The Buffalo Bills and I have a lot in common. We were both conceived in 1959 and emerged into the world (and the playing field) in July of 1960. That I was born in Buffalo means I was born a Buffalo Bills fan. That doesn’t make me much different from any other red (and white and blue) -blooded Greater Western New Yorker. Of course we cheer our team (and curse it, depending on the effectiveness of the particular play call). Actually, we don’t just cheer our team, we eat and breathe and live and die our team. We are the very definition of “fan” (as in “fanatical”).
How do you know you’re a rabid Bills fan? For one thing, you felt personally attacked and oppressed by the national media during the Bills’ four-year Superbowl run (they, along with the NFL, were out to get us, weren’t they?). But die hard Bills fans don’t limit themselves to the game. For instance, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat (or a liberal or conservative), you wanted Jack Kemp to be President of the United States (simply because he was the Championship winning quarterback of the Buffalo Bills). Finally, no matter if you’re black or white (or red or yellow), true BILLievers wanted the jury to find OJ innocent.
I never bought into the idea that the Dallas Cowboys were “America’s Team.” I thought that was merely a clever marketing ploy. A quick research effort proved my hypothesis correct, although not in the way I expected. It was NFL Films, not the Cowboys themselves, that first called the Cowboys “America’s Team” (in the 1978 season highlight reel). Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm, a former television and public relations executive, knew exactly what to do. He embraced the term and ran with it.
Ironically, famed Cowboys coach Tom Landry and his players initially rejected the audacious moniker. They realized it would provide “bulletin board fodder” for their opponents. For those of you not familiar with the term, it derives from the tacking up on the team’s bulletin board any published trash talking the team you were playing next week might have said. Good coaches know this is an effective way to psychologically motivate your team against the other team. That’s why good coaches constantly remind their players not to say anything that might end up on somebody’s bulletin board.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, the team didn’t suffer too much (except for maybe a few games against their arch rival the Washington Redskins) from being called “America’s Team.” They eventually learned to live with and accept it.
During the Bills Superbowl run, they became, in a way, America’s Team. It helped that by the early 1990s, there were more ex-Buffalonians living across the country than there were real Buffalonians still living in Buffalo. That gave the team a national following that matched or even exceeded the Cowboys. No other team could boast the number of game day “Buffalo” bars in other cities. Even their proud resiliency (exemplified by Bruce Smith’s ominous “We’re baaack!” upon the team’s fourth straight AFC Championship) appeals to the typical American’s attraction to the rebel spirit. (For those of you who doubt the potential of this assertion, recall the game in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago. Though three thousand miles away, the stadium was awash with the blue of Bills jerseys. During this week’s game, a friend of mine came up to me and confirmed this. He was in LA on business and attended the game. There were probably more Bills fans there than Rams fans.)
But once the team was hexed by the Flutie Curse (don’t get me started on that), it lost any credible claim to the “America’s Team” appellation.
That was, until this weekend.
Throughout the nation, folks who might not even follow football cheered for the Bills. Even die-hard New England Patriot fans wanted to see the Bills not just win, but win convincingly.
For the singular reason of Colin Kaepernick.
For those of you who disregard pop culture news, Kaepernick decided this past summer to no longer stand during the National Anthem prior to the game. He claims to have done this because “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Despite reports of support, as an eyewitness to the game, I can report I saw none. Quite the contrary. I can attest to the fact that Kaepernick’s decision to turn an athletic contest into a political forum was met with a resounding rebuttal.
And this is why the Buffalo Bills – especially the fan base they represents – is America’s team.
Sure, they booed Kaepernick when he walked onto the field, but they do that with all opponents. Truth be told, those boos were a bit louder, but not as loud as, say, when Bryan Cox (the Miami Dolphin linebacker who once gave Bills fans the finger) entered the arena.
No, the real measure of the fans anger came during the national anthem. Before the first note, while Kaepernick and two other 49ers defiantly knelt, the entire stadium erupted with a – you might call “resilient” – chant of “USA! USA! USA!” But the real magic came during the anthem itself. Usually, fans just respectfully listen as the vocalist sings the words. This time, the whole bowlful of fans joined in. It was loud, although difficult to hear at first. In fact, it was almost like all the Whos down in Whoville coming out on Christmas morning to sing… “It started in low, then it started to grow.”
At first it sounded like it was the usual reverberated echo of the vocalist’s audio being pumped through the stadium’s speakers. But, as we got towards the middle of the verse, it was clear it was the tens of thousands of people in the stands. It became obviously clear the fans were leading the way when, as the vocalist paused a bit longer than normal during one part of the song, the rest of the stadium came in a beat or two before he did!
The last time I saw this patriotic fervor during the national anthem at a Bills game, it was the 1991 AFC Championship (a 51-3 victory over the Raiders) immediately after the start of the Gulf War.
If it was Saddam Hussein who united us in 1991, then we can certainly thank Colin Kaepernick for uniting us in 2016.
And this wasn’t lost on the social media chat rooms. From all across the land, comments in support of Bills fans could be seen. And the Bills fans did not let up. During the game they continually harped on Kaepernick. Bills Coach Rex Ryan said that it’s difficult for any team not to respond to such a vocal stadium. It’s like a continuous feedback loop. Fans cheer wildly to inspire their team to make great plays. Their Team doesn’t want to disappoint fans so it makes great plays. Fans cheer wildly after a great play and louder to inspire their team to make great plays.
This is “bulletin board fodder” come alive, and this is what we beheld before us at the game. Yes, Kaepernick at least in the first half proved elusive scrambling out of the back, but when forced to pass, his pitiful throws betrayed why he was consigned to the bench in the first place. Indeed, take out the blown coverage touchdown pass (itself underthrown), and Kaepernick would have thrown for barely more than 100 yards.
It’s amazing how those – including longtime sports journalists – who defend Kaepernick’s grandstanding as “his right to express his opinion” fail to recognize what Tom Landry saw decades ago. If you do or say anything that lands on the bulletin board of your opponent, you are doing your team a disservice.
The Bills – and the Bills fans – have no special reason to dislike the 49ers (unless you’re still upset that OJ left the Bills for the 49ers). Yet, today they did. And they did so with gusto. And the Bills players responded.
And there are 45 reasons to thank Colin Kaepernick for this (the final score was 45-16).
And that’s why so many in America are thanking the Buffalo Bills – the Real America’s Team.