It’s a weird time to be a Buffalo Bills fan. For the past several seasons, we haven’t been awful. In fact, we’ve seemed to be on the cusp of being pretty good in fits and starts. We had our first winning season in a decade in 2014. We went 8-8 last season, which isn’t wonderful by any means, but for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since Bill Clinton was in office, and Doug Flutie was an integral part of your offense, you take it. You take a lot of things as a Bills fan. You take decent seasons and endless rebuilding. You take more drunk folks than you can count at Ralph Wilson. You take an obscene amount of snow. And you take the jokes, all the jokes from 1990 and on. You take being the proverbial low-hanging fruit of the NFL.
I was born almost exactly six months after Super Bowl XXV, most famous, not for the winning team (which was the New York Giants, which is boring), but for the losers. Scott Norwood’s wide right kick will be remembered infinitely more than any Giants victory that year, if only because it typified the Buffalo Bills’ doomed juggernaut of the early 1990s. I was born in Western New York: Upstate to anyone living in NYC and down South to Syracuse and anyone else living farther North. I was born in a big town/tiny city called Corning. I was born in Bills country, and that’s a birthright you don’t just shrug off.
The Buffalo Bills teams of the early 1990s were a thing to behold at their best. Jim Kelly was golden in the no-huddle offense. There was seemingly nothing Thurman Thomas couldn’t do. The defense was punishing at times and the wide receiving corps were impossible to keep quiet, easily good enough to win a championship. They were a legitimately great team, as evidenced by their Super Bowl appearances. There’s a reason no team had ever been to four straight Super Bowls before the Bills, and no team since has done it, either. The NFL, like all American sports, is set up for parity. No one is supposed to be good or bad for forever. Everyone will, in theory, get their day in the sun. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the sun’s not out most of the year.
Being born in the 90s means that the closest thing I have to memories of that team are highlight reels. The team of my childhood was built on the backs of Eric Moulds, an aging Andre Reed, and Nate Clements (may his hit on Tom Brady live forever). Those Bills featured the eventual end of Jim Kelly, the end of Marv Levy, and the beginning of Doug Flutie, plucked from the CFL with memories of his Hail Mary against Miami still not-so-far-off, scrambling around the pocket for dear life and making it work half the time. They made it to the playoffs a few times. I remember going to the Ralph with my Dad in elementary school and watching the Steelers absolutely butcher Rob Johnson one Sunday. The only two significant plays the Bills made that day were Moulds fumbling the ball on a 3rd and 7 and then recovering his own fumble, turning a five-yard catch and upcoming punt into a fifteen yard gain, and Buffalo hitting the right upright on a field goal attempt.
Upstate New York isn’t an easy place to live. The winters are long, realistically beginning in October and managing to stretch into April with a late-season snow, like clockwork. Poverty rates are high and employment isn’t astounding. Most of the business flowing in and out of my area of Western New York is based on tourism. The summer months are filled with vacationers at their lake houses, visiting wineries and Revolutionary War sites, waterfalls and gorges, and one of the two NASCAR tracks north of the Mason-Dixon. But not many people actually stay. Western New York is for escaping.
I graduated high school in the top ten of my class of 150, only knowing that I didn’t want to remain anywhere close to the place. It was a tired, sleepy town of 6,000 people called Bath, and the closest thing we had to a nightlife was one end of a main street painted blue and red every night from the neon glow of light-up Bills and Labatt Blue logos. It’s not that I wanted to go somewhere else in particular, I just wanted to get the hell away from Upstate as fast as I could.
Maybe my football tastes changed along with my longing for new scenery. I cheered for the Green Bay Packers throughout high school. I was tired of the Bills losing and felt just far enough away from the city that I didn’t owe them any sort of loyalty. The Packers were tough to beat every year, had an exciting offense, and a color scheme I liked. I was sold pretty easily, in fact, and I went to Virginia the summer after my graduation to go get a college degree with my cheesehead in tow. To this day, I’m far from a regional loyalist when it comes to sports.
Buffalo has been known as “The City of Good Neighbors” for at least sixty years, and probably longer than that. It’s an odd nickname for an ugly, industrial town, but one that is earned every single year. I could tell you about the endless shoveling. I could tell you about half a block showing up at a hospital when a man on the block had a heart attack. I could tell you about the actual group calling themselves the Buffalo Good Neighbors, devoted to serving other people in the city throughout the year. But instead, I think I’ll tell you about a funeral.
I played soccer throughout high school, and the team that I was a part of was good, despite the school being small in size. My junior and senior year, we went to two straight state quarterfinals, only to lose 1-0 to the number one seed in the tournament each time. And every time we went to the field, whether it was for practice in the fall, pickup in the spring and summer, or indoor in the winter, Coach Hill would be there to organize teams, set up goals, and mow grass. He gave his life to us, really. We were constantly trying to play, and he just kept giving us the opportunities to, with a few semi-good natured screams to push us along.
The last thing I ever did with my high school soccer team was go to a funeral for Coach Hill’s dad. Nobody really expected us to show up. We were a bunch of high school kids, and you don’t just see a lot of non-relatives or close friends at a wake and memorial. But we had to be there. Hill had given us everything he had for two to four years of all of our lives. Even if we could just show up to the funeral of a man that none of us knew, we needed to do it for him. And so we did. That was our last game together.
Western New York is big and desolate, but everyone you meet there is family. And that’s something you miss when you leave.
I never set out to be a Bills fan. It happened naturally the longer I was away from New York. It wasn’t that their numbers were getting that much better or their team chemistry suddenly evolved. I think I missed home, and I found it in that team. They were losers, but they were my losers, and no one could take that from me.
One thing you’ll learn hanging around Buffalo Bills fans for any amount of time is that while we’re outwardly a pessimistic bunch, we legitimately believe we’ll win every single game we go into. We think we will beat the Patriots in the fourth quarter down thirty points. We think we will still beat the New York Giants for Super Bowl XXV, Scott Norwood’s kick hanging infinitely in the eternal ether, hooking left just inside the right upright somewhere in the golden void beyond all things. And that’s why we’re the best losers in the NFL: we know we’re not good, but we don’t hate our team. You don’t catch us with bags on our faces. Instead, you find us shoveling snow from the seats of Ralph Wilson on Saturday night so we can ruin the Jets playoff chances the following afternoon, for no other pleasure than to beat the Jets and see the Bills play some football. Yeah, it’s crazy. We’re crazy. But in the words of some good friends of mine: Where would you rather be than right here, right now?