A funny thing happens when you tell people that you are a Buffalo Bills fan.
90% of the time, there is a look that passes over people’s faces. It’s the same look that people give you when you tell them that a pet died or that you recently broke up with someone – a tight half smile and a slightly pained glint in their eyes, occasionally paired with some muttering of condolences. They usually pause for a second, then launch into what I like to call the “it gets better” speech, where they mention that the team looks better this year and are only a few players or wins away from being a contender again. How they really are rooting for the Bills, despite their personal team allegiance. How the Bills have such a loyal fan base despite their string of losing seasons and how much they respect that. The people who really can’t help themselves will eventually say that the organization overpaid for the current quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, like this is some nugget of new information that Bills fans never would have thought of on their own (we have). Occasionally, people will ask if I’m from Buffalo, trying to find some reason to explain away this questionable allegiance. But the general sentiment is some mixture of pity, encouragement and incredulousness and people’s hearts are in the right place.
The other 10% say something obnoxious and not at all insightful or helpful. “Buffalo sucks” is a favorite for this set. These people are most likely Jets fans and are to be ignored, because their douchebaggery cannot be helped (I kid, I kid.)
I haven’t always been a Bills fan. While I remember always watching the Super Bowl as a kid, I don’t remember regular season games being on that often at my parents’ house. It wasn’t until I was adult that I found out that my father was a Pittsburgh Steelers fans; this fact somehow never came up during my childhood. While love of sports was something that was ingrained in me by both my parents, it didn’t come with any pressure to bend to familial faithfulness. In fact, my brother, father and I all root for different teams in every major sport.
I liked football – my dad taught me how to throw a spiral when I was little – but never got around to pledging my support to any specific franchise. I was a pretty casual fan and was happy to watch whatever game was on. After I graduated college, I would go out most Sundays to watch the games, but that was more about being social and meeting people than it was out of any burning desire to root for a particular team. I briefly aligned myself with the Dallas Cowboys, as I felt that it was time to “settle down” with a franchise now that I was in my 30s, but that was prompted more by how well I was treated when I toured their stadium when visiting “the Big D.” They let me out on the field to kick an extra point (from regulation) and when I made it, all the grounds crew and other workers let out a cheer for me like I’d just kicked the game winning field goal. The tour guide seemed quite bemused by me (a female “Yankee” who likes football?) and really went out of his way to give me the tour with all the bells and whistles – there are pictures of me on the Dallas Star and diving into the end zone to score a touchdown. So to reciprocate, I decided that the Cowboys were as good a team to root for as any.
However, only a few short months into the next football season, circumstances conspired to make me switch my tepid attachment to the Cowboys. To make a long story short, I became a Bills fan to make someone else happy. I wasn’t pressured to do so, but it seemed like a logical choice at the time; my connection to the Cowboys was minimal and arbitrary and I would be switching to a team that was from my home state. So for the sake of domestic tranquility, I found myself rooting for the team from Buffalo. Had I had more time invested in the Cowboys – or had I laid eyes on Tony Romo – this switch wouldn’t have happened.
Being a new-ish Bills fan means that I missed out on the heartache of the early 90s, when the team went to 4 straight Super Bowls but never left victorious. I was aware of that history, of course; I’d actually bet on the Bills every year with a classmate during their legendary Super Bowl run and wound up buying him lunch every time. So I wasn’t completely in the dark about what I was getting myself into. But to say that I fully anticipated the misery that I had aligned myself with would be incorrect. In fact, if anything, I was lulled into complacency; the first seven games I went to at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills won. The Bills weren’t a powerhouse, obviously, but surely their long sad history was a thing of the past. Now that I was on board, things would be better.
If you know anything about football, you know how naïve I was.
