My own NFL dreams—as a fan, that is—were dashed pretty much from the get-go this season, along with all of the other area Pittsburgh Steelers die-hards. I caught one game at my parents’ house (with my Steel City native of a dad) and then a single playoff game, which of course, the Steelers lost, unceremoniously punting them from the season. Hey, there’s always next season.
But if you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, it’s been a completely different story.
After decades of heartbreak, including a quartet of lost Super Bowls (all in a row), this year, it’s downright en vogue to be a member of the Bills Mafia, as its fan base has come to be known—and even more so, if you were always a card-carrying member like Rob Simson, who calls Albany home and works as a coastal program coordinator at New York’s department of state. (Full disclosure: Rob and I are lifelong family friends, and our parents were before that, too.)
Rob, who grew up in the Utica area and played college football for St. Lawrence University, has been a Bills fan for as long as he can remember. He’s suffered through all of the modern-era team’s most infamous blunders, including kicker Scott Norwood’s heartbreaking “wide right” boot at the conclusion of Super Bowl XXV, which saw the Bills lose to another one of the Empire State’s teams, the New York Giants, in 1991. (Rob is quick to emphasize that, at least in his opinion, the Bills are the state’s only true football team, as both the Giants and Jets play their home games in New Jersey). The year of Norwood’s missed 47-yarder, Rob was a freshman in high school. “I didn’t think too much of it then,” he says. “I don’t know. I was disappointed. I wasn’t as huge of a football fan as I am now, but I had just started playing football and was really interested in it and had followed the Bills throughout that season, and I was just stunned when they didn’t win the game. I just remember thinking: It shouldn’t have come down to that field goal; they should’ve beaten the crap out of the Giants.” And it’s not like the Bills had a bad team (or teams) throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. In fact, they had rosters that rival some of the greatest teams in NFL history—on paper, of course—with a string of future Hall of Famers holding down the fort, including quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver Andre Reed and defensive end Bruce Smith, among others.
Now, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to describe the Bills’ last three decades or so as being first or second cousins—emotionally, at least—to what it was like being a Boston Red Sox fan for the 85 years after the team parted ways with its young, lanky pitcher-hitter, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Bills fans, too, have had to deal with a bit of a “curse,” what with Norwood’s wide-righter in ’91, the three other consecutive Super Bowl losses and then the so-called “Music City Miracle,” in which the Tennessee Titans pulled off a game-winning play with 16 seconds left in the 2000 playoffs, much to the dismay of Bills fans everywhere, including Rob. But just like Red Sox Nation, which seemingly got to the brink just to be let down myriad times before 2004, when the curse was finally broken, the Bills Mafia has found a way to live and let live with every new season, enjoying the ride no matter how miserable the outcome has been. “The thing about the Bills is they’ve had such great players,” says Rob. “There have been guys who are probably never going to make it to the Hall of Fame, like Eric Moulds and Fred Jackson—two of my favorite players. And these guys had great careers, but some of them never even made it to the playoffs with the Bills.” That, and there’s sort of this shared, preemptive feeling that the sky is going to fall—a herd mentality, if you will—that brings Bills fans, from every walk of life, together. “Every year, there’s something that gets you fired up,” Rob explains. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh, we got [head coach] Rex Ryan now! Rex Ryan took the Jets to the AFC championship game two years in a row! That’s going to turn us around!'” Then, of course, comes the bitter pill to swallow that is reality: Ryan didn’t do diddly squat for the Bills. “Or the next year,” says Rob. “‘We finally drafted a quarterback! This is the year for JP Losman! It’s going to be great!’ and then nothing happens.” The same, he says, could be said of current Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who took his time getting the team in order. “I did not watch last year’s playoffs or the year before’s, with the Bills in them, with any sort of joy,” says Rob. “Because, in the back of my mind was, we barely had a winning record, this team is not all that great, and sure enough, we didn’t win.”
All of that misery fans like Rob have accrued throughout the years was put in the rearview this season. It’s been good to be a Bills fan. Wonderful even. And, well, even though there’s a deadly pandemic wreaking havoc across the country, the NFL still decided to play its season, and what do you know? With New England Patriots quarterback “Tom Terrific” Brady jetting down to play for Tampa Bay, the always formidable Pats stunk, opening up a cross-dimensional gateway that helped the Bills end their regular season sitting atop the AFC East with a 13-3 record. That Bills team then went on to win the first two rounds of the playoffs, knocking off the Indianapolis Colts in the first round and the Baltimore Ravens in the second. This coming Sunday, January 24, at 6:40pm, the Bills will be at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO, to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. If the Bills win the game, the team will punch its first ticket to the Super Bowl since 1994. “This year, it’s been awesome, but there’s always 15 percent of me thinking, ‘How the hell are they going to screw me over this year? Is it ‘wide right’ or the ‘Music City Miracle?'” says Rob. “[But] I’m so happy and impressed with the makeup of the team [this year].” And Rob says it’s really been something special to watch the Bills’ young quarterback, Josh Allen, mature into the team leader he is today. “It’s like watching The Natural,” says Rob, “this young guy who grew up in Northern California. How’d he get his arm strength? Oh, of course! By throwing rocks out of a field on the potato farm he grew up on. Come on!” Rob’s not even sure that that story is true—he heard it, believed it, continually parrots it and still hasn’t verified it—but it’s all part of the sheer joy that comes with this year and this team and being a diehard Bills fans. (Author’s note: Indeed, Allen told an ESPN reporter at the NFL Combine that he got his arm strength from throwing rocks at dumpsters, but he grew up on a cotton farm, not a spud one.)
