby Fairport, New York.

“We figured we’d do ketchup!” he bellowed, announcing the return of one of Buffalo tailgating’s most time-honored, preposterous traditions. It was September, the first strange Sunday of this strange NFL season, and if you thought a global pandemic could quash the head-scratching customs of Bills fans tailgating, well … No, never mind, absolutely no one thought a global pandemic could quash Buffalo at all.

They were “doing” ketchup. Well, they were kind of doing ketchup. OK, fine, they were trying to do a version of ketchup.

On any given Sunday in any other year, Ken Johnson — lovingly known around these parts as Pinto Ron — would stand at the center of a ring of encroaching Bills fans, hundreds and hundreds of them, awaiting his baptism by ketchup-and-mustard bath. With his 1980 red Ford Pinto parked off to the side, a gang of ketchup and mustard shooters would clamber aboard a nearby van, then pelt him with condiments for no other reason than to … pelt him with condiments, like they’ve done now for 30-odd years.

But in this year, with COVID-19 raging, those masses couldn’t congregate outside the stadium at Hammer’s Lot, the normal home of this abnormal ritual. They couldn’t congregate at all. So a handful of devotees, a (sort of) pandemic-friendly crew, gathered here instead, around a knee-high mannequin. They outfitted this dummy with glasses and a fake beard — an admirable attempt to approximate their bespectacled, bewhiskered Pinto Ron — then doused it with ketchup and mustard.

If Del Reid is eager to find out what Bills fandom will look like with all this newfangled, highfalutin success, this is what it has been. This is their masterpiece. Tailgating is their art; this absurd, devoted community, their muse.

For years — decades, generations, however you want to put it, a really, really long time — these fans have waited to marry the two. Football distinction and tailgating poetry. That the coronavirus made their meeting impossible, made them into ships passing in the night, is a dark irony not lost here.

Nick Papagelis, Red Pinto Tailgate emcee and Bills lifer: “It’s the most Bills thing that could happen.”

Pat Duffy, radio personality and, yes, Bills lifer: “I made a joke on a TV show in August. They’re gonna win the Super Bowl because we can’t go.”

“Donnie Darts,” who goes only by his tailgating alter ego’s alias, and, surprise, Bills lifer: “It’s the Buffalo way.”

They joke and they joke and they joke. They joke, in a way so desperate it’s practically manic, until it becomes self-evident that gallows humor is their survival. They kid in order to continue on, to fend off the sadness that laps at their feet like a swelling tide. Because here’s the essential and human truth: This hurts.

“Nobody misses Kenny,” Eric Matwijow says — no joking here, none at all! — about his longtime friend and tailgating tenant, Pinto Ron. Eric owns Hammer’s Lot. He is, himself, “Hammer,” and the man chiefly responsible for cleaning up the mess Pinto Ron and his acolytes make in the pregame hours on football Sundays. He “doesn’t miss” Kenny enough that he waxes nostalgic for the 0.8 tons of garbage he has to haul out of his parking lot after every (non-pandemic) Bills home game.

The red Pinto was forsaken this season. Ken would take it out for a drive every now and then, do a lap or two around his Rochester neighborhood, just to keep the transmission from freezing up. They were always at night, these drives, always “under the cover of darkness,” as Ken puts it, to avoid sparking a Pinto-inspired frenzy among the locals. Otherwise, the Pinto remained untouched, unloved, since the time of before. Before the joy of this hallmark season. Before the pandemic. Before the world shut down. Like so much else, it was trapped in amber.

As the wins piled up, all 13 of them (the most regular-season victories since the Super Bowl-era Bills) and Josh Allen became magic (81.7 QBR in 2020, third in the NFL, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes), these fans — trapped in amber too — clamored for each other, for normalcy.

To wit:

2,200 miles from Bills Stadium: Ken only subjects himself to ketchup-and-mustard-based shenanigans for home games, but offered a one-time, away-game exemption this year when he traveled to Arizona in November. He figured he owed the “Wild West Backers,” who managed to finagle a four-acre property where 200 Bills fans could space out and, from a distance, watch him get sprayed. “Probably the only time,” he says of his concession.

