Talking Proud: Buffalo Bills Fandom in Context

It’s all too heartbreakingly familiar: I am surrounded by seventy thousand blue and red clad bodies, by the sweet and nauseous aroma of cement saturated in Labatts Blue pilsner lager, and by the deafening screams reverberating around Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bills. To my left stands a single, hateful, New England Patriots fan, my tall and goofy college roommate, Ian. He joins a cast of non-Buffalonians that I’ve proudly brought to my hometown, only to watch the Bills once again enact what most closely resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. In classic fashion, our noble, flawed protagonists have given us hope, a chance for redemption — down 32–40, on offense, in the fleeting final minutes of the fourth quarter. Around the stadium, Bills fans’ faces are worn, creased, tired, even the youngest fans’, from years of living in Buffalo and breathing Bills football. But there’s also a coruscating vivacity in our eyes that communicates what we all understand: we’ve been here before, and we know how this will play out, and even so, it’s all going to be okay.

Of course, we are right. On the next snap, Tyrod Taylor’s pass glances off Percy Harvin’s fingertips and falls into the outstretched hands of a New England defender. Climax to falling action: game over. We all float towards the exits with the familiar post-Bills-loss numb, sad amusement. (I was eight years old, with my dad’s dad, the first time I witnessed a “Buffalo Moment” — JP Losman threw the game-losing interception against the Eagles that time.) We buy more Labatts to drink on our way out. We chant choruses of “fuck Tom Brady” and “let’s go Buffalo” at the same decibel level we reached before the game started. Ian and a handful of other Patriots fans grin, but we ignore their smug New England arrogance. Next week, Buffalo will try again.

Agonizing Buffalo Moments from years past hang over the city and the football team. From 1991 through 1994 under quarterback Jim Kelly’s leadership, the Bills reached four straight Super Bowls — and they lost all four. In 1991, down 19 to 20 to the Giants with three seconds left, Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal by no more than six inches to the right. The “Wide Right Moment” precipitated three more Super Bowl losses in a row. These losses haunt my older brother, Matthew, whose fervent prayers failed him each February from age five to age eight, leading to destructive temper tantrums that traumatized my sister Hadley. Even now, as a broad-shouldered, tall, bearded 29-year-old man, Matthew will not speak of these games. When they arise in conversation, his dark brow tightens and he bites his big lower lip, and he again resembles the curly-haired toddler he once was.

After the string of Super Bowl losses, the Bills made the playoffs in 1999 and haven’t been back since. I can’t remember the Bills ever being good. Instead, I remember a string of horrendous quarterbacks, pathetic head coaches, and countless last-minute collapses. The losses, though always following the same tragic process, each hold a special, tender place in my memory. I can always recall where I was, the family members I was watching with, and in what particular way the Bills managed to blow it (interception, missed field goal, fumble, missed tackle, penalty — the list goes on).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Bills are mediocre, and I’m reminded of this whenever I tell someone I’m a Bills fan. Likewise, the city itself gets a bad rap — outsiders point to unbearable winters, economic hopelessness, and chaotic violence as the city’s main qualities. I can’t disagree. Last November, a cataclysmic storm, endearingly known locally as “Snowmageddon,” dumped 95 inches of snow on downtown Buffalo. If you ask someone from Buffalo about it, you’ll be surprised at his or her indifference — comparable and worse storms touch down in the area all the time. When I was eight years old, a Christmas Eve blizzard swiftly and tenaciously blanked the area, stranding my family at my mother’s parents’ house for a week. While my parents fretted about returning home to Delaware, where they both teach English, I happily spent my afternoons fumbling around in the snow in my grandparents’ backyard, my grandmother close by. Together, we played in the snow for hours and hours, until our noses froze and our toes tingled and we had to go inside.

After brushing the snow off my boots, I always found my grandfather, “Griz,” filling his huge leather chair in the den, wrapped in a thick flannel blanket, watching either Fox News or Bills highlights. Those chilly evenings, and many other evenings throughout my childhood, Griz, who loved talking and had a tendency to repeat himself, would tell me about his city as I sat on the adjacent loveseat. His gruff voice would often begin: “You know, for a while, a long time ago, Buffalo was the place to be.” He’d then tell stories, passed down from his own parents, about the Erie Canal, which connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River for the exportation of steel and grain, and about Niagara Falls, and how the electricity harnessed from it lit up the Buffalo skyline. Griz himself was born during the Great Depression, as the heyday of Buffalo came crashing to an end. Growing up downtown, he watched the abandoned mills and buildings begin to decay and rust, often from a perch on another building or even from the suspension beams of the Peace Bridge, which marked the border between the United States and Canada over the Niagara River. Yet, as I watched him tell of the violence and poverty that swept the city (and still dominate today — Buffalo consistently posts the highest crime rate of any city in New York and 30% of Buffalonians live in poverty), I could detect hardy pride in his voice for the beaten-up, worn-down city that we call home. As my brother, who inherited Griz’s olive skin and athletic prowess, summed up to me a few days ago: “If you’re from Buffalo, you somehow understand all these facts to be true — and yet feel that all of those qualities are, more or less, positive or neutral facts.” So we thrive in the snow and the cold, savoring each blizzard; we treasure the few gems of businesses that our ancestors frequented; we downplay the violence and relegate it to specific intersections. And we understand the Bills, no matter how bad they are, to be fundamental to our collective identity.

