How defending the Bills made me love Buffalo
Growing up just outside of Buffalo, New York, Sunday occasionally meant football. More often, it meant my dad settling into his recliner and turning on the Bills game, snorting a few times, and then switching off the TV after the first quarter. He, my mom, and I would then head to a craft show and look at some crocheted washcloths.
My disgust with Buffalo and disinterest in sports, save for a brief infatuation with the 2005-06 Buffalo Sabres, unsurprisingly came with me to college. I only went to Syracuse's homecoming football game freshman year because I wanted friends, and when a dorm floormate from New Jersey told me he loved "all Buffalo sports," I said he had to be lying. But I soon learned there's a lot to love about a perpetually stumbling football team in a city past its prime. I just had to learn to defend them first.
When it comes to the Bills, there's a reason why pop punk singer Dan Campbell made his uber-depressed persona "Aaron West" a Bills fan. The team might be on a roll right now, but it has the dual distinction of holding the record for most consecutive division championship wins and Super Bowl losses. Its 18-season playoff drought required a tenuous string of wins and a chicken-wing bribe to break. And its best players have an uncanny knack for ending up in jail.
This dismal track record essentially means no one chooses to love the Bills; it's a maniacal fandom you're born into. Western New Yorkers and ex-pats usually have their kids crushing Fisher Price tables before they can walk because it's the only way to numb the pain of an inevitable AFC East ranking somewhere below the Patriots. My parents were born in nearby Niagara Falls before the Bills even existed, so fandom was essentially a birthright. But after a dozen too many heartbreaks, even their collection of Bills T-shirts became dust rags.
My flirtation with Bills fandom began when my mom was trying to get rid of a vintage sweatshirt celebrating one of the Bills' 1990-something AFC Championship wins. Freshly returned home for Christmas my freshman year, cold, and in the middle of a thrift-store phase, I pulled the hoodie out of a garbage bag headed for the Salvation Army and then didn't take it off. The Bills finished that 2014 season with a not entirely terrible 9-7 record, and I finished it by actually watching the last game of the year in my newfound favorite sweatshirt.
Then I headed back to Syracuse where, despite being just a few hours' drive from Buffalo, I didn't come across many western New Yorkers. There were, however, plenty of Long Islanders who were happy to redefine "upstate" and tell me that "anything north of Westchester is bumblef--- nowhere." I was happy to remind them that their just-as-terrible teams were actually from New Jersey, and that it's actually possible to buy a home before you're 50 in bumblef--- nowhere. My Bills allegiance was born.
Sophomore year eventually came around, and so did another Bills season. And at the end of this one, I wasn't just wearing my favorite grey sweatshirt. I had piled Under Armour below it and my heaviest winter jacket on top and headed off to break Orchard Park's open container laws at my first Bills game. There was no hope for a postseason at that point, but you wouldn't know it from the rows and rows of trailers and open car trunks piled into the Erie Community College parking lot next to the stadium.
That first game was filled with practical lessons. Don't dip your non-waterproof gloves in slushy puddles to pick up beanbags that skidded off cornhole boards. Bring your own toilet paper to the port-a-potty. And don't underestimate how good a late-season win against the New Jersey Jets can feel, especially when it blocks them from the playoffs.
The following 2016 season left a lot to be desired of the Bills, but it didn't matter. I paired my sweatshirt with a newly acquired pair of Zubaz every Sunday, livestreamed the game from my job at Syracuse's student newspaper, and mentioned some players' names so the sports reporters nearby wouldn't think I was the one and only Bills bandwagoner in existence. And the following year, I returned home for Christmas knowing that the Bills actually had a chance to make the postseason. When running down Buffalo's Allen Street in the 10-below chill after a 3 a.m. poutine run, I didn't miss a beat when someone yelled the call-and-response piece of Buffalo's adopted "Shout!" anthem.
A nap and a drive to Syracuse with a squad of Buffalo fans later, and my friends and I were watching the first of two games that would push the Bills to the postseason for the first time in nearly two decades. First the Bills beat the Miami Dolphins, and then the Cincinnati Bengals finished off the Baltimore Ravens to knock them out of wild card contention, and then we ran outside to party on icy streets.
That was nearly two years ago, before then-rookie quarterback Josh Allen got a chance to get our hopes up once or twice during 2018's dismal season and has already led the Bills to a successful 2019 start. It was also before I moved to New York City, where I'm always ready to remind so-called New Yorkers that the only real New York team is far beyond the Metro North's end.