ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – This might be the last simple place left in the NFL. A place where fans navigate tiny roads and pass signs for $10 parking on people's front lawns, and they can walk to a stadium that doesn't look like the Emirates Palace. And when they do visit they can find an RV in the middle of the parking lot where a Hall of Fame quarterback tailgates just like them – every game-day morning.
If this was anywhere else, Jim Kelly probably wouldn't be standing here wearing his Buffalo Bills warm-up jacket, sleeves pulled up, pouring ketchup on a hot dog and punching visitors with a friendly fist to the chest that makes them feel as if they've been hit with a sack of bricks. Imagine, for instance, Roger Staubach plugging in a yellow, DeWalt boombox under a pullout awning and waving hello to the fans who walk by. But then Buffalo has always been a little different from everywhere else, a small town inside of a big city. A place where the city has struggled and victories have come sparingly, and when they do come they lead to only more heartache as in the four straight Super Bowls the Bills lost in the 1990s.
Around the NFL, people talk about Green Bay as the league's great small-town place where time stands still and football is the only way of life. But the Packers long ago went corporate with a shining remodeled stadium whose top feature is a soaring atrium filled with a hall of fame, shops and a sit-down restaurant called "Curley's Pub." The Buffalo where Kelly parks his RV and Bills star receiver Stevie Johnson(notes) walks through the fans on game morning wearing shorts and a cap turned backward, is like Green Bay of 15 years ago.
"When you haven't been to the playoffs for 11 years and you still sell out, that's something," Kelly says, as he opens the RV's door, leading a visitor inside. "These fans are nuts. They are so starving for a winner and to have the old feeling back."
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This is a story about football. More specifically it's a story about a team often tucked into irrelevance in a city where the boom left long ago and not fully come back. Much of America seems to think the Bills won't last here. Much of America sees the team's owner Ralph Wilson is 92 years old without a succession plan upon his death and it figures the franchise might head to Los Angeles or Toronto, where it plays one regular season game annually as part of a five-year agreement that ends in 2012.
What Buffalo sees is perhaps its greatest asset, a team and its heartache that becomes a calling card when traveling around the country as in the case of its mayor Byron Brown, who upon arriving at the White House for a Super Bowl party this year was greeted by President Obama who shouted, "There's my Buffalo diehard!"
And yet just as many were giving up hope, there have come signs of surprise. Last year, Buffalo's unemployment dropped to 7.5 percent. More bio-medical jobs are being created. The city is starting to pop up on those lists of best places to live. And like the city, the football team that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 1999 season is 3-0, something no one can believe. Last Sunday the Bills beat the New England Patriots for the first time in 15 games.
The city exploded with joy.
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But because so many have talked about a potential move and because the Bills have such a history of failing at critical times, folks are worried, even after the owner told Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last year that the Bills were not leaving the area.
"I hope Ralph Wilson becomes the oldest person in the world," says Luke Russert, the NBC news political reporter who is the son of Buffalo's favorite son, Tim Russert, who famously bragged about the Bills on "Meet the Press."
Or as Brown laughs and says:
"Mr. Wilson is one of the most prayed-for men in Western New York."
Sometimes, as he drives around his neighborhood, Bills kicker Rian Lindell(notes) glances at the houses rolling by and imagines the Bills fans inside. Each one has a story. Maybe it's the lady who has flown a Bills flag from the porch every day since Lindell has been in Buffalo or perhaps it comes in the man who mows his lawn in a Bills sweatshirt. They are strangers, people he'll probably never meet and yet somehow they are in this together.
After nine years in Buffalo, Lindell feels a part of the place. There's a connection with the people who follow his team that he is sure he wouldn't find anywhere else. And with that connection comes responsibility. They trust him. They need him.
"Quite frankly they might want to win more than I do," says Lindell who had the game-winning field goal to beat the Patriots. "A guy might have been a fan for 50 years. I've only been a Bills fan for nine."
Something about Buffalo gets into the men who come to play here. The team's history is filled with players who wanted nothing to do with a Rust Belt town and begged to stay away only to arrive and fall in love with the place. For some it is the way you can be left alone at the supermarket; for others it's the unconditional love that spills from the fans.
"They can rip on the Bills but no one from say New England can," Lindell said.
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Kelly never wanted to play here. Rather than play in Buffalo, he ran to the USFL. Now he lives here permanently. Shawne Merriman(notes) didn't want to come either when the Bills claimed him off waivers last fall. "I thought I was going to be miserable," he says. "I got pretty comfortable pretty fast."
