Sports  Fear and loathing in Buffalo, NY

On being a fan despite a decade of losing

Some establishing facts:

+ The National Football League (NFL)’s Buffalo Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999.
+ That year, they lost on the last play of the game, on a lateral kickoff return, a gimmick play rarely run since.
+ The Bills haven’t finished with a winning record since the 2004-05 season.
+ That year, the Bills had the chance to make the playoffs if they won their final game of the season; they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backups.
+ The Bills made the Super Bowl four years in a row (1990-93) and lost all of them, losing the first by a missed field goal as time expired.
+ Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, had 20 wins and 2 losses in his career against the Bills going into this season.
+ I drove 15 hours (round-trip) last weekend to see the Bills open their season against the Patriots. It was a sellout crowd, one of the loudest I’d ever heard.

* * *

The Bills are a punchline, a shorthand for futility. They’re also my favourite football team, and have been as long as I can remember. (My sports memories do begin somewhere around 1999, with the aforementioned playoff loss sticking out the most.) In essence, the entirety of my Buffalo Bills experience has been watching them lose in increasingly gut-wrenching ways.

The Bills haven’t just been bad. Instead, the Bills have developed a special way of losing: in games against better teams, the Bills have a knack for staying close or leading for nearly the entire game before screwing up at the end. When the Bills do win, it’s usually against a ‘worse’ team – yes, they exist – and often by the skin of their teeth. Again: I drove 15 hours to watch this team play; going into this game, oddsmakers had pegged them as a ten-point underdog. Also: I was excited to be there.

I’ve never really been able to explain being a sports fan, especially considering the fact that I fervently follow three very bad teams (the Bills, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Chicago Cubs), with a combined zero championships since 1908. I grew up in Chicago, so the idea of a regional connection to Buffalo is tenuous. The only thing that makes sense is a familial connection – from a young age, I spent my Sundays watching football with my Dad, where I learned most of my favourite curse words. Despite not winning very often, I grew to love watching the games with him, which eventually led to loving the team, too. But now I’m away from home, and still yelling at the TV, still yelling and cursing in the name of this crappy team.

Every year, hope springs anew for Bills fans, and it’s no different for me, despite 14 years of evidence that things will not change. This year, the Bills hired a new coach and drafted a new quarterback in the first round of April’s draft. I spent $170 to see the debut of this coach and quarterback, because, in the haze of fanhood, I was hoping – almost convinced – it would be the start of something different.

I drove out Saturday, arrived in the Buffalo area that night, woke up on Sunday around 8:30 a.m. so that my friends and I –about 12 in total – could go tailgate outside the stadium and, well, you guessed it, drink. My attire for the day: a baseball cap with BILLS written in huge letters across the front, a long sleeved shirt with the throwback logo and BILLS written on it and Zubaz pants, which are Bills colored pajama pants from the 1990s. I was dressed as an idiot.

I don’t want to glorify it like some frat-bro fantasy, but what I’m trying to say is: drinking is inextricably linked to Bills games, probably because a) it’s Buffalo, where the bars close at 4 a.m. and b) the Bills have been so horrendously bad for so long that a large portion of the crowd – around 70,000 people – take up drinking to make the experience somewhat better. At this point, my friends and I are half-ironically talking up the Bills, talking up the beginning of the ‘[new quarterback] EJ Manuel era.’ (Related: one analyst called the selection of EJ Manuel a waste of a draft pick.) It’s only half ironic because buried deep, no matter how much we don’t want to admit it, we actually believe that this could go well.

* * *

After a lengthy wait to get into the stadium – NFL security is only slightly faster than a packed airport – my friends and I found our seats, up in the bleachers. It’s one of the few stadiums left in the league that is built to be loud. From the beginning of the game, the whole crowd stands and yells “OHHHH” on every Patriots third down. Despite this, the game starts as expected, and the Bills go down 10-0 in the first quarter.

Quick aside – I went to this game with an actual Patriots fan, one of the most loud and obnoxious fans I know (also, incidentally, one of the most knowledgeable and passionate football fans I know). At this point, he’s so confident the Patriots are going to win, and, not wanting to get beat up, he’s mock-cheering for the Bills, infuriating me and my friends because we know he’s not sincere, and we know he’s mocking our own pathetic hopes. At one point, another fan discovers that my friend likes the Patriots. He asks: “What’s it like to be a Patriots fan?” My friend replies: “You guys [Bills fans], you have fun. We have fun too, but we also win.” It is the most depressingly true statement I hear all weekend.

Then, something amazing happens – the Bills return a fumble 74 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, and are back in it. The teams trade scores before half, and it’s 17-14 Patriots at half. EJ Manuel has just thrown for his first career touchdown. The crowd is freaking out.

Anyway, the Bills get the ball to start the second half, go on an awesome touchdown drive, and lead 21-17 in the third quarter. The crowd now has completely lost its shit. But despite my joy, my elation, there is doubt. Because I’ve seen this before. We’ve all seen it before – they lead for most of the game, then blow it at the end. Going into the fourth, the Bills are up 21-20. We’re still standing up on third downs, still freaking out when the defense makes a stop. But I suspect that I’m not alone in fearing – nay, knowing – that it will end the same way, with a loss. Every single piece of evidence from watching this team points that way.

The offense sputters in the fourth quarter, punting on every drive. On a short third down, our best receiver drops a pass that would’ve extended the drive. The defense keeps holding until Tom Brady, with four minutes left in the game, does what he does – win. He methodically drives his team down the field, picking apart the Bills. There are several third downs on the drive, and each time we stand and cheer and shout and scream but they don’t get the stop. They never do. The Patriots get into field goal range, run out the clock, and kick a gimme for the win. 23-21. Another Bills loss.

Why? Why keep subjecting myself to this? That’s the question that is stuck in my head. Even after the game, we kept saying that we knew it was coming. We also kept saying that it was better than expected, that at least we kept it close, that there was hope. That’s it, really, hope. Despite every single thing in the past decade telling us to stay away, droves of us come back to watch each game. Hope defies rationality; it keeps us standing up on third down, because this one – no, really, this one – could be different.