President Trump’s repeated criticism of NFL player protests and teams’ unwillingness to squelch them have brought renewed attention to his failed attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. According to recent reports, it wasn’t revealed at the time that Trump was behind an apparent grass roots effort to keep rocker Jon Bon Jovi from buying the team himself.
Bon Jovi was the very public face of a would-be ownership group backed by wealthy partners based in Toronto, and Trump wanted to take advantage of fears in Buffalo that the team might be moved to its Canadian neighbor. Ultimately, the Bills were purchased by a third bidder, Terry and Kim Pegula, who already owned the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and have kept the NFL team in the same city.
As the lengthy bidding process unfolded, though, a group called “12th Man Thunder” emerged and began organizing anti-Bon Jovi rallies. The group also collected thousands of signatures for a petition to keep the Bills out of the “Living on a Prayer” singer’s hands, and encouraged boycotts of his music.
As far as the public could tell, 12th Man Thunder was led by a double-amputee cancer survivor named Chuck Sonntag. However, as GQ originally reported, the inspiration for the group came from Trump himself, and the real estate developer hired a Republican operative to help turn Buffalo residents against Bon Jovi.
“Mr. Trump was convinced that the community wouldn’t stand for a move,” the operative, Michael Caputo, told the Associated Press. “So he sent me off to try to organize something with local fans to get that rolling.”
“[Trump] wanted to be the hometown favorite because he would keep the Bills in Buffalo,” Caputo added. “It was always his intention to come in here on a white horse and save the team.”
Caputo, who was a senior adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign until he posted a tweet that some found inappropriate in its celebration of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s ouster in favor of Paul Manafort, was perfect for the 2014 job. A Buffalo native and lifetime Bills fan, he explained to GQ about putting together the anti-Bon Jovi group, “I had it all set up with neighborhood guys who lived by the stadium.”
Trump soon had to pull back from any association, behind the scenes or otherwise, with 12th Man Thunder after he signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of the bidding process. That agreement barred bidders from engaging in any kind of public outreach related to the pending sale of the Bills, but the group continued its efforts.
“It was all behind the scenes and we weren’t even allowed to mention his name because of the agreement that he signed,” another leader of the group, Charlie Pellien, told GQ. “I was bursting at the seams to tell people, ‘Hey, this was Donald Trump’s idea.’”
It didn’t help Trump win the bidding war, but the group could claim victory in keeping the Bills away from Bon Jovi and the possibility of an eventual relocation to Toronto. In the midst of that battle, the group changed its name to Bills Fan Thunder (Texas A&M athletics has a trademark on the phrase “12th Man”) and it exists to this day, now focusing its efforts on helping underprivileged youth attend Bills games.
Trump, of course, went on to enter the presidential race, a decision that may not have occurred had he successfully purchased the Bills. Among those who think his attacks on the NFL stem from bitterness over how the sale of the team played out is Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan.
“He’s been elected president, where maybe a great goal he had in life to own an NFL team is not very likely,” Khan said recently of Trump’s criticism. “So to make it tougher, or to hurt the league, it’s very calculated.”
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