Even after '13 Seconds,' Buffalo Bills fans believe. This is how they do it.
BUFFALO — When it snows in Western New York, you plow after you plow.
You go back to clean things up, because if you don't, when the next storm comes — and there's always a next storm — things will only get worse. It's inevitable.
Which is why traffic has slowed here in Varysburg, east of Buffalo, even though the road was long ago cleared of the five inches that fell yesterday. The plow is back to clear the far right edge of the shoulder; the cleanup continues.
On a recent weekday, snow filled the forecast in metro New York, so my editor, who understands irony, sent me up to Buffalo, in January, to escape it.
Flurries swirled but didn't stick on the trip through the Catskills, past Roscoe and Deposit, and the Southern Tier, through Binghamton and Elmira, and the Finger Lakes, through Corning and Bath.
The fields of Wyoming County were white, dotted with red barns and gray silos in various states of decay and repair. These bitter winter days, the only bumper crop is in kilowatts, produced by hulking wind turbines whose sheer scale is unnerving.
I was sent to talk to fans after another Buffalo inevitability: a devastating Bills loss.
My job was to see if their legendary devotion to the team is intact, if any fan base so accustomed to defeat can keep the flame alive. I wanted to believe they could, but I'm a fan of the Chicago Bears, and I'm also a reporter, which means I'm in a constant state of doubt, remorse and skepticism.
But my Bears haven't known the kind of losses the Bills have. In Buffalo, the losses are so crushing they give them names.
There's "Wide Right," which led to one of the most Buffalo of things happening to kicker Scott Norwood. There's the "Music City Miracle," which no one in these parts considers a miracle. And there's "No Goal," which is a Buffalo hockey loss, not a football loss, but still counts in the crushing-loss column.
All some people know about Buffalo, one fan will tell me, bitterly, is: "You get a lot of snow and you lost four straight Super Bowls."
Which is true. From 1991 to 1994, the Bills appeared in a record four straight Super Bowls, winning none.
- Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19
- Super Bowl XXVI: Washington 37, Buffalo 24
- Super Bowl XXVII: Dallas 52, Buffalo 17
- Super Bowl XXVIII: Dallas 30, Buffalo 13
And now, in the first month of 2022, the Bills added another Named Loss to their unenvied list: "13 Seconds."
Anatomy of a latest loss
On Jan. 23, in an AFC Divisional game against the Chiefs, quarterback Josh Allen and the visiting Bills took, lost and re-took the lead in the thrilling final two minutes of regulation.
All that stood between the Bills and a trip to the AFC Championship — and, with a win there, a trip to this weekend's Super Bowl in sun-dappled California — was quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs and their three timeouts.
And 13 seconds.
The Bills were up, 36-33, when Mahomes got the ball. Two completions set up a 49-yard field goal, which Harrison Butker slipped through the uprights as time expired. Bills 36, Chiefs 36. To overtime, where the Chiefs won the coin toss, got the ball and scored the game-winning TD with 10:45 left. Bills 36, Chiefs 42. Final.
Brutally final. No divisional win final. No AFC championship final. No Super Bowl final.
Another cut, another wound, another scar for the Buffalo faithful, "Bills Mafia," who bear their scars stoically. They still love their Bills, win or lose, as dependable as that Varysburg snowplow on the way into town.
They endure the losses, sub-zero temperatures, and blizzards, all of which are beyond their control. Some Bills fans subject themselves to punishment that is entirely within their control, for fun: A favorite tailgate tradition is hurling one's body onto a folding table to break it, for cheering onlookers.
Win, lose or draw blood, Bills fans are convinced that a championship — their team's first — is just around the corner. They believe.
'City of Good Neighbors'
Somewhere around Corning, my cellphone rings.
"This is Father Bob Owczarczak of St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park. You called and said you wanted to talk about the Bills?" he says in an accent that is all Western New York. He'd be happy to talk and had all the time I needed, he says.
If you're looking for a walking, talking, praying embodiment of a Bills fan, look no further than Father Bob.
The 38-year-old Catholic priest has been known to end game-day homilies with "Go, Bills." He wears the Father Bob Bills jersey his mom gave him for his birthday. He says he bleeds Bills red, white and blue, and he loves Bills Mafia, whom he calls a different breed of people, blue-collar, salt of the earth.
