It was one of those moments when you tell yourself, “Yeah, right. Like I have a choice.”
Resistance was futile.
The beverage store had stocked up on 30-packs of Buffalo Bills Zubaz-themed Labatt Blue cans at a low, low price in fall of 2016, so into the trunk they went. If you’re not familiar with Zubaz (or have been trying mightily to forget), they’re the gloriously tacky zebra-striped sweatpants that were in vogue, primarily among NFL fans, in the 1990s.
Bills fans, in particular, embraced the concept to such a degree that when the company went out of business, then was resurrected in 2007, the first store to stock them was Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls.
I’m a Miami Dolphins fan who grew up in western New York and has been to many Bills games. I have spied Homo zubazus in the wild many times. With that has come a grudging admiration for the steadfast, unwavering support Buffalonians have directed at their football team, utterly without pretense and regardless of years of futility and humiliation.
Embrace the Zubaz and all they represent. Nobody owns it like intrepid Bills fans, whose devotion was a central theme to the movie “Buffalo ’66,” about a released convict plotting revenge against a Bills kicker with a conspicuously fictionalized name who missed what would have been a Super Bowl-winning field goal.
After the Bills clinched a playoff spot on Sunday for the first time in forever by beating the Dolphins and getting some improbable help from the Cincinnati Bengals moments later, I reverted to my default secondary position of rooting for the Bills. If you don’t have a horse in this NFL postseason race, the bet here is that you’ll come off the top rope and bodyslam this flaming bandwagon.
First of all, the way it went down had all the priceless ingredients. The underdog element is obvious — Buffalo hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1999, the longest streak among the four major U.S. pro sports. And this team lived down to what was expected of it, statistically, finishing ranked No. 26 of 32 NFL teams in average net yardage surrendered per game and No. 29 in net yards gained.
The season-ending victory over their division rival included a one-yard touchdown run by 34-year-old, 303-pound defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a folk hero in parka-encased, chicken wing-engorged Buffalo, where he has played since being drafted in the fifth round in 2006.
Three weeks earlier, after an overtime home win in a typical Buffalo lake-effect snowstorm, Williams went out of his way to preface his post-game interview by saying “that our fans and the people here are the toughest damn people in the world. They’re why I’ve been here so long …”
So, yeah, that was them, about 400 Bills fans, waiting outside a chain-link fence in near-zero temperatures at Buffalo Niagara International Airport to greet the team shortly after the calendar flipped a page on Sunday night. By then, video of the Bills lockerroom reaction as they watched the Bengals’ Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd beat the Baltimore Ravens to give the Bills the help they needed was all over social media. The graying red-bearded “Game of Thrones” character Williams wept and embraced his two young sons.
It didn’t take long for Bills fans to pour money into Dalton’s charitable foundation. In large part, that was spurred by the “Bills Mafia,” which started as a Twitter hashtag a few years ago and grew into a self-proclaimed “movement created by the fans and embraced by the players. Join the family.” They do charitable stuff all the time.
Dalton paid for five billboards thanking Buffalo fans.
Like any NFL stadium, New Era Field in Orchard Park (previously Ralph Wilson Stadium, or “The Ralph,” for short) is site to all manner of drunken, roughneck, stupid behavior at tailgate parties before games and in the stands during them. The tribalism and ritualistic knuckleheadedness you’ll encounter at many bigtime sports events are their most unappealing feature (as long as you’re totally OK with the prices).
You’ll find that here, where a segment of the Bills fan population has made bodyslamming folding tables an integral part of their pre-game experience, and an integral part of how outsiders identify that fan base. There is more than one website that doesn’t mind the Monday morning “numbskull Bills fan on fire” web traffic.
Hey, nobody’s perfect.
And sometimes an endearing, mediocre playoff team in a blizzard-blasted city starving for some postseason action is just close enough.