And 0.2 miles from the stadium: On Bills Drive, the long and winding road that ends at Bills Stadium, Shane Prouty set up shop in the self-appointed Bills Mafia House. It’s a one-story white bungalow, this project of Shane’s, with a Buffalo Bill painted on the back side in blue and #BillsMafia in bold letters stamping its football allegiance. Shane is a season-ticket holder too (aren’t they all), and in years past, he’d rent this place out on Airbnb. But this year, with no home games to go to himself, he reclaimed his property. He sat outside, a fire pit at the ready, a tent if Mother Nature was feeling pesky, and watched football. Not normal, but a facsimile of normal. The lots across the way were eerie. Ghost towns. And reality still found him. He watched most home games from this very spot, save the one week when he tested positive for COVID-19. But there was still that fire pit and music and football. That was something.

A few years back, the team erected a fence along Bills Drive, and that fence blocked the view of Shane’s white house, and that blue Bill and that mafia stamp. The obstruction was temporary. A few days after installation, the 8-foot fence was lowered by about four feet after orders came down from up high.

“I found out the request came directly from Terry Pegula,” Shane says.

The Bills’ owner, it turned out, liked the view.

And because Shane was visible, thanks to Pegula’s appreciation for fine team art, the Bills players leaving the stadium this year came to expect to see him, parked in his backyard, and took to honking their regards as they drove by. Brian Daboll, the Bills’ offensive coordinator, even pulled around a time or two to dispense a hearty fist pump.

They offered a solace of sorts, these small exchanges. Eric, who also lives close by, knows which players drive which cars — that wide receivers are in Corvettes and linemen are in trucks and defensive backs are in Jeeps — and it’s comforting to have this tie to the team, to keep this one thread the pandemic hasn’t broken.

“In a stupid, weird way,” he says, “it pacifies me.”

Eric grew up here, on basically the same land Bills Stadium sits now, when it was just farms and fields and a creek he’d use for a swimming hole; his grandparents first bought their Orchard Park property in 1932. Shane? His father-in-law used to pinch-bartend at the Big Tree Inn, the Bills institution just down the road, where he’d mingle with team legends who became regulars at the bar. There’s long been a Gordian knot of connections between town and team, which is why these people have always felt less like fans of the Bills than just of the Bills, period.

So they did things like raise nearly half a million dollars for Lamar Jackson’s favorite Louisville charity, after the quarterback left their divisional playoff game with a concussion. Which was after they cobbled together over $1 million for a Buffalo-based children’s hospital, in memory of Patricia Allen, Josh’s grandmother who passed away in November. “I don’t ever want to leave,” he said, of Buffalo, and mostly, Buffalo people.

They missed so much this year. They missed the way tailgate grills smell, how that smell is different, and crisper, in the fall. They missed their friends who come down from Toronto, who are Bills fans like they’re Bills fans but couldn’t cross a border in this new world order. They missed their Gordian knot.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Del says. “I want to believe that next year will be different.”

THAT’S ALL THEY have, once more. Next year.

For all that was different about this season, that much is familiar. The Bills lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, and even that feels like a gentle euphemism. The Bills got steamrolled by the Chiefs, and so these fans are back in terrain they know intimately. The land of hope for better days ahead.

With a twist, at least: The land of believing, deep down in their hearts, that better days are ahead.

The day after the loss, after Brian and Lisa and the hundreds ventured home from the airport, Shane Prouty returned to his Bills Mafia House. He put the TVs away and the DJ equipment back in storage and stowed the tables (unbroken). All the trimmings of the downsized, pandemic-era tailgates were gone, put back on figurative ice until a new season rolls around again.

It was a weird season. It was a wonderful season. All the while, the ethos — if not the execution — of this community persisted.

“We still did what we do,” Shane says.

They’ll do what they do next year too. Perhaps together again. Maybe even one game longer than this season. That would be super, they think.

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