As Rob mentioned earlier, his love for the Bills has only gotten stronger with age. After graduating from St. Lawrence and hanging up his football cleats, he entered law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, living in the Western New York city for four years. He describes life there as comparable to living in a small town (Buffalo has a population of approximately 255,000, by the way). “Everybody’s friendly, and you’d always be ending up at the bar talking to someone about last week’s game,” says Rob. There, he also got introduced to the Bills’ world-renowned tailgating scene, which is known for its next-level foodstuffs, libations, Zubaz worship and WWE-like table-slamming game. “The tailgating experience is absolutely, unbelievably fun and exciting…unless, of course, you’re wearing a Dolphins or Patriots jersey,” says Rob, tongue firmly in cheek. “But then again, you should know better.” Don’t judge him, though; in his many years of Bills fandom, Rob has still yet to do a table-slam, but he has shared the same rarified air as Bills legendary superfan, “Pinto Ron,” who has become well known among fans for his loyalty to the team, out-of-control culinary feats and being hosed down by fellow fans with ketchup and mustard.
Somewhat ironically, the icing on the cake for Bills fans this season—at least for those that are not regular tailgaters—has been the fact that they’ve been able to enjoy their team playing its best football during COVID, a time when there’s not much else to do or smile about. OK, so “tailgating” has temporarily become synonymous with “superspreading,” and the usually animated sports bar scene has become much more subdued and socially distanced. But there’s still something. Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who shut down the entire state at one point, chipped in, launching a pilot COVID-testing program so that Bills fans could actually watch their team play in the playoffs at their home stadium. (At the Bills’ second playoff matchup, in which the team beat the Ravens, 7,800 fans were tested, turning up just a 1.4 percent COVID positivity rate.) Cuomo didn’t even offer that option to the New York Yankees! But Rob tells me he isn’t usually the type of Bills fan that gets too, too raucous when watching his team play; he’s more of a few-friends-at-the-bar type of guy, or simply just watches a game by his lonesome—”mostly because of the swearing,” he admits. (He’s a father of two children.) “The last game when they had that Pick 6, I clapped my hands so hard that after I was done clapping, I thought I had no muscle left in my arms,” he says.
It goes without saying that the Bills’ matchup against the Chiefs this Sunday, on their home turf, is not going to be an easy one to win for the Bills—but it’s not altogether crazy to believe that the team has what it takes to get to Super Bowl Sunday. Case in point: The Chiefs’ standout star, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, went down with a concussion during his team’s win against the Cleveland Browns last weekend, but due to stringent NFL protocols regarding concussed players, whether Mahomes plays in this Sunday’s game is still up in the air. Which may open up a second cross-dimensional portal for the team, through which they might step right into February and a Super Bowl game versus either the Green Bay Packers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that latter of which features their old nemesis Tom Brady. “Without Mahomes in, it makes a big difference,” says Rob. “I would definitely say it makes a bigger difference than [the Ravens’ mid-game loss of quarterback] Lamar Jackson, because Mahomes can actually throw the ball.” All swipes at competitors’ QBs aside, Rob adds: “The Bills [have been finding] a way to win, and I’m surprised how confident I feel—even if Mahomes [plays]. I definitely think the Bills belong there. The only thing I get worried about is Josh Allen playing ‘hero ball.'” Rob says that he learned that phrase from somebody else and has been using it ever since. It refers to Allen’s penchant, sometimes, to attempt to turn ugly plays, like fumbles, into positive ones, which then explode in his face and become even uglier ones. “As long as he [realizes] he doesn’t need to do everything, I think we’ll do well,” says Rob.
So, this Sunday, Rob will be watching the game from his Capital City home—he has the kids that day—and his game-time spread will likely include Utica Club beer (of course) and possibly even some buffalo wings (of course). Are his kids at all interested in becoming capos in the Bills Mafia? I ask him. “My son, Ollie, is into it,” says Rob. “He got into it, because a couple of times, he got to stay up late. He did tell me, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be a Buffalo Bills fan.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s your choice. But you’re going to have to be the one that calls Uncle Geoff and makes him cry.'” As it turns out, it’s pretty emotional being a Bills fan—but it’s also pretty damned awesome. “Several times, we’ve rented an RV and gone out to a Bills’ game,” says Rob, “which is absolutely phenomenal, but the thing I wish someone would do is [recreate] the food at the tailgate. Everyone’s going to say, ‘Oh, there’s all sorts of wings. But it’s Western New York, so you’ve got guys out there who have got bear steaks and elk sausage. We went one year and marinated a bunch of chunks of venison in red wine. There’s not a lot of salads there.”
You can almost picture it: the mix of high-end and budget RVs, parked door to door, with men, women and children in full Bills regalia, standing shoulder to shoulder, walking from tailgate to tailgate—the smell of grilled meat hanging heavy in the air, that odor of a thousand tiny spills of Labatt Blue or Utica Club or Saranac on the asphalt. And out of the corner of your eye, you see a grown man, first kneeling, then pounding a beer, then leaping into the air and crashing through a table. And you realize you’re in heaven.