Every fan of the Buffalo Bills can reminisce back to a time where walking into Ralph Wilson Stadium for a game meant seeing bright, peppy Buffalo Jills cheering on the sidelines. Extravagant uniforms, decked out in Bills gear, and in constant possession of a smile, there was never a dull moment with the Jills.
But what actually happened when the football games ended and the cheer practices wrapped? Sure, these women were always perky, spirited, and full of life out on the field, but what about off the field? Over the past month, I have had the pleasure of catching up with a former Jill named Jeanne, learning that although the Jills may no longer be on the field, they are livelier than ever, and have absolutely no intention of fading away.
It all started on a bright, beautiful Western New York day in 1978. It was one of those days that every Buffalonian is eternally grateful for, because it marks the end of winter and suggests that spring is in bloom. Jeanne was driving home when she heard a radio commercial advertising open tryouts for the Jills. Prior to this season, the requirements for these tryouts had been very specific: for example, there was an age requirement of 21, and you had to be married. This time around, the marriage rule had been lifted.
The idea intrigued her. She filled out an application, showed up at the tryouts, and did not make the squad.
"When I originally tried out for the Buffalo Jills in 1978, I thought I had a good tryout," Jeanne told me. "I was disappointed when I found out that I didn’t make it. At that time, Buffalo had a basketball team. Somebody came up to me after my tryout and said, ‘Where were you during the Braves tryouts?’"
Despite her disappointment, Jeanne was not finished yet. That year, she committed to giving her Jills tryout another shot. When the time came, Jeanne listened for the radio announcement, got the application, and set the wheels in motion. Jeanne believes that the first time around, the amount of pressure she felt ended up being detrimental to her tryout.
This time, she went into it determined to have fun, whatever the outcome. This positive attitude ultimately played a role in Jeanne securing a spot as a Jill that year.
"At that point, the tryouts went like this: here is your tryout date, and here is the cheer," Jeanne said. "On the application, you got a choice of a few cheers along with the motions, and you could choose this one or that one. I thought, ‘Okay, this is the one I’m going to do.’ Throughout the year following my first tryout, I had become an avid runner. I was running long distances, and my knees had become very strong. I think that definitely helped me out the second time around. It allowed me to include some gymnastics into my routine. I even included the robot - do you remember that dance?"
Jeanne ended up cheering with the Jills for the next two years.
"That next year, what would have been my fourth tryout and third year cheering, I was getting married and turning 30, so I opted out of tryouts," Jeanne recalled. "I thought there was something weird about turning 30 and being a cheerleader."
Although Jeanne had moved on from the Buffalo Jills organization at the age of 30, she did not stop participating in their events and social gatherings. In 2011, the organization was holding a breast cancer awareness event where they put out an all-call to anyone who had ever cheered with the Jills. That day, 175 current and former Jills performed an on-field dance to Journey hit "Don’t Stop Believing".
"It was such a crazy experience. It’s like a sisterhood," Jeanne explained. "We rekindled with so many old friends that day. Whether you are a current or former Buffalo Jill, there is just this bond between every one of us. When we were standing in the tunnel waiting to go out on the field, we all felt those butterflies and that sensation again. It was like no time had passed. Marching onto that field was really euphoric. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please alert your attention to the Buffalo Jills.’ To hear those words again was just so amazing. When we were dancing, it didn’t matter what way you looked, left, right, backwards, forward, there were Buffalo Jills dancing everywhere."
When I asked Jeanne to reminisce about one of her most memorable experiences as a Jill, she spoke about her participation in the first ever NFL Battle of the Cheerleaders event that took place in 1979 in Hollywood, Florida. In this tournament, two cheerleaders were chosen from every NFL organization to represent their team in a series of various athletic challenges. Over the course of a week, these challenges included matches such as kayaking, obstacle courses, jet skiing, and roller-skating. Jeanne and one of her fellow Jill friends were sent to South Florida to represent the Bills in the event.
"To be selected to represent your team was thrilling," Jeanne said of her selection.
Dallas was the only team that did not send representation. Despite this, the week went on without a hitch, and the competitions continued. Buffalo took first place in the swimming contest. At one point, Buffalo was tied with the Miami Dolphins and one other team for first place overall. The final tiebreaker was a jet-ski contest where the cheerleaders had to get off their jet skis and run to hit a buzzer in order to successfully win the challenge.
"The team to reach their buzzer first was Buffalo, yet, no matter how many times we hit that buzzer, it would not go off," Jeanne said of that event. "Was it just not working? Was it faulty? Was it rigged? To this day, we are unsure. All we know is that we should have won that final challenge. In the end, Miami eventually got from their jet skis to the finish line, and their buzzer did work, so they ended up winning that competition."
Based on the conversations I had with Jeanne, I got the impression that although you can take the Buffalo Jills off the field, you cannot take the Buffalo Jill out of these women. It’s more than just a hobby they once had. It’s a passion that sticks with them throughout their lives.
"When I’m back at the stadium, it feels like I’m still a cheerleader," Jeanne said. "I’m in my sixties now. How can that be? But I’m still a cheerleader. Whether I’m watching these games in the stadium or at home on my television, I’m forever cheering for these guys, and I’m right back on that field feeling 18 again. The thrill never, ever goes away. To this day, it’s still there. We need to bring the Buffalo Jills back. In fact, I have a shirt that reads 'BRING BACK THE JILLS'. I was in Coco Beach for the last Bills game of the season, and I wore it out to the football bar. I’m still hoping to see the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl one day. I want to see that so bad."