"They go to the airport to greet the Bills, even when they lose, just to let them know that we love them and we're here for them," he says, with no small pride.
When Josh Allen’s grandmother died in 2020, Bills Mafia sent donations (typically $17, Allen’s uniform number) to Buffalo’s Oishei Children’s Hospital (@OCHBuffalo on Twitter) and raised more than $1 million for the Patricia Allen Fund.
(After “13 Seconds,” Kansas City fans honored Allen with $13 donations to the fund, more than $440,000 and counting.)
Yes, Father Bob has endured all the losses, but he has seen too much good not to believe that Buffalo deserves its nickname, "City of Good Neighbors."
"We are the people that will shovel out each other's driveway," he says. "We're neighbors, you know, that will cook meals for you and help out in any way that we can."
Father Bob models the behavior he admires.
He knows a guy and another guy and another guy, and before I leave St. Bernadette's — which is just 3 miles down Abbott Road from the Bills' Highmark Stadium — he has called them all and they'll meet me.
"They'd be happy to," Father Bob says. And he's right.
Manager Joe Morcelle shakes my hand from behind the pipes at Bar-Bill Tavern in East Aurora. He recommends the local favorite Beef on Weck (roast beef with jus, on a caraway-salted roll, add some horseradish) and the signature wings that Allen, a regular, prefers (Cajun honey butter BBQ, as seen on "Monday Night Football").
In The Land of Named Losses, the glass isn't half-empty, as one might expect.
No. In Buffalo, that glass is just about overflowing, quite possibly with Labatt's Blue Light or a local lager, the city having a well-earned reputation as a drinking town with a sports problem.
Also overflowing are the drink tokens in the glass mug Joe has set aside for Allen at Bar-Bill. A 45-year tradition lets patrons buy an etched mug that stands ready for their next visit. Behind Joe is a wall of mugs, for regulars, with about 4,000 more in an upstairs storeroom, available on demand.
Allen's mug has been taken down for the moment because too many fans wanted to buy the quarterback a beer to show their appreciation. It couldn't hold all the tokens.
Joe proudly shows off an Allen-inspired offering: a machine that can imprint the head of a beer with a malt image of Allen hurdling over his name.
Then there are those namesake wings. How optimistic are the people of Buffalo? They took the worst part of the chicken and made it their own.
Every pub, bar, tavern and inn offers a signature spin on the chicken wing, whether at Anchor Bar, Duff's or Gene McCarthy's in the Old First Ward in Buffalo, Bar-Bill in East Aurora, or Big Tree Inn in Orchard Park.
My bar neighbors at Bar-Bill, Cory Zale and Amelia DeAntonis, are more than happy to talk about their beloved Bills, about scar tissue, about the power of Amelia's turtleneck to change the team's on-field fortunes, and then change them back.
Less than a week after "13 Seconds," Cory likes his team's chances next year, loves his quarterback and chalks the loss up to a two-word expression that is his mantra this Friday night.
"That's sports," he says. Over and over.
But what he's really saying, about his ability to move on from this latest, cruelest of cuts, is an expression that comes up, time and again, from Bills fans.
Buffalo when it tries. Buffalo when it loses. Buffalo when it moves on, hopeful about next year.
When 13 seconds lasts 4 minutes
Indifference doesn't inflict scars.
The scars come from caring, says Aaron Garmon, a Buffalo native and licensed mental health counselor at The Relationship Center of Hampton Roads, a Virginia counseling center that has outposts in Western New York.
Aaron talks about "vicarious loss," that grown men losing a football game shouldn't affect how people in the office behave on Monday morning after a tough Sunday loss. Except when it does.
"Average Bills fans, we don't necessarily know the players. We're not entwined in their lives," he says. "But their loss is our loss because they're interwoven into our community."
And those final 13 seconds were interwoven into the Garmon household, and into Bills Mafia households everywhere.
"At 13 seconds, my wife was dancing around with our kids, thinking it was won," Aaron says with an ever-present laugh, calling his wife, Kristy, a hardcore fan. "And I was sitting in my chair, like: 'Hold on. It's not over.'"
Being a Bills fan means counting every last second, particularly ones that seem to last an eternity. Every fan I spoke to said they had their doubts, even with just 13 seconds left.
With four timeouts mixed in, one by the Bills, three by the Chiefs, it took an agonizing 3 minutes and 57 seconds for the game clock to tick down those 13 seconds and to tick off Bills fans everywhere.
