Fans arrive to tailgate before a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Orchard Park, N.Y., ion Nov. 27, 2016. Testing will replace tailgating in the Bills Stadium’s expansive parking lot when some 6,700 fans will be required to be tested for the coronavirus in order to be allowed to attend Buffalo’s AFC wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. Bill Wippert/Associated Press

 

It had been 27 years since Ken Johnson watched a Buffalo Bills home game at his Rochester, New York home before this season, when the global pandemic closed Bills Stadium to fans, and Lot 2, Abbott Road, Hammer’s Lot and all the other Orchard Park landmarks fell strikingly quiet on fall Sundays.

He favors complete focus on Bills games, and so Johnson retreated to the third-floor attic, alone, while his wife and kids watched downstairs. He placed a television on a dresser, eye-height, and paced around the room.

It didn’t feel that weird, even for a fan who had attended 423 consecutive Bills games and developed both an alter ego – “Pinto Ron,” after his red car and a mistaken identity hardened into lore – and a pregame ritual. He would arrive at Hammer’s Lot about 24 hours before kickoff to tailgate with longtime and yet-to-be-made friends. He would eat chicken wings cooked on the hood of a car and pizza baked in a filing cabinet, drink cherry liqueur out of a bowling ball and, at 11:30 sharp for a 1 p.m. kickoff, allow a crowd to gather as pals plastered him head-to-toe in ketchup and mustard.

“For a Bills fan, a football game is not only a football game,” said Johnson, a 63-year-old software developer. “It’s a big social event. That element is completely gone this year.”

The Bills’ notoriously rambunctious fan base, a group of diehards lovingly christened Bills Mafia who crash through tables, cover themselves in condiments and imbibe Labatt at a staggering volume, has consumed this wondrous season at a forced remove. The pandemic throttled most every inch of the country in most every way. Within the confined universe of the NFL, few places felt the impact more vividly than the tailgate lots in Orchard Park.

Buffalonians waited a generation for a team as good as the AFC East champions that will host the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. Since Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl losses, the Bills tumbled into national irrelevance, having won their last playoff game in 1995. And then came this year, when star receiver Stefon Diggs arrived, young quarterback Josh Allen bloomed and the Bills became a 13-win Super Bowl aspirant.

While the Bills dominated, their fans rejoiced with a tinge of melancholy. The rowdy tailgates disappeared and the stands sat empty. Bills fans had partied for two decades over hopeless teams, had embraced them without condition even through seasons when they worried the franchise could relocate. Older generations know what a great team looks like and the younger ones are finding out, but the only embrace of this great team can be metaphorical.

“They were absolutely head-over-heels in love with every single mediocre football team that took the field for them,” said Steve Tasker, a special teams ace on the Bills’ Wall of Fame and now a talk-show host in Buffalo. “It’s really endearing. This fan base cheered so hard for so many bad football teams. You see them jumping through flaming tables for a team that’s 8-8.”

The Bills will allow 6,700 fans into Bills Stadium for the playoff game, a concession state and local officials made after closing the stadium all year. Johnson plans to attend with his daughter.

“If there wasn’t covid, you’d see the entire city and the entire region erupt in celebrations all over the place,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said this week in a phone conversation. “But we’ve been asking people to celebrate the Bills, to show their enthusiasm and excitement, but to do it smartly, and to do it safely.

“No other stadium, no other team in the nation tailgates like we do in the city of Buffalo,” Brown continued. “We are legendary in how we tailgate. That’s somewhat bittersweet that those celebrations and ways of bringing people together can’t happen.”

Fans have found other ways to celebrate. When the Bills’ plane landed home from Denver at 1:30 a.m. after their division-clinching victory in late December, thousands of fans greeted them at the airport. The city strung a 6-foot-high, 21-foot-long banner across three columns of City Hall commemorating the division title, and fans have driven from miles away just to snap a picture in front of it.

BIRTH OF BILLS MAFIA

In 2011, Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown pass and mourned afterward by asking God, in a tweet, why He had let him down. One week later, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter retweeted Johnson’s plea. Del Reid, like many of his online Bills fan brethren, took offense at Schefter for what they perceived as piling on and took up for Johnson. The teasing led Schefter to block Reid and others. Jokingly leaning into the online villainy, Reid coined a moniker: They were the #BillsMafia.

Reid watched, stunned, as the phrase spread. Players started using it in social media postings. Stevie Johnson himself suggested Reid, who grew up in Tonawanda, create a Twitter account of the appellation. Before long, the Bills’ official account began using #BillsMafia when it mentioned the fan base.

“Part of the reason it’s done well is it wasn’t built in a lab,” Reid said. “We didn’t hire a marketing team to come up with some buzz catchphrase that will resonate with fans and will roll off the tongue real nicely.”

The Bills Mafia name has grown associated with the wilder elements of fandom. Reid, once a season-ticket holder, is not one of the rowdies, and he feels the perception is overblown.

“It’s not so prevalent you have to fear for your life,” Reid said. “Most people are sitting back grilling and having some beers and talking about how much they hate the Patriots.”

As the Bills wandered through the competitiveness wilderness for the first two decades of this century, the tenor of Bills fandom hardly abated. Other than the NHL’s Sabres, the Bills are Buffalo’s only major sports franchise. The weather breeds community, a city hunkered down together, and it flows to the football team.

“Yeah, it sucks when they go 3-13,” Reid said. “But you don’t drop a family member when you’re going through a tough time. You love them through it.”

Reid only attended about half the home games after his two daughters got older, the pull of family keeping him home. He struggled to rope them into Bills fandom. The pandemic has allowed him, like so many others, to connect profoundly with family. They watched every single snap together this season. Reid dropped his two season tickets a few years ago, feeling it unfair to leave his wife and daughters behind if they didn’t want to go.

“Next year,” Reid said, “we’re going to have four tickets.”

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