Bonnie Brae Avenue in Brighton. Fans aghast that referees ruled the Colts did not fumble on their last drive. [Photo: David Kramer, 1/09/21]
On Saturday, the Bills ended a 25 year playoff win drought. I was happy. I was at the last playoff victory on December 30th, 1995 and did not expect to wait a quarter of a century for the next instalment.¹ Yet, in our era of pandemic football, the thrill felt muted, but for a gathering of die hard Bills fans on Bonnie Brae Ave in Brighton.From our televised vantage point, the excitement of the playoffs is interwoven with the vicarious experience we feel with those fans actually in the stadium: the bacchanalia of tailgating, the images of the Bills Mafia sitting shoulder to shoulder, spilling beer on themselves, the sturdy western New Yorkers shirtless despite any polar vortexes, the decibel breaking roar meant to inspire the good guys and unnerve the bad guys. 6,600 appropriately masked and socially distanced fans did their best, but were a pale substitute for an exultant Bill leaping into an adoring mob scene after a touchdown.
Normally, I watch Bills playoff games at Jeremiah’s Tavern on Monroe Avenue. At Jeremiah’s and all of Monroe Avenue — in the orange zone — the best people could do was pre-game takeout. The tvs were blank and the barstools empty.Happily, I found a venue that made up for the collective pleasure of sports bar watching. On a driveway on Bonnie Brae, John Yager and his neighbors have created their own season-long version of tailgating.
As explained by John, he designed the tailgate to be covid-safe. First, the event is outside. Second, the chairs are more than six feet apart. And, of course, masks are required at all times, unless having a beer which is done at a distance from others. In the beginning of the season, people did outdoor grilling. However, once the pandemic surged, the outside spread was discontinued.John is originally from Buffalo and attended every home playoff game during the glory days, except, coincidentally, the last time the Bills won, beating Miami 37 – 22 on December 30th, 1995.¹ I asked if Buffalo Buffalo Bills fans are different from Rochester Buffalo Bills fans.
John says almost everyone in Buffalo is a Bills fan; while in Rochester more people are aligned with other teams or have dual allegiance. While John jokes that he may have the purest Bills pedigree at the gathering, he thinks Rochester Bills fans are pretty darn good. John’s faith was justified when the Rochester Mafia booed unmercilessly when the referees unjustifiably — in the eyes of the fans — ruled that the Colts did not fumble on their last drive.The game itself was too close for comfort. The fans finally breathed a sigh of relief when Jacoby Brissett’s last play heave fell short of the endzone. Of course, all will be back next Saturday night when the Ravens come to town.
On December 30th, 1995, I and my friend Dean and father Eugene went to Bills-Dolphins Wild Card game. It was my first NFL game and the first for my father since watching the New York Giants play in Yankee Stadium in the 1940s.
The cause célèbre of the day was the return of the Dolphin’s Bryan Cox to Rich Stadium. Two years, earlier Cox raised his middle finger on both hands, offering a double-barreled salute to Bills fans, as he walked on the field for warm-ups. Cox had another incident on Dec. 17th, 1995, two weeks before our game. Cox and Bills fullback Carwell Gardner were ejected for fighting and nearly came to blows again in the tunnel between the locker-rooms. Cox, booed lustily by fans, responded by spitting on the field in the direction of the fans five times.
Throughout the stadium, fans brought large styrofoam hands with an upraised middle finger, wagged whenever Cox made a play. Signs read “Miami Sucks Cox” that I found juvenile and amusing. 25 years later, I see in the signs some borderline homophobia.
One play remains vivid in my memory. In the fourth quarter, little used running back Tim Tindale burst up the middle for a 44 yard touchdown run, effectively cementing the win for the Bills.
I recall that usually mild mannered Dean rose to his feet and shouted at the top of his lungs: TINDALE! TINDALE! TINDALE! Dean was so impassioned that he sparked a chant from some college students sitting near us in the nosebleed seats. Dean has no such recollection and assures me it never happened.
I also recalled how different the game looks in person versus tv. Television magnifies the violence of the game as cameras zoom in on the point of contact, making collisions look especially vicious. One would think players would be carted off every play. However, from the nosebleed seats where you can see the whole field, the contest looks less like a giant ant war with constantly writhing bodies and more like a dance. On most plays, the majority of players are actually trying to avoid head on collisions. Like ballet dancers, they twist and dart around, shielding their bodies from potentially debilitating impacts.
On the way back to Rochester, we ate at Shore’s