How hard did Kristy Garmon take the loss? Hindenberg hard, her husband says.
There are losses less vicarious, too.
At the Big Tree Inn, manager Eugene Smaszcz, who everybody calls "Mel," said those 13 seconds cost him more than the Bills season.
The bar is a pre-game and post-game staple — fans pack the place, inside and out —and the end of the Bills' playoff run will cost him about $80,000 a week, a tough hit for a business "just coming out of COVID," he says.
And Bar-Bill in East Aurora will be closed from Feb. 6 through Super Bowl Sunday, "for winter renovations and to give our staff some R&R," which would have been unthinkable had those 13 seconds, and the AFC Championship, gone differently and the Bills had gone to this weekend's Super Bowl.
Other scars, one healing
Buffalo has other scars, of course, though they aren't named, as such. And some will take longer to recover from.
Buffalo is where President William McKinley, visiting the Pan-American Exhibition, was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on Sept. 6, 1901. He died eight days later and Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th president in the library of a Delaware Avenue mansion, now a National Park Service site.
Lackawanna Steel, once the world's largest steel factory, sent girders to help the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge rise, before Lackawanna fell, itself, giving way to a 1,000-acre Superfund site.
The Statler Hotel downtown, three towers that had more than 1,000 rooms to let and a level of opulence rivaling Manhattan, went bankrupt in the mid-'80s. It was a mothballed backdrop to four post-Super Bowl non-victory gatherings from 1991 to 1994, including that first one, in 1991, when fans did one of the most Buffalo things they could have done: They began to chant for kicker Norwood.
"We want Scott! We want Scott!"
The man whose foot held the promise of glory but delivered despair was hurting. And they were there for him. He walked to the podium, admitted he had been struggling. He dedicated the next season to them, said he'd never felt more loved.
Another of Father Bob's friends, Marco Cercone, meets me outside Highmark Stadium with his wife, Kari, in the 14-passenger "Buffalo Bill-iever Bus" his family bought him for his 40th birthday.
It's tricked out with red-white-and-blue Bills Zubah stripes and Bills logos and the Buffalo skyline. It gets 7.8 miles to the gallon, which did not prevent Marco from driving it 15 hours to a game in Kansas City, or to Baltimore, Nashville, the New Jersey Meadowlands (twice) and Pittsburgh.
Marco, a trial lawyer, describes epic, themed tailgates, for dozens, on a lawn down the street from Highmark. He pays a homeowner a hundred bucks for the use of the lawn. He talks about his late friend, Jack, and how each tailgate ends with a pitcher of Jack Daniels' Manhattans poured out into Dixie cups in Jack's honor.
"Everybody gets a Dixie cup of a Manhattan and we toast Jack, we toast the Bills and we go in," Marco says. "That's our tradition."
Sitting in the first row of the Bill-iever bus, with her purse printed in tiny Bills buffaloes, Kari laughs easily and clearly loves the man in the driver's seat, the one decked out in the Bills jacket and hat, who can't go home without going to the Bills Store and picking up a Bills grill cover and a Bills shirt for one of his boys, who, surprisingly, is not named Bill.
"I root for the Bills 100%," Kari says. Then she looks at Marco. "But I root 101% so he gets a win, because he's just a much happier guy when they win."
Marco was not happy after the 13 Seconds game. But his faith is undiminished. Thirteen seconds is not the end, he tells me. It's only the beginning.
"It doesn't make us sour on the Bills. It doesn't make us angry. It just makes us wait for more that we know is coming. Because we're all one: a community that stands by its team, no matter what."
'Northern Southern hospitality'
Christian Gaddis met Father Bob at a pickup basketball game his wife, Danielle, found for him a few years back.
He sits across from me at Big Tree Inn, a stone's throw from Highmark, nursing a Blue Light. He was a member of the Bills practice squad and played in two games, one home, one away, as Buffalo's center, more than a decade ago.
He's still on the sidelines, as a "sock cop" for the NFL, enforcing policy on trademarks and uniforms.
He talks about "marrying into Buffalo," about how Father Bob is like everyone else here, eager to make connections and genuinely, disarmingly friendly.
Christian is from sunny Florida and played college ball at Villanova, in a city that, famously, booed Santa Claus. But he says his adopted home, hard against Lake Erie, shows the best kind of "Northern Southern hospitality."