The players have been told countless times about how their play affects the region's mood, how in other NFL markets the team's victory or loss would make for good discussion around the Monday morning water cooler but in Buffalo it can change the entire day. Some may even know that many years ago, executives at Fleet Financial Services studied productivity on the days after Bills games and discovered their employees' performance rose considerably following wins and plummeted after defeats.
On Monday when coach Chan Gailey met with his players for the first time since the Patriots victory, he gazed at the faces staring back at him and thought about the city that has told him of its desperation to have a winner, then said, "We are making a difference in the day of Joe Fan out there."
Later that day he sat in the team's cavernous indoor practice facility, pondered his team of no-names and wondered if maybe they mirrored the city.
"I think a lot of our players have faced some adversity in their [football] tenure but with the right resistance and character you figure to be successful," he says. "I hope this area sees that. [Fans] probably do identify with the way that we are fighting our rears off to be successful and do it the right way."
He pauses again.
"That may or may not be true but I think it might be," he says.
"This team ain't moving," says Kelly, reiterating the owner's position. He is sitting at a small table in the RV. Kelly has plans to buy the team someday. He says he has investors who are willing to put down significant money and keep the Bills here. Around Buffalo, his is the name you hear most when people talk about Wilson's inevitable replacement. It would be natural, of course, for Kelly to own the team; the beloved quarterback swooping in to save the franchise. And it would be the dearest hope of the fans that he indeed buy it. After all, in what other NFL city would the team owner host a tailgate in the middle of the parking lot?
Jim Kelly signs an autograph prior to the Pats-Bills game.
But even if Kelly doesn't buy the team, there is a feeling around the community that somebody will come forward. Former Sabres owner Tom Golisano said earlier this year he would consider buying the team if it was in danger of moving. Brown, the mayor, says he has heard of a handful of Western New York billionaires who might be interested in the Bills.
In many ways the Bills are protected from whatever is happening to the local economy. A great chunk of team revenue comes from the league and everyone, regardless of market size or economic plight, must spend the same amount on players' salaries. This leaves the Bills in the same competitive position as the rest of the NFL. When discussing the future of the team and invoking Toronto or Los Angeles, people point to the fact the team sold just 37,000 season tickets this year and therefore must scramble to sell out in ways the franchises in bigger, wealthier markets with huge season ticket bases don't have to.
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To counter this, the Bills have tried to expand their reach, selling themselves as a regional team rather than wrap an identity only in Buffalo. Several years ago training camp was moved to Rochester, located 73 miles away, to take advantage of the cluster of big corporations there. And the push into Toronto, where interest in the Bills has been lukewarm, has helped boost Canadian attendance, which is about 15 percent of the crowd on most game days.
"We're serial regionalizers," says Russ Brandon the team's CEO.
There is also a hope around Buffalo that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who grew up in Western New York, wants to be sure the Bills do not leave. Goodell has been supportive of the organization in public comments. A question posed to the league office about the Bills' future brought the following response from NFL spokesman Greg Aiello: "The league's longstanding position is that franchise stability is important and we should work as hard as possible to help teams remain competitive in their current markets. The Bills have done an excellent job regionalizing the franchise in a challenging economic environment."
Late Sunday afternoon, Alex Berkley cried. This was after Lindell's winning kick, when Buffalo was going mad. In front of the television, and his father, all these emotions of a team that had failed him so many times before, bubbled up and he started to cry.
"I was kind of tearing up a little," says Berkley a 27-year-old graduate student who lives in Buffalo. "I wouldn't say cry."
But the first Bills' win over the Patriots in 16 games did something strange to Buffalo. The team's radio announcers first noticed it as they described the chaotic moments after the win. They described fans literally hugging and crying. And while it might have sounded like hyperbole in that burning of the Hindenburg way radio play-by-play announcers turn things into at big moments, the anecdotal evidence that poured from Sunday suggests otherwise. Buffalo did indeed go a little mad.
Throughout the city people stopped their cars and honked horns when the game ended. People ran out onto the sidewalks and cheered. On Union Road, not far from the stadium in the suburb of Orchard Park, three young men walked down the street without shirts holding a giant Bills flag. Cars pulled up alongside. Horns honked; drivers waved. Brown, the mayor, watched on a television set up near his back porch and every time the Bills scored he could hear a scream rise up from all the other houses in the area.
"We knew exactly why they were screaming," he says.
Buffalo has waited a lot time to exhale.
"This is what people live for, Buffalo Bills football," Kelly says looking out the window of his RV at the thousands of people streaming toward the stadium.
Looking at the last simple place left in the NFL.
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