It was the most overtly hostile environment I’ve ever been in for a sporting event – ever.
Last Sunday, when my team – the New England Patriots – traveled to Buffalo to take on the Bills, I was there to see it unfold.
My two friends, one a Pats fan and one not, joined me.
None of us had any idea what the football culture was like in Buffalo.
We questioned if “Buffalo’s” hometown team, which plays in Orchard Park, New York about 15 miles south of Buffalo, were going to have the presence that a team in the city did.
It was strange to walk through a suburban area just before a professional sporting event. Although, a benefit was community members using their lawns as parking lots, charging just $5 – a pittance compared to the lower-end $40 lots in downtown Boston for Red Sox games.
Three kids, all looking younger than 12 years old, were security for the “parking lot” which we parked in. As they gave us directions, it sounded more like a map to their elementary school.
“Go out here, take a left, go to the stoplights and take a right, it should be about a half-mile up on your left…”
As we walked to the stadium, we realized Patriots fans were need not have worried about presence. We were out-numbered – heavily.
Also, the majority of Bills fans were vocal. They let us know we were encroaching upon their territory and that it wasn’t much appreciated. It was actually quite impressive to see the number of Bills fans who swarmed the stadium in order to cheer on their Bills.
My awe at their numbers faded, however, when they saw what jersey I was wearing.
Other than an, “Aww. We’re going to beat you guys today” kind of exchange every once in a while, I’ve never been berated by an opposing teams fan before as harshly as we were Sunday.
When we set foot on Ralph Wilson property, nothing was off-limits.
Thunder storms of “Boo’s” rained upon us, chants of “Tom Brady takes it up the a**!” followed us all the way down the pedestrian parking block, and one Bills fan, shotgunning a beer, saw us and chucked his half-full brew, spiking it at us and nearly hitting my legs.
I also felt something hit my back in the middle of the first quarter, after the Patriots first touchdown. I looked around to see what had hit me, but found nothing. At halftime I discovered a AAA battery under my seat. I’m not saying it was thrown at me, but there’s a possibility.
Also, there were several tee-shirts screen-printed with Tom Brady’s face on them that were emblazoned with vulgar slogans which were chorused the entire way into the game.
The man wearing the shirt pictured left ran up to a security guard, yelling about the sexual orientation of Patriots’ players to which the guard responded, “O.K. yell now. I’ll see you when I eject you a little later.” It was a great one-liner from the cop.
The final hurdle before we got into the stadium was the corral, herding the fans to the gates to check tickets. Air may be 70-percent nitrogen, but in that line it was 95-percent smoke from the various cigarettes and cigars from other fans, getting their last light in before entering the “Smoke-free” facilities of Ralph Wilson.
It was in this line that Kyle, one of my friends who accompanied me to the game, started to attract some heckles.
He was dressed in a Chandler Jones shirsey (combination of shirt and jersey) and one Bills fan took exception to Kyle’s preference of a tee-shirt to the mesh garb real NFL players wear.
“If you weren’t poor, you’d buy a real jersey!” He yelled.
I had on my Roosevelt Colvin jersey, but that too was unsatisfactory because another fan yelled at me, “Your shirt sucks! That dude doesn’t even play anymore!”
Kyle kept a steady stream of dialogue open with the fans behind us – conversing mostly as New England did well – as their continuous trash-talk sounded-off from about three rows up.
Before the game started that day, though, Buffalo was dizzily happy.
Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the NHL team the Buffalo Sabres, walked on to the field for the first time as new owners of the team and unveiled a neatly done card trick in the stands. The owners, who promised to keep the Bills in Buffalo, were one of many groups trying to buy the team, some of which intended to move the Bills to Toronto.
Fast-forward to 0:55 to hear Pegula ask, “Has anyone seen my dog?” after she got spooked by pyrotechnics, and 1:50 to see the card trick that revealed “ONE BUFFALO” as a slogan.
They weren’t as happy as that for the rest of the game however as – and I admit they were questionable – some calls certainly went against them and they gave away the ball three times as Tom Brady picked them apart for 316 yards and four touchdowns.
At halftime, a man, who had consumed quite a bit of alcohol, slept off his grogginess on the bleachers while we waited for play to resume.
As far as the stadium itself goes, Ralph Wilson seemed smaller than both of the other football stadiums I’ve been in (Gillette, MetLife). It is smaller than MetLife, but 5,000-seat capacity larger than the one in New England. The small-feel could come from the under-belly of the stadium. There were only a few food options, and other than food and “team stores” that were no bigger than a food truck, there wasn’t much else to the stadium other than the football.
This is a direct contrast to Gillette Stadium, which my Uncle Carl has always been fond of referring to as, “A shopping mall with a football team.”
Towards the end of the game, when the Patriots seemingly put the game away with a 18-yard touchdown strike from Tom Brady to Brandon LaFell, I stood up and started a maybe-ill-advised rendition of “Hey Hey Hey Goodbye”. This was met with glares, suggestions of where I could remove my head from, and invitations to leave myself.
But Buffalo Bills fans stuck it out until the final whistle to see Tom Brady’s record against the Bills improve to 23-2.
And they hate Tom Brady.