It's why he's stayed, why other Bills players put down roots here, why you'll see them wherever you go. The easiest way to rub elbows with a Bills player, he says, is to go to Wegman's any given Saturday. Bills players don't live in gated communities or hotel suites. And they've gotta eat, too.
"You have these interactions where people realize that he's just like me, at Wegman's trying to grab some groceries and not freeze his ass off," Christian says.
He works at 43North, a business accelerator that hosts a $5 million annual competition to lure international startups to Buffalo and keep them here. It's easy to sell something you believe in. And he believes in Buffalo.
Maybe it's the lager. Maybe it's the wings. Maybe it's a contact-high from all that infectious optimism and the warmth of the welcome.
But as I turned my SUV south — as the Cincinnati Bengals were turning around a disastrous first half and ending the Chiefs' season in overtime in the AFC title game, the way the Chiefs had done to the Bills the week before — I couldn't help but believe in Buffalo, too.
I drove down Route 20A in Orchard Park — which is called Quaker Street, Big Tree Road and, in one stretch, Timothy J. Russert Highway for the late Buffalo native, newsman and Bills fan — and I believed.
I passed snowbanks and houses laden with icicles, their Bills flags flying. And I believed.
Past kids who turned their flat front yards into wintertime hockey rinks. And I believed.
But as much as I believed, and I still do, I recognize that I'll never believe like Marco Cercone, who drives that Bill-iever bus, believes.
Because of a story he told me.
He had just finished graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., when he made a life-changing decision. It was May 1999.
"You know what? I'm going back to Buffalo. I'm going to go to law school in Buffalo. It's where I want to raise a family, where I want to be, where I want to practice law. I'm going to do this," he told me he decided.
Then he picked up the phone and made the decision official.
"I dialed 1-888-BB-TICKS. I got my account. I got my 50-yard-line seats. Hung up with them, called my mother: 'Hey, I'm coming home.'
"I got my season tickets back," he says, laughing. 'It's the first friggin' thing I did."
Reach Peter D. Kramer, a 33-year staffer, at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. Local reporting like Pete's only works if subscribers support it, which you can do at lohud.com/subscribe.
"Wide Right" was how sportscaster Al Michaels described Bills kicker Scott Norwood's missed 47-yard field goal attempt at the end of Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 27, 1991, in Tampa. Giants over the Bills, 20-19.
Buffalo hockey fans also have a different view of what happened June 20, 1999 at Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo when the Sabres and Dallas Stars were tied, 1-1, in triple OT of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Replays showed Stars forward Brett Hull's skate in the goalie's crease, which should have nullified the goal he scored a split-second later. But the goal was upheld when officials said Hull had kept control of the puck as it left the crease, before he fired the goal that would win Dallas the Stanley Cup.
Home Run Throwback
Bills fans don’t call the play that decided the AFC Wild Card Game on Jan. 8, 2000, “The Music City Miracle.” It’s Home Run Throwback — which is what the Tennessee Titans called the trick kick-off return — or “The Immaculate Deception” or “The Forward Lateral,” to raise doubt about whether Tennessee’s Frank Wycheck’s lateral went forward, illegally, as he hurled it across the field to Kevin Dyson, who sprinted 75 yards for a TD and a 22-16 Titans win. The game ushered in a 17-year playoff drought for the Bills.
Embracing 13 Seconds
Those 13 seconds changed this season, ended it. But the NFL Network's Kyle Brandt said he wants "13 Seconds" to become a rallying cry for Buffalo. The morning of the AFC title game, he went on the air, in a rant filled with outrage and indignation.
"I love you guys," he said to Bills fans. "You are not the kind of people looking for overtime to save your Bills. Some of you were looking for overtime to pay your bills. And I respect it."
Buffalo needs to hurt, he said, to embrace the pain.
"You will remember that 13 seconds ruined your season. It did not ruin your lives. But now it's gonna run your lives. I call upon every member of Bills Mafia. This is the year you learn to finish, 13 seconds at a time," he said.
"I want 13 more seconds on every call at your job. 13 more seconds on every lift at the gym. 13 more seconds of every hug with your kids. 13 more seconds on every night with your wife. And one year from now, the Cowboys will be hiring a coach and you'll be breaking a table. Take the pain and take revenge. Buffalo! Let's go!"