Regardless, I threw myself into supporting my adopted team. For two years, we had season tickets and would routinely make the drive from Albany to Buffalo and back on Sundays. That necessitated getting up at 2 am to get on the road by 3 am. We would arrive in Orchard Park as the parking lots opened at 8 am and would tailgate until game time at 1 pm. We’d cheer on the Bills and then when the game was over, pile back in the car and make the trek back to Albany, this time with game day traffic. If everything went according to plan and the weather cooperated I was usually home by 10 pm – just in time to go to bed and be at work the next morning at 8 am. Of course, weather wasn’t always cooperative and on more than one occasion the drive home took over 7 hours. We did this at least 6 times a season – sometimes the weather was just too severe to even contemplate making the journey. What can I say? When I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. Lack of loyalty has never been one of my problems. Lack of common sense, perhaps. But it was usually a good time, despite the numerous losses and I became an excellent defensive driver and beer pong player because of it.
Of course, the Bills didn’t do much to earn this sort of devotion. Since I officially became a fan in 2005, I have yet to see a winning season, let alone one where the Bills were playoff bound. They often play just well enough that you think there is a chance to win the game, only to have your dreams dashed at the last moment. You try to temper your expectations every year, but somehow you let hope creep in that this year will be different. Without fail, the Bills will win just enough games so that are terrible, but not terrible enough to get a good pick in the next year’s draft. It’s like they can’t even figure out how to lose properly. I already had pessimistic tendencies, but becoming a Bills fan has taken it to a whole different level. I’ll admit that as a Yankees fan, I’ve been spoiled; they have only missed the playoffs once since I became a fan. I often say that being a Bills fan is my way of evening things out. I now have a vague idea of what it felt like to be a Red Sox fans up until 2004, but we don’t even have a curse to blame.
And yet, my fandom endures, despite the fact the sole reason that I became a Bills fan is gone. There are definitely days when I wish I had made a different choice. There have actually been spirited debates at the sports bar that I frequent as to whether I should be able to switch teams due to the change in circumstance. I’ve been made an “honorary fan” of several different franchises by people who feel sorry for the lot I’ve drawn in life. Being a Bills fan can be hard and there are a lot of times when it just isn’t a lot of fun. But for all my posturing, I don’t know if I would switch my allegiance even if Bill Simmons, the unofficial sports czar, gave me his blessing.
Because as miserable as this team can make me, it’s still my team. It’s easy to root for a team when things are good, but to stick by a team when things are bad is real fandom. During the dark seasons, I tell myself that if and when the Bills finally make the playoffs – I dare not even dream of the Super Bowl – it will be all that much sweeter because of how long the fan base has had to wait. I have to believe that after sitting through a game where the Bills lost 6-3 (that’s 3 field goals), there will be some eventual reward for this suffering. Everyone loves an underdog and it doesn’t get much more underdog than the somewhat lovable losers from Buffalo. I’ve also seen first-hand what this franchise means to the city and turning my back on the team would tantamount to turning my back on the great people of Buffalo. And as tempting as it might be to bail, I’m just not willing to do that. Enough people have already turned their back on the city. I won’t be one of them. As I’ve said before, I’m a bitter-ender. As long as the franchise is located in Buffalo, I can’t imagine walking away. (But if the team leaves Buffalo, all bets are off. I’m loyal, but I’m not crazy. Even the Sports Guy says this is a legitimate out).
This past Sunday, I made my first trip back to Orchard Park in over a year, this time with a new travel companion. Concessions were made to logic and the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be; rather than making the trip in one day, I spent the night prior in Rochester. Getting up at 7:30 am on a Sunday never felt so good. No beer pong was played. The Bills, once again, lost the game in heartbreaking fashion. Like all the other fans who filed out of Ralph Wilson Stadium, I wasn’t even that upset. In the sea of blue and red, you saw the same look of resignation and acceptance on people’s faces. Being a Bills fan isn’t for the weak of heart.
This week, the Buffalo Bills have a bye week and will allegedly use their time off to “reevaluate” the team. I’ll be out watching football on Sunday per usual, thankful for the week off from certain torment. I may even use my football “hall pass” to flirt with rooting for other teams, if only temporarily. But come November 4th, I’ll be back in the fold as the Bills face certain defeat at the hands of the Houston Texans.
It’s what fans do.