Author’s Note: This started as an examination of my Bills fanhood and a way to explore my thoughts on possible relocation. It was pretty much a free writing exercise that I’ve rearranged into coherent parts. I wrote it a week ago, but thought I’d share, especially with some of the news this week. I imagine there are a couple people here like me.
It was January 8th, 2000. As I remember, it was pretty warm for a January day. The temperature had broken 40 degrees, and the sun was out. And most importantly – the Bills were doing it. They walked into Adelphia Coliseum – the brand new stadium where the Tennessee Titans had never been beaten – and they had taken a 16-15 lead with less than a minute to play. What a comeback. All the Johnson/Flutie nonsense that led into the game didn’t matter. As an 11-year-old, it felt like my entire life had been leading to this Bills playoff run… to the Super Bowl.
Then it happened. Wycheck-to-Dyson. The ball floated across the width of the field. I stared at the TV, screaming "NO! NO! NO!" My voice crescendoed. Tears welled up in my eyes; I didn’t try holding them back. ABC asked viewers to vote whether they thought the lateral was legal through their "Interactive TV" feature on the internet. I ran over to the computer, clicked no, and bashed the mouse on the "vote" button as many times as our family’s dial-up connection would allow. By this time I was bawling. My parents were trying to calm me, but I couldn’t take it.
After the play was upheld, I calmed just a bit. I ended up rationalizing that the Bills could pull the same stunt. I told my dad "the Bills can take the kick back too! They can do it!" He must have been shaking his head. He could see the Bills breaking my heart for the first time in my life.
As a lifelong Vikings fan, he knew all about that heartbreak. There was nothing he could do to help me now.
It was just a normal work day last month when I saw the news come across my Twitter feed: Ralph Wilson had passed away. It had already been a tough week as a fan – my original childhood hero, Jim Kelly, was fighting cancer again. Now the architect of the 90s run and the only owner the team had ever known was gone. I eventually wandered my way over to Buffalo Rumblings to read through the R.I.P. thread, and I even posted for the first time in a while there. I always lurk, rarely post, as I find that everything I’d want to say has likely already been said. But mainly, I read comment after comment about how Wilson ensured the team’s connection to Western New York.
I’ve never been to Buffalo. I’ve once been through Western New York, as my high school marching band played a gig in Ontario on their way to Boston. I made sure to grab Bills gear at a rest stop, because it was rare to find some the upper Midwest.
Despite the lack of local intimacy, I always felt a kinship toward Buffalo. A small-market team in a cold, snowy climate – that was every Minnesota team I cheered for! Buffalo also hated the Dallas Stars! Those were the little things that gave me a connection to the team early on. Over the years, the internet - team blogs and Twitter in particular - has bridged that gap even more so. But still, reading those comments on Buffalo Rumblings gave me a feeling of an outsider. I hadn’t yet made a pilgrimage to Ralph Wilson Stadium. I haven’t been to Orchard Park, haven’t seen One Bills Drive. The closest I’ve gotten is the miniature stadium that sits on my TV stand.
I knew that Wilson was instrumental in ensuring the team had stayed in Buffalo. I know the Bills are the heartbeat of Buffalo. Reading through those comments still give me chills. It wasn’t just a thank you to an owner from fans, but to an owner from the community. These internet strangers, people I know without knowing, talked about forever being grateful for their memories tailgating at the Ralph. Even after 14 years without the playoffs, the thing that mattered most was that the Bills were in Buffalo.
The story of my Bills fandom actually starts with a depressing moment in Bills history. My dad hates the Cowboys passionately, and that must have rub off on me. It was Super Bowl XXVIII, and the Cowboys opened up a 28-10 halftime lead on Buffalo. According to legend (aka my parents’ retelling of the story), I walked up to the TV at halftime, said "I’ve seen enough," turned it off, and went to bed. The next night, we were saying our evening prayers, and we ended with the usual line: "… and God bless the Minnesota Vikings." Apparently, I thought this wasn’t enough. I added, "and the Buffalo Bills too." That must have been the turning point. I’ve been a Bills fan as long as I can remember.
For the most part, I’m just every Bills fan. I can list the failures and depressing moments. The Drew Bledsoe era (I had a jersey!); 2003 starting with an inspiring 31-0 win over New England, only to be bookended by the 31-0 shutout at the end; the 2004 loss to the Steelers JV squad.; the 4-0 start in 2008; the 5-2 start in 2011. LOSSman, Captain Checkdown… like every Bills fan, I’ve learned to temper my expectations. Believing and loving this team is about leaving yourself vulnerable. It’s worth doing, but you do so at your own risk.
