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What the Bills mean to Buffalo

To some it may seem like just a game — not to Buffalo Bills fans. Football is a game to those who have a favorite team, a team that wins or loses and becomes a point of discussion over a cup of morning coffee or a beer after work. This changes entirely when your favorite team happens to be from the city or region where you grew up — where football was not a conversation on Monday morning over coffee or that beer after work, but rather an ongoing discussion every day and throughout the off-season. It’s different when discussions in June are about the draft, and free agency has everyone in town on edge. When the heart and soul of a community is closely aligned with how your football team is doing, and what chance you might have in the postseason, then things are different.

When the day after a loss is cause for mourning throughout your town, when sighs are the common form of greeting on a Monday in season, or when after a win everyone seems to be walking a little straighter, with a spring in their step, and the sighs are exchanged for high fives and fist bumps — then you know that football is more than a game.

Buffalo is a city that is often maligned by the press, a city where perceptions are of a winter tundra, and a place where teams are frequently hanging their heads in defeat. At times it seems that Buffalo can’t catch a break. Yet, football and hockey games are sold out, companies encourage their employees to wear team colors the day before and of a game, and certainly the day after a win, and where it is very common to see homes flying a team flag, cars covered in team stickers, and where the stadium is a mecca for those to visit and pay their respect.

While others who are not from the city choose to joke and downplay the significance of Buffalo, those who were born there, grew up there, moved there and worked there will paint a very different picture. This is a city with deep-seated pride. This is a place that has moved in and out of good times and bad times, where steel was once king and now not so much, where GM and Bell Aircraft were once major employers and now not so much, but where museums, galleries, music and colleges set a standard for other parts of the country. For some reason these facts don’t make the press. Buffalo is a place where their AAA baseball team is supported as if they were in the majors, and where locals go to a beautiful throwback stadium for lunch even when the team isn’t playing. Yes, people sit in the stands with their lunch and watch the crew groom the field just to be able to feel the energy of the space. This is a fabulous city of wonderful people who care about their neighbors and love where they live.

Buffalo is a city of people who are happy being who they are and make no apologies for living through lake-effect snow measured in feet instead of inches, where a once crumbling downtown is now a hub of activity, where colleges of national renown flourish, and where food is so much more than beef on weck and chicken wings (although the wings are pretty spectacular — they were first introduced to the world in a little tavern on Buffalo’s Main Street).

Buffalo’s city hall stands as a majestic towering icon reminiscent of Gotham, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural genius withstands the impact of time, the original Statler Hotel remains a monument to the grand days of the city’s past, Kleinhan’s Music Hall holds its place as the home to one of America’s premier philharmonic orchestras, and the Peace Bridge to Canada rises tall as a symbol of America’s long friendship with our neighbors to the north. Buffalo has much to be proud of, and the Bills are the city’s ambassadors.

Yes, we went to four straight Super Bowls and lost, but keep in mind — WE WENT TO FOUR STRAIGHT SUPER BOWLS! As one announcer stated this past weekend, “There was a time when if you wanted to make it to the Super Bowl — you had to go through Buffalo first.” Yes, Buffalo endured countless years after that incredible run without any presence in the postseason, and Buffalonians became famous for phrases like, “Maybe next year,” or “This was a building year.” This is a city that can be extremely critical of the team, the players, the coach and the owner — but don’t ever criticize their team if you have never lived in the city. Buffalonians feel a family-like connection to their team and treat everything about the Bills as one would the members of a family.

True Buffalonians know the players, and in some cases call them neighbors. Buffalonians typically count their Bills wardrobe as casual and business attire, and are comfortable sporting the colors in front of the TV, during trips to the Anchor Bar, or to the office on Monday morning. This is a city with a history of blue-collar work, where everyone has stories of struggles through tough economic times, where those dumps of 3 feet of snow crippled the community for days on end, but where a Bills game brought everyone to their feet. This is a city where hundreds of average residents show up to shovel out the stadium for a December game after one of those snowstorms. This is a city where tailgating is a cultural tradition and where season passes are kept in the family even when they can ill afford to spend that kind of money.

Buffalo and the Bills have a special bond. The Bills are the heart of the city, and the people who live there are its soul. This is not just a game. The Bills represent the character of the people who live there — people who would choose to live in Buffalo forever if careers did not occasionally pull them elsewhere. This is a city that boasts Bills supporter chapters in cities throughout the country — chapters that find a bar to invade and align with as the home of Bills Boosters (or Bills Mafia), where every Sunday in season is a reason to get together and be proud of their home.

I grew up in Buffalo and know all of this to be true — like many Western New Yorkers, I know how important football is to this community. The Bills are back; we are in the playoffs for the second time in three years! There is little question that a solid core is forming, where the heart of this team is strong, where players are feeling the magic of the 12th man, and where the promise of a great season seems real this time. If not — there is always next year. GO BILLS!

Paul Sorgule lives in Saranac Lake.

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