I was born in Lackawanna, a shabby industrial town 10 minutes south of Queen City where the steel dust fell from the sky like snow. Without a father, I was looking for a father figure. In my uncle’s car we drove to Henry’s Hamburgers, the restaurant run by star receiver Ernie Warlick. Then I would watch Warlick anchor the sports segments on the television news. He was an outstanding player off the field, a barrier breaker, a role model like my never swearing uncle.
My father left when I was two and my mother, a hard-working waitress with a knack for writing who occasionally got Bill’s autograph, was heavy. We didn’t have a lot of money. Certainly there were no more tickets in the Rockpile, as the War Memorial Stadium, the run-down stadium on the East Side of Buffalo, was known.
When I was 6 my mom and I went down Electric Avenue to her best friend Helen’s house and they had a color TV. Helen’s husband Wallace looked at the bills with a cold beer can in hand. He was a gruff, bitter guy, but he screamed like a warrior when Jack Kemp threw a touchdown. It was in this house that I learned to be a Bills fan.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 8 and from then on I was sick almost every day. When I was 12, an alleged friend tried to sexually assault me. When I was sick, the hopeless bills were one of the things that sparked optimism. They were losers then, losers in a city where steel mills were closing and unemployed men sitting on their porches drinking and feeling useless. I was sick and felt useless myself. But the bills kept trying, just as my mother kept trying to get me well. When a doctor gives you a 50 percent life chance, trying is inspiration at its highest level.
When I first started writing about soccer on my uncle’s Royal typewriter for the two Lackawanna papers in high school, I checked the local library for Bills players. I saw them as people with weaknesses and problems. The bills weren’t immortal. That made them even better.
My uncle Joe was my father figure. He never talked much, but he taught me to drive his sea green Chevy Impala. He loved giant buffalo fish fries, 15 inches long. At the time of the team’s last Super Bowl appearance in 1994, he couldn’t eat them. Neither do I. But we still had the bills in common.
If he had a stroke and couldn’t speak, I would go to his house and we would look at the bills together. It was the only time after a stroke that I saw him smile. He would raise his fist after a touchdown pass and squeal out faint but happy words if they won, like “Go, Bills!” or “Jim Kelly!” He was born in Pittsburgh but died a Bills fan.
Those Super Bowl years of the 1990s were like epic stories from Gilgamesh. Before the first of four consecutive Super Bowls, I remember driving into town on a road trip from New York City with Buffalonian Jeff Z. Klein, my sports editor at The Village Voice. During the seven-hour drive, we analyzed every little detail of Bills. With my college buddy Mike, we watched the bills face the giants on a huge, faded projection screen in a smoky bar.
Super Bowl XXV? A 47-yard field goal eight seconds ahead? Long, but not too long, right? But then Scott Norwood stepped far to the right. Suddenly I could smell the choking mold in the room. The place grew dark and uninviting. There was silence. It was whimpered. People screamed loudly. We were so sure of victory. However, these are the bonds that still bind us.
The bills are so deep in my high school friends’ blood that it’s like a mystical shared DNA. If the bills succeed, as they did this 13-3 season this year, and march to Sunday’s AFC championship game, it seems an old friend has done it. I am more energetic, happier and more fun to be here. It’s not just me My three buddies also put in another gear. They tell Bill’s stories that are as ingrained in our lives together as any journey we’ve taken, any joy or sorrow we’ve shared.
What we’ve shared on top of the bills is what outsiders don’t really know about Buffalo: the punk rock bands who should have made it big; the jazz poets who burned our souls with honesty; those spectacular views of downtown and the rushing Niagara River from Fort Erie, Ontario; the Chestnut Ridge waterfall, whose hidden natural gas you can ignite.
We’re older now and for us the bills are the city – wherever we are. I don’t think it’s about living through them vicariously while we’re apart. I also don’t think it’s a fantasy of athletic performance. It’s like they go on and we go on. What’s the alternative?
Now I’m putting on my Josh Allen jersey at home. From back then in the dresser, I dig out an old Bill’s beret that someone gave me in 2000. I never thought that wearing a beret would be very buffalo. But after decades of drought, I don’t care. I like to wear it and hold onto a tiny 70s plastic helmet from Buffalo Bills for luck. After Allen’s eagle eye passports, after Stefon Diggs’ spectacular catches, loud applause from “Let’s go!” annoy my neighbors.
But being Bills is more than just a player, more than just a team, more than any fan. It’s a state of mind. It’s the Henry’s Hamburgers, the Beef on Weck. It’s your story, your genes, your life. They are your closest friends. It’s buffalo.