I must have been ten or twelve years old when my father took my brother and me to the old Rockpile—War Memorial Stadium—on Buffalo’s east side to watch the Buffalo Bills take on the Washington Redskins. It was forever ago. The Bills quarterback was Jack Kemp, who went on to become a U.S. Congressman. The Redskins quarterback was Sonny Jurgenson. I think I fell in love with the Bills on that warm September evening in a stadium full of cheering fans and with a hot dog in my hand. It was a time when I was playing little league football for the very unmighty St. Mark Lions 90-pound football team.
Now it’s fifty some odd years later and boy have I been through hell. I had no idea being a Bills fan could lead to such trauma. I mean, it’s just a sport. It doesn’t really matter. And yet.
I was reminded yet again of the pain on Sunday night when the Bills had just scored to take a 36-33 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs with only 13 seconds remaining in the AFC divisional playoffs. For sure, the Bills had sealed a victory in a wild back and forth game. But in the remaining 13 seconds, with superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes at the helm, KC went down the field, kicked a field goal to tie the game, and then won the game in an overtime period in which the Bills never had a chance to get the ball.
Elation turned to deflation. My stomach hurt, my head ached. My son almost exploded and I felt guilty for raising a child who had the destiny to become a Bills fan. I couldn’t turn off the television fast enough. Owen sprinted for his room, where he cursed into his pillow. Immediately I started with the self-talk: Why do you care about a stupid football game so much? You have to stop this nonsense. You waste too much energy on this. You’ve got more important things to focus on.
This could have been the year for the Bills. They had a stacked roster. They were on a hot streak. They finally had a quarterback in Josh Allen as good as any in the league. But their coach made a few questionable decisions and the defense couldn’t make a stop at the end.
“Thirteen Seconds” will now be added to the lore of the Bills, along with other endings so heartbreaking for my team that they have names: Wide Right in the Superbowl and the Music City Miracle loss at Tennessee. The franchise is known for crushing defeats.
They call Bills fans the Bills Mafia. They’re known for partying hard and jumping from heights onto folding tables and crashing through. They spray themselves with mustard and ketchup while tailgating before games. They sell out the stadium when it’s zero degrees. I went to some Bills games in my day and had a few sideline passes when I worked for a newspaper. It was an era of mostly mediocre teams and in the days before table crushing.
Bills Mafia are also known for raising money for charities. Earlier this year they raised money for an association that helps the visually impaired—because the refs in one of the Bills games missed several crucial calls and therefore must have been blind. When their star defensive player, Tre’Davious White, tore his ACL earlier this year, they raised $120,000 for a food bank in White’s hometown. The fans are generous, dedicated, and once again despondent.
Mostly the Bills connect me to my siblings and my Buffalo childhood, something I never want to forget and to always feel passion and nostalgia for. So many years have passed.
It’s over for another year. In some ways I’m relieved: I don’t have to worry about them losing another Super Bowl—they’ve already lost four—but in other ways I’m experiencing grief.
During the game, I traded texts back and forth with friends and family all of whom were watching the game and cheering on the Bills. At the end, things got pretty quiet. We were all stunned. I sent a last text to everyone: “Next year.” But I don’t know how many more years I have left.