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?”
Fans tailgate in honor of late Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson last March.
(Photo: Charlie Pellien)
Nearly nine eventful months after they gathered to honor Ralph Wilson, the prospect of that potential devastation is gone.
After an upset win over the Green Bay Packers in their final home game last Sunday, the Bills are now 8-6 with road games against the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots left to play. If they win one of them, it’ll be the team’s first winning season since 2004 and only their second of the millennium. With two wins and a little help from some AFC competitors, the Bills could find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
As big of a triumph as it would be for the current team to finally break those ignominious streaks, the series of challenges and resulting victories that this franchise and community have faced and overcome this year will have made 2014 one of the most successful years in Buffalo Bills history regardless of their final record.
To understand how special 2014 has been for this franchise, you need to have an idea of its importance in the area.
In the city of Buffalo and the communities that surround it, places like West Seneca, Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and beyond, it’s hard to find a street without at least several homes displaying a Bills flag. It’s a unique sort of local patriotism for fans in the NFL’s third-smallest market, ones who frequently pack the RV lots at Ralph Wilson Stadium the day before a Sunday home game.
Linebacker Keith Rivers, who played his first six NFL seasons with the Bengals and Giants before joining the Bills in 2014, wasn’t aware just how passionate Bills fans were until he got to Buffalo.
“You drive into the stadium and see the Bills Mafia [as a visiting player],” Rivers said. “But you don’t have any idea what that is until you get here.”
Ralph Wilson Stadium, which opened in 1973, is a bit of a relic by modern NFL standards. Located in 14 miles south of downtown in the community of Orchard Park, there aren’t the plethora of surrounding bar and restaurant options you’d find at newer downtown stadiums, making the tailgate scene a crucial part of the Bills fan experience.
“It’s almost like this is a college town for this NFL team,” Bills rookie linebacker and Buffalo native Jimmy Gaines said. “That’s really what it seems like. If you go to any college town – [Tuscaloosa] Alabama, [Athens] Georgia – it’s like that. That’s the way I can explain to a teammate coming from somewhere else. It’s like you’re back in college.”
One of the legendary tailgates at the Ralph centers around Ken Johnson’s 1980 red Ford Pinto wagon, which he purchased in 1986 for $300, and doubles as the base of a massive grill at every home game. Johnson, a Rochester-based software developer known as both “Pinto Ron” and “Pinto Kenny”, hasn’t missed a Bills game home or away in 21 years.
He becomes the focal point of a fan ritual at 11:30 am before every 1 p.m. home kickoff. As the below video shows [beginning at the three minute mark], Johnson holds up a burger as fans chant “Ketchup” before about a dozen fellow fans douse him with the condiment from head to toe.
It’s the kind of community tradition that keeps bringing people together week after week, year after year, no matter how bitter the weather may get or what kind of season the team is having on the field. That collective atmosphere is magnified by the accessibility of the city, as fans frequently run into players at grocery stores or local bowling alleys.
“As a kid growing up [in Orchard Park],” I would see the Bills out in the community,” Bills vice president of community relations Gretchen Geitter said. “That connected me to the team in a way beyond seeing them on TV or during the games.”
A number of retired players from the Bills’ AFC title-winning teams, including Kelly and fellow Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, continue to live in the area, while current running back Fred Jackson, who has been with the team since 2006, says he plans to always keep a home in Buffalo.
“It’s the longest I’ve lived somewhere outside of growing up in Texas,” Jackson said. “You can’t just move after you’ve been in a place as long as you have and gotten close to the fans and community. It’s not something you just up and leave from. This will always be home.”
So when the foundation and future of this beloved local institution became uncertain this spring, Bills fans wanted to make sure their voices were heard. As reports of the Bon Jovi group’s interest in the team grew louder, so did two upstart fan organizations, the Bills Fan Alliance and Pellien’s Bills Fan Thunder group.
“[Co-founder] Chuck Sontag was the one who came up with the idea,” Pellien said. “‘What can we do? We gotta do something here. Our team might actually leave town.’ He got me involved and we talked about it. I brought a couple of my friends in and between the four of us it clicked and things took off from there.”
By the middle of summer, the grassroots efforts had made things so toxic for the rocker that Hall of Fame inductee Andre Reed was openly cursing his name and “Ban Bon Jovi” signs were appearing in bars and restaurants all over town. In early September, billionaire Terry Pegula, who also owns the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, was announced as the winning bidder for the franchise, with the sale becoming official one month later.
“I’m 54 years old. A lot of us, for 20 years, have thought there’s a good chance we’re going to lose this team someday,” Brendan Biggane, owner of The Byrd House bar in Orchard Park, said. “Growing up two miles from the stadium, I can’t even imagine what that would do to this town. Green Bay’s never had to deal with that. They should construct a statue right now to Pegula.”
As if that wasn’t enough of a boost, Kelly had been declared cancer-free just one week earlier and the Bills went 2-0 to start the season, as fans celebrated the team’s new beginning with a Week 2 home opener win versus the Dolphins on September 14th.
That day was anything but joyous for Pellien.
Midway through the third quarter, he received a call that his 29-year-old son Brandon had been killed in a car accident in Atlanta. Pellien, who was chaperoning ten underprivileged kids from the Seneca Babcock Community Center as part of a Bills Fan Thunder charity initiative, somehow managed to stay through the remainder of this game until he could get the kids back to where they needed to be afterwards. News of his son’s tragic passing funneled through the Red Pinto Tailgate afterwards and several days later Pellien received some unexpected condolences.
“Jim Kelly’s wife contacted me. She sent me a book and some gifts and wrote me a nice letter,” Pellien recalled. “A day or two later, Thurman Thomas contacted me and said when you’re feeling better I’d like for you to come to a game with me and sit in my box.”
“These players heard what happened to me, just a common fan in the stadium, and reached out to me. They made me feel like I was part of their family. I was there with Thurman, his wife and all of his kids [in the Week 13 game versus Cleveland.] That’s the way Buffalo is.”
Thurman Thomas (right) and his wife Patti hosted Pellien and his late son’s mother (left) and brother during the Bills’ Week 13 win over the Browns.
(Photo: Charlie Pellien)
It was hardly the only act of goodwill surrounding the team this fall.
After a mid-November snowstorm crippled the region with up to seven feet in some parts and eventually forced their Week 12 game to be played in Detroit, Bills star Mario Williams helped plow Kelly’s driveway, which happens to be across the street. According to the Buffalo News, kicker Dan Carpenter shoveled out his elderly next door neighbors and cleared their furnace vent while head coach Doug Marrone helped pushed a stranded motorist’s car out of a snowdrift.
“It makes you proud to be from this area and proud of the region,” Marrone said several weeks later. “It makes you believe in being a human being when people do the right things.”
That spirit continued several weeks later, after the Buffalo News ran a story detailing the financial and physical hardships facing former linebacker Darryl Talley. Started by a man named Frank Thomas Croisdale and championed by a number of Bills fan sites, over $152,000 has now been raisedfor Talley in just three weeks.
“For 12 years of your life, you made us happy every Sunday,” Pellien says of Talley. “Now you’re having a hard time. We’re going to help you out and return the favor. We don’t care that you’re a famous guy on the downslide. You’re one of us.”
Asked several days before the Packers game if he had been able to process just how big of an impact the past nine months have had on the community, Marrone said he hadn’t.
“What I’m trying to do is put a good football team out there that plays well and wins,” he said. “I’m trying to impact the community from that positive standpoint.”
Whether or not Marrone’s team is able to accomplish that over the next two weeks, it’s fair to say that Buffalo fans will look back on 2014 as one of the winningest years in team history.