Buffalo runs deep on both sides of my family — my father’s parents, along with my mother’s, were born and lived their entire lives in Buffalo. My tall, black-Irish father, Daniel Roach, and my blond, thoroughly Italian mother, Elizabeth Montesano, attended Nichols School on Amherst Street and got married at Westminster Church on Delaware Avenue. Although they moved to the mid-Atlantic, they could never shut the door on Buffalo. Each summer, we return to spend three months on the tranquil Canadian shoreline of Lake Erie, just across the border. In the past six years, though, we’ve found ourselves trekking up to Buffalo in the early autumn, on four occasions to attend four funerals. Now, being in Buffalo is at once painful and remedial. On the Macmillan tennis courts in Delaware Park, at Ralph Wilson Stadium watching the Bills, and submerged in the clear freshwater of Lake Erie, I can feel them around me, and it hurts but it’s the kind of pure, sweet pain that heals as the memories enter me, and I am overwhelmed with an urge to pass on my family’s stories.

My dad tells me often about the rise of Buffalo Bills football in the sixties. Like the city itself, but a century later, the first few years were sublime. With his dad, a prominent Buffalo defense attorney, my dad would go to games at the old “Rock Pile,” War Memorial Stadium, on the corner of Best Street and Dodge Street on the city’s East Side. From their house on Highland Avenue, they would walk up to Delaware Avenue and pass the stark, frozen mansions that line the avenue before crossing Main Street and trudging through the rundown East Side to Dodge. In 1964, when my dad was in first grade, he discovered end-zone tickets to the AFL Championship game between the Bills and the San Diego Chargers in his Christmas stocking. Battling through the stomach bug, he saw Buffalo linebacker Mike Stratton shatter Keith Lincoln’s ribs on a short pass en route to a 20–7 Buffalo win.

After the Bills won the 1964 championship, they defended their title in 1965 with another victory against San Diego. Then, the Bills started losing — to keep winning would have erroneously reflected the city. When my dad was twelve years old, though, the Buffalo Bills drafted his football idol: University of Southern California running back, O.J. “The Juice” Simpson. O.J. gave fans a reason to cheer. With a lethal combination of power and agility he blasted through defensive ends and tiptoed around linebackers. In 1973, he became the first NFL player to run for over 2,000 yards in a season. Watching him play, my dad reminisces, was a privilege to be cherished. I imagine a lanky, adolescent version of my dad counting every single yard, watching each carry with awe in my grandparents’ living room.

On June 17th, 1994, 95 million people clicked on their televisions to watch O.J. fleeing from dozens of Los Angeles police cars in his white Ford Bronco. After a dramatic chase, he was arrested and tried for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her boyfriend, Ronald Goldman. Matthew, who was nine years old at the time, remembers watching the trial with our dad, who was passionately rooting for the Bills legend to be proven innocent, which he miraculously was — thanks to Robert Kardashian. The trial sparked a black-versus-white divide across the country: most black Americans believed O.J. to be innocent, while white Americans deemed him guilty. But in Buffalo, where O.J. meant so much, black and white citizens alike cheered in solidarity for O.J. and were thrilled at his acquittal. As Matthew darkly muses, recalling the triumphant days after the trial: “You might say the O.J. trial was the only thing that Buffalo won in the ‘90’s — we’d just lost four consecutive Super Bowls.”

Buffalo and the Bills have put my family and me through the wringer too many times to count, but I am honored to love and represent this place and team, as generations of Roaches and Montesanos have before me. Besides, I have enough scar tissue armor that witnessing a Buffalo Moment now isn’t so bad — it’s just what happens. And when the Bills do win, we are pleasantly and genuinely surprised. For a few days, we’ll talk about how gutsy of a throw Tyrod Taylor made, or how satiating it was to see Marcel Dareus throw Tom Brady into the dirt. And then soon enough, we’ll heave our armor back on and prepare for the worst.

But these days… I’m actually feeling pretty good about Buffalo and the Bills. We’re getting another shot at glory, and we’re not throwing it away. The city is investing in renewable energy — wind, solar, and hydro — that just might turn Buffalo around in the twenty-first century. The Bills are playing fearless, reckless football under our new coach, Rex Ryan, who’s fulfilling his promise to “build a bully” that other teams will dread playing. And following Rex’s lead, Buffalonians these days are brasher than ever — impenitent, drunken, energetic, and resolutely in love with the city and the team. As Griz liked to say, quoting a 1980s citywide reform campaign: “Buffalo is talking proud.” In the car back to Wesleyan with Ian, I talked proud, despite his haughty jabs. And I’ll keep talking proud, even when the Bills break my heart again.

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