Unlike a lot of Bills fans though, I live in isolation. Growing up on a Mississippi River town and living now in Des Moines, I surround myself with NFC Northerners. I was fortunate growing up. The TV stations that we picked up were from the Wisconsin side of the river – Packers games. My dad got Sunday Ticket so he could watch his beloved Vikings. I sat alone in the basement of the house, watching the Bills by myself. My friends would revel in the fates of the Vikings and Packers. Local sports talk personalities celebrated Brett Favre and questioned Randy Moss’s character. Meanwhile, I read every paragraph of the Sporting News’s weekly team profile and battled our dial-up connection to read The Buffalo News.
I’m no stranger to the idea of teams I love being relocated. I’m old enough to remember losing the North Stars. The Twins were all but contracted in 2001. Though they aren’t my team, it was very difficult to imagine my home state losing the Vikings – and yet that was nearly on the table.
My friends have asked me about the Bills relocation before. It’s a strange thing to grapple with. On one hand, I have literally no other connections to Buffalo. I basically became a Bills fan because the Cowboys were good. It’s pretty much illogical, which is pointed out to me every fall. If the Bills move, people say, I could simply become a Toronto Bills fan or Los Angeles Bills fan. What’s the difference?
Of course, it’s not that simple. It could never be that simple. That’s not the world we live in nowadays. I get to read Bills blogs and interact with Bills fans in comment sections and on Twitter. The internet has compressed so many things. The great example of this is European soccer. A vast majority of Americans don’t have any connection to England. We just picked a team, perhaps one we saw on TV, or one we played FIFA with. For a long time, being a soccer fan meant you didn’t turn on your TV, but fired up your stream. As American fans scattered across the country, we found each other in the same way – the wonderful World Wide Web. An Everton fan born in Rochester shares the same collective experience that I do.
Yet, Buffalo’s noticeably different. It’s a franchise built out of the community and built for the community. The Bills aren’t desperate for a national branding push. They know they aren’t the Cowboys, and they don’t want to waste their time trying to be the Cowboys. They know their bread and butter is Western New York and making sure that people there care. Whatever happens after that is gravy. I just happened to be a Minnesotan that fell for this charming, grassroots type of community.
Perhaps the best comparison actually comes from out west, in the capital of California. I have a friend who became a Sacrament Kings fan while growing up in Chicago. The "why" is not important – the connection he grew to the Kings community is. The Kings were on the chopping block for a long time as a franchise that could move. I know he struggled with the same questions as me about that relocation. The questions of what happens next when you have no connection to the community, but you still identify as part of that fan base. The idea of supporting the franchise after the move feels like betrayal. Feelings of confusion and isolation arise. It’s not my fight, but it hurts so much.
Those same feelings hit me when I read the comments after Ralph Wilson’s death. I can’t imagine how devastated the community would be to lose the Bills. I do know that I don’t want the people I interact with to feel that devastation. And with a move, I do know that the soul of the franchise I love would be irrevocably different. The Los Angeles Bills? How could I root for that?
Well, what about the Vikings? That’s a question that’s often the follow-up. They’re the team of my family and several of my friends. I probably know as much about the Vikings as I do the Bills, as they’re a constant part of my social life.
My feelings about the Vikings won’t change, regardless of what happens. I’m sure I’d cheer for them to do well, as I do now. I would love for my father to celebrate a Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean I could feel the excitement he feels though. My excitement wouldn’t derive from singing "Skol Vikings" or hearing the horn blare. It wouldn’t come from Adrian Peterson trucking a poor cornerback. I don’t share their history and unique brand of heartbreak. I would be cheering for my friends and family, not the team.
I’m obviously not the only isolationist fan in existence. In Minnesota and Iowa, I’ve found Bucs fans, Dolphins fans, and the aforementioned Kings fan – all people who jumped uncrowded bandwagons as kids and find themselves still there. I do feel lucky though. I somehow got to do this during the birth of the internet. Pre-2000, there was no way to talk with Bills fans. That "Interactive TV" feature was a precursor to all the game threads and Twitter reactions we have now.
I also was fortunate to become a Bills fan. Perhaps not in the literal sense of results, but because this is the best group of fans I’ve ever been a part of. Twins fans complain about Joe Mauer. Wolves fans run down Ricky Rubio. I’m a Notre Dame fan, which means I hate about 65 percent of the fan base. Bills fans, from my perspective, are mainly rational. Pessimistic, but rational. I’m sure part of that is that I’m outside of the Buffalo bubble, but there’s something more. The connection between the team and community is real and alive. It doesn’t feel like a corporate, wooden spoon that they’re shoving down your throat. When the season is lost and the playoffs are out of reach, there’s still a sense of hope and joy that comes from victories, rather than the tireless chants of "tank, tank, tank."
So from a Midwesterner to all of you in Western New York: thanks for allowing me a glimpse of this all. Thanks for letting me share in it from thousands of miles away. Thanks for balancing the desire for a winner with the pure passion for the franchise, and not letting one get in the way of the other.
Go Bills. And let’s go make the playoffs, please.