From the cheap seats: Rebuilding the Bills

The Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots have a rivalry that extends back to the American Football League’s inaugural season in 1960.The Patriots have nearly always defeated the Bills—both on and off the field. The Patriots’ brand, management, and overall acclaim have always left the Bills begging for a chance to, just once, beat the Patriots at their own game. When I entered Ralph Wilson Stadium on a breezy Sunday afternoon, I could easily identify among the sea of white and red the different shades of blue—Bills’ royal and Patriots’ navy—as well as the raging animosity that separated their miniscule distinction.

To be clear, Bills fans didn’t shuffle into their seats with real expectations of a victory. But as a heavily inebriated man once screamed into the parking lot years ago at my first Buffalo-New England face-off, “The Bills suck, but that’s okay.” Besides, this game wasn’t about the score—though I can’t begin to imagine the frenzy had the Bills won. It was the introduction a new era, both figuratively and foundationally.

When Ralph C. Wilson Jr. brought the Bills to life on October 28, 1959, he ignited a passion in the city that was previously dormant. Bills fans continued to mourn following his death this past March, but the real fear lay in the fate of the team. Terry and Kim Pegula eased the city’s anxiety with their purchase of the team and their subsequent announcement that the Bills still belonged to Buffalo. The annual home game against the Pats is always dramatic, but now it held a new significance as the first official game under their new leadership, which was confirmed midweek.

It was an inauspicious start for Terry. Score aside, the fans weren’t up to their usual passionate antics. Before kick-off, every fan in the sold out stadium jumped and cheered as Terry gave a rousing opening speech, emphasizing the message of, “One team. One city. One goal. One Buffalo.” Free t-shirts with the logo “One Buffalo” were thrown into the crowd as the audience swayed along to Buffalo native and Goo Goo Doll’s frontman John Rzeznik’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It couldn’t have been any more Buffalo.

Things went sour quickly: Cheering turned into jeering, which turned into personal attacks as the Patriots scored field goal after field goal. This wasn’t the city full of hope for the impossible; these were people taking each field goal as a personal offense. Perhaps it was all part of the nature of competition, but things turned ugly as a fan in front of me attempted to hit a man for wearing a Patriots jersey following the visitors’ second touchdown. Behind me, drunk Patriots fans were screaming obscenities at the Bills fans surrounding me, who responded with profanities of their own. Sure, the Bills were losing, but the fans were losing it.

Bills fans have long been known for going to the extreme in their celebration. You have to be committed to be willing to sit through white-out games—where the snow gets so thick you can’t see the field—multiple times a year, only to have your team lose each time. But even with the changing ownership and the news that the Bills would stay, the atmosphere wasn’t one of expected exuberance, but rather an underwhelming disappointment.

I know I’m not the only Bills fan who hoped—perhaps against hope—that we would see that spark that kept the Bills alive throughout the golden era of the early ’90s. We got rid of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and found a new owner, and a win against the Patriots would vault the Bills to sole possession of the AFC East lead. But the fans were weak, and our team was weaker, soundly losing 37-22. Hopefully next game, the fans will rally to their usual manic selves, but for one of the biggest games of the season, the passion just wasn’t there. Clearly, the fans are getting tired of decades of being let down. Ideally, Terry will fill the leadership void and help make this team greater than fans could ever dream—it is his “one goal,” after all.

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