After living above the Pizzeria on South Park Avenue in Blasdell, my grandparents moved to Lake Avenue in Orchard Park. It wasn’t more than three miles away, but they decided to go to a new parish, one closer to their new home. Our Lady of Sacred Heart sits on Abbott Road just north of the intersection with Lake Avenue, about a mile away from what would soon become Rich Stadium, home of Western New York’s National Football league team the Buffalo Bills.
At the time the Bills still played their games in downtown Buffalo on a field lovingly referred to as “The Rockpile,” (it was officially known as War Memorial Stadium). However, the team regularly practiced on an open field next to the Best Western Motel on Mile Strip Road in Blasdell. I remember driving by those practices. It was classic sandlot. Dressed in drab white practice uniforms much plainer than you’d find on a modern high school team, I watched them run plays. They’d kick up a cloud of dust on the nearly barren field.
The Bills didn’t win many games in that period of the late 1960s. This was after winning two straight AFL championships and losing a third to Kansas City (who then lost to Green Bay in the first ever AFL-NFL World Championship, later known as “Super Bowl I”). Still, they were our team. They faithfully represented the heart of their community. Professional pay being low, many players had to find second jobs just to make ends meet. They really were a part of the community, just like several prominent players from the Bills’ 1990s Super Bowl run continue to be a part of Western New York.
You could feel this sense of “oneness” during the celebration of Mass at Sacred Heart. When we moved to Rochester in January of 1971 (after spending a month – including Christmas – living at that Best Western Motel on Mile Strip Road until our house in Chili was ready), we’d go to Sacred Heart while visiting my grandparents on weekends. During football season, the priest knew the priorities of his parishioners. We would often pray during Mass for the Bills. It never worked but it gave us a sense of communal purpose. We shared in the joys, we shared in the sorrows, but the point is we shared.
We stood with the Bills, through thick and thin. Life around that part of Buffalo was tough. The steel plant, long a fixture, imposed layoffs with increasing frequency, an unfortunate victim of the travails of not only the normal economic cycle, but the secular trend towards global competition. My father was lucky. He escaped the blue collar of the rolling mill for the white collar of the desk as a safety engineer for an insurance company. That’s what got him transferred to the Rochester office and caused us to move. Others weren’t so lucky. When the population declined enough to make Western New York politically irrelevant in the early 1970s, it seemed like the malaise would last forever.
But that incessant pounding of fate only made us more resilient. While most communities would have succumbed to the week-long blizzards experienced in the late 1970s, we wore them like a white badge of courage Nothing represented the nadir of the 1970s than the Bills’ oh-for-the-decade losing streak to the hated rival Miami Dolphins. Still, we stood with the Bills. When the Bills finally defeated the Dolphins on opening day of the 1980 season, that community of fans expressed their joy like communities of football fans have always done – they stormed the field and tore down the goal posts.
Through four straight Super Bowl losses we stood with the Bills. Whereas other cities might have run him out of town, we gave the normally reliable Scott Norwood a hero’s welcome following his missed game-winning field goal in the first Super Bowl. We stood with Scott Norwood, we stood with Jim Kelly after his four interceptions in the Super Bowl against the Redskins, and we stood with Thurman Thomas as he forgot his helmet at the start of that same game. Perhaps we stood proudest with Don Beebe as he raced 65+ yards down the sideline to strip the ball from Leon Lett to prevent a meaningless “icing on the cake” touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII. The Cowboys were leading 52-17 late in the fourth quarter, but Beebe didn’t give up. And neither did we.
Sadly, we can no longer stand with the Bills. More precisely, after 18 straight years as a season ticket holder and long-time attendee (going back to Rich Stadium’s inaugural pre-season), I can no longer stand for the Bills. For whatever reasons, the Buffalo Bills organization – or perhaps the NFL – has been eroding the ability of hard core fans to support their team. It began when they closed off access to seats in the first two rows behind the players’ bench. Those were my seats. I impressed clients by being able to sit so close to the players. But in the waning days of the Wilson ownership, the powers that be decided people standing in the first two rows to see the game above the player’s heads interfered with those sitting behind them.
