BUFFALO – It was one of the darkest times in franchise history. Yet the fans still gathered together.
On the final Sunday of March, thousands of faithful Buffalo Bills supporters joined together in the parking lots of Ralph Wilson Stadium to tailgate in honor of the franchise’s longtime owner, who had died earlier in the week at age 95.
Despite the celebratory mood, it was a bleak time for the team and its fans, who were dealing with the double whammy of watching Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, the franchise’s most beloved player, fight for his life against a renewed form of cancer.
While the fans were grieving for Ralph Wilson, they were also bracing themselves for a potential loss that could hit even harder. With their longtime steward gone, the team was likely to be sold and there was no guarantee that it would be sold to an owner who fully grasped or even cared about what this franchise means to this city, this region, and the people whose devotion to it goes way beyond 16 Sundays a year.
“It would have been such an emotional letdown to this city,” Charlie Pellien told For The Win.
Pellien, a local truck driver and longtime season ticket holder whose childhood home bordered the stadium parking lots, is one of the four founders of Bills Fan Thunder. The group formed this spring to rally against the prospect of an out-of-town owner, particularly a group led by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, buying the team and eventually moving them to Toronto or another city.
“It would be like we’re nothing anymore without [the team]. That’s the way people feel around here. We’re still a city. We’re still going to go to work and do the best we can but now what? We’re just another small city like the hundreds of other small cities around the country that don’t have anything going for it?”
When Jon Bon Jovi tried to calm the masses – the legions of Buffalo Bills fans angry over his interest in buying the team – Charles Pellien and his pals went to work.
On tap first, a petition signed by 12,000 fans demanding the rock star keep the Bills here.
And then, a boycott of Bon Jovi’s music at local bars and restaurants. There are still 232 “Bon Jovi Free Zones” across the region.
And if that wasn’t enough, Pellien and company followed up with a widely distributed photo of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and Bon Jovi’s name scrawled on top of it.
The campaign, a public relations nightmare for the singer, got national media attention, and Pellien and his friends at Bills Fan Thunder were smack dab in the middle of it all.
“It’s nothing personal,” Pellien said. “Even if it was Santa Claus wanting to move the team to the North Pole, we would have staged a boycott.”
For Pellien, a truck driver who grew up in the shadows of Ralph Wilson Stadium, doing whatever it takes to defend his beloved Bills and, perhaps even more important, his hometown, comes naturally.
Not surprisingly, there are more than a few other guys like him, guys who have spent their entire lives living near the stadium, guys who can’t imagine life without the Bills.
“We’re the blue-collar fans from the neighborhood,” said Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag, one of the founding members, who referenced a road near the stadium. “We’re the Big Tree Boys.”