It gets worse.
Now we can’t stand no matter where we sit. (In recognition of my loyal longevity as a season ticket holder, the Bills relocated my seats to Row 3, still the “first” row since no one can sit in the two rows ahead of us.) At the critical Miami Dolphins game on Christmas Eve day, stadium security constantly harassed our section (135) to sit down. Meanwhile, we could plainly see the Dolphins’ fans across the stadium standing without reprisal. It was though we were being singled out in front of the whole team and told to go sit on the bench while the others continued to play.
This was worse than unfair, it was stupid.
I realize stadium security was only following orders, but the entire “no standing” policy is misguided. Well, that’s being charitable. It’s dumb. It’s a policy only a naïve bean counter with no sense for the spirit of community can come up with. Frankly, it’s illogical.
Consider this: Throughout the game, the Jumbotron continually informs spectators to call the Bills if there are unruly fans nearby. On the surface, this makes sense. If you see a fight starting, it’s good to have security there before it breaks out. On the other hand, since standing is now a forbidden action (with the exception of “exciting” plays), fans can complain to security for something as innocent as stretching one’s legs.
Let’s think about this for a moment. We all know there is such a thing as a home field advantage. This advantage is maximized when the vibrant excitement of the crowd reverberates throughout the stadium. The best way to accomplish this is to stand and shout. That’s what you do at sporting events. In fact, the more your team wins, the more apt you are to stand and shout, especially for important games.
Now, let’s say you are a fan of the opposing team. You don’t want to see the home fans disrupt the play of your team. The best way to prevent this is to find the sections containing the most ardent fans, buy a seat there, and complain whenever those fans start to stand and shout. Given the Bills stated policy is “no standing” (among other things), the team is now obligated to send a security officer to that section and force people to sit down.
You see, no one truly interested in giving the team the best chance to win at home would ever consider a “no standing” policy. And yet, someone in the Wilson front office made that decision, and the Pegula’s have yet to change it. We are left to wonder, if winning is not the objective, what is? Before the Pegulas addressed any concerns they have with the product on the field, perhaps they should have first reconsidered their customer policies, because any armchair psychologist can tell you those policies are not adding value and they’re definitely not designed to encourage winning.
The behavior at that Dolphins game was so discouraging we felt no regret leaving the stadium before the end of the third quarter. Mind you, I would have done this regardless in order to make it to 4pm Christmas Eve Mass at Sacred Heart with the rest of my family.
I left early to get a seat in the church. Funny thing about that, though. When I got there, the church was only half full. In fact, it didn’t fill up until right before the start of Mass. It turned out about half the parishioners stayed in their cars in the parking lot listening to the game on the radio. So many people had their radios turned on that everyone there could hear the game. It was like a gigantic tail gate – only it was in a church parking lot!
Those inside the church weren’t blacked out. Many – including us – were watching the game on their phones. When the Bills scored the go ahead touchdown with a minute twenty left in the game, we sent word out to the people around us. Even the three old ladies in front of us were excited and relieved. “A Christmas Miracle,” one of them called it.
Then, just before Mass was to begin, the priest made a special trip to the altar to announce he had just been informed the Bills won. The entire congregation murmured as one excited body. When the opening song started we all stood with pride…
… for the Bills.
But then my son leaned towards me – he still had the game on his phone – and whispered, “But, dad, there’s still a minute twenty left…” Only a true red, white, and blue Bills fan knows what that means.
It didn’t matter what might (and eventually did) happen. For that brief moment I was home again in that same “Talkin’ Proud” sense of community I felt like I did as a boy in the 1970s.
And it was worth it.
I just wish someone in the Bills front office could feel that same sense.
It’s time to get the twelfth man off the bench and back into the action on game day.