The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Bills Mafia’ waited a generation for a team like this. It has had to embrace it from afar.

Buffalo Bills fans, known for being some of the NFL's rowdiest, have had to cheer their team from a distance this year. (John Munson/AP)
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It had been 27 years since Ken Johnson watched a Buffalo Bills game at his Rochester, N.Y., home before this season, when the coronavirus pandemic closed Bills Stadium to fans and Lot 2, Abbott Road, Hammer’s Lot and all the other Orchard Park landmarks fell strikingly quiet on fall Sundays. He favors complete focus on Bills games, and so Johnson retreated to the third-floor attic, alone, while his wife and kids watched downstairs. He placed a television on a dresser, eye-height, and paced around the room.

It didn’t feel that weird, even for a fan who had attended 423 consecutive Bills games and developed both an alter ego — “Pinto Ron,” after his red car and a mistaken identity hardened into lore — and a pregame ritual. He would arrive at Hammer’s Lot about 24 hours before kickoff to tailgate with longtime and yet-to-be-made friends. He would eat chicken wings cooked on the hood of a car and pizza baked in a filing cabinet, drink cherry liqueur out of a bowling ball and, at 11:30 sharp for a 1 p.m. kickoff, allow a crowd to gather as pals plastered him head-to-toe in ketchup and mustard.

“For a Bills fan, a football game is not only a football game,” said Johnson, a 63-year-old software developer. “It’s a big social event. That element is completely gone this year.”

The Bills’ notoriously rambunctious fan base, a group of die-hards lovingly christened “Bills Mafia” who crash through tables, cover themselves in condiments and imbibe Labatt at a staggering volume, has consumed this wondrous season at a forced remove. The pandemic throttled most every inch of the country in most every way. Within the confined universe of the NFL, few places felt the impact more vividly than the tailgate lots in Orchard Park.

Buffalonians waited a generation for a team as good as the AFC East champions that will host the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. Since Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl losses, the Bills tumbled into national irrelevance, having won their last playoff game in 1995. And then came this year, when star wide receiver Stefon Diggs arrived, young quarterback Josh Allen bloomed and the Bills became a 13-win Super Bowl aspirant.

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While the Bills dominated, their fans rejoiced with a tinge of melancholy. The rowdy tailgates disappeared, and the stands sat empty. Bills fans had partied for two decades over hopeless teams, had embraced them without condition even through seasons when they worried the franchise could relocate. Older generations know what a great team looks like and the younger ones are finding out, but the only embrace of this great team can be metaphorical.

“They were absolutely head-over-heels in love with every single mediocre football team that took the field for them,” said Steve Tasker, a special teams ace on the Bills’ Wall of Fame and now a talk-show host in Buffalo. “It’s really endearing. This fan base cheered so hard for so many bad football teams. You see them jumping through flaming tables for a team that’s 8-8.”

The Bills will allow 6,700 fans into Bills Stadium for the playoff game, a concession state and local officials made after closing the stadium all year. Johnson plans to attend with his daughter.

“If there wasn’t covid, you’d see the entire city and the entire region erupt in celebrations all over the place,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said this week in a phone conversation. “But we’ve been asking people to celebrate the Bills, to show their enthusiasm and excitement but to do it smartly and to do it safely.

“No other stadium, no other team in the nation, tailgates like we do in the city of Buffalo,” Brown continued. “We are legendary in how we tailgate. That’s somewhat bittersweet that those celebrations and ways of bringing people together can’t happen.”

Peter Tasca, a Bills fan who co-produced the documentary “Almost a Dynasty” about the early-1990s Bills, called the season “beyond our wildest dreams.” It also left him “a little bit infuriated” to watch other cities allow partial capacity in stadiums. The precautions were not unfounded. Brown and local officials limited indoor gatherings, and they believe watch parties for Bills games contributed to a recent surge in cases.

Fans have found other ways to celebrate. When the Bills’ plane landed home from Denver at 1:30 a.m. after their division-clinching victory in late December, thousands of fans greeted them at the airport. The city strung a 6-foot-high, 21-foot-long banner across three columns of City Hall commemorating the division title, and fans have driven from miles away just to snap a picture in front of it.

A 26-year-old fan, who declined to give his real name, created an online persona called Brother Bill. On game days, he films himself waking up, rolling off a folding table fashioned into a bed, heading into the kitchen and brewing a “coffee beer.” He pours Labatt where the water goes in a Keurig machine and downs the concoction — which, he says, “tastes like victory.”

On Saturday, Johnson will walk around the neighborhood starting early in the morning to see old friends. After that he will bypass grilling and partying and head straight into his seats in Section 115, Row 37. He has taken the breaking of his streak in stride. For 423 straight games, home and away, he tailgated and watched the game in person. What spurs a 63-year-old software developer to travel the country and smear himself with condiments?

“I like the people,” Johnson said.

‘The City of Good Neighbors’

In 2010, Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown pass and mourned afterward by asking God, in a tweet, why He had let him down. A day later, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter retweeted Johnson’s plea. Del Reid, like many of his online Bills fan brethren, took offense at Schefter for what they perceived as piling on and took up for Johnson. The teasing led Schefter to block Reid and others. Jokingly leaning into the online villainy, Reid coined a moniker: They were the #BillsMafia.

Reid watched, stunned, as the phrase spread. Players started using it in social media postings. Stevie Johnson himself suggested Reid, who grew up in Tonawanda, N.Y., create a Twitter account of the appellation. Before long, the Bills’ official account began using #BillsMafia when it mentioned the fan base.

“Part of the reason it’s done well is it wasn’t built in a lab,” Reid said. “We didn’t hire a marketing team to come up with some buzz catchphrase that will resonate with fans and will roll off the tongue real nicely.”

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In 2013, Reid hatched an idea that grew out of #BillsMafia. He printed and sold Bills-themed T-shirts, designed by local artists, and donated the proceeds to worthy causes. When he was laid off in 2015, he decided he would make it a full-time job, drawing a salary from 26 Shirts and continuing to donate. Within six months, he had to hire help. He now has six employees. The company expanded to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. A few weeks ago, 26 Shirts surpassed $1 million in donations.

Every business analyst Reid talks to tells him he gives away too much, but he views the ability to run 26 shirts as reward enough. He insists the image of Bills fans destroying tables only portrays part of their identity.

“Dude, Buffalo is called the City of Good Neighbors,” Reid said. “It’s not just a clever phrase. People here are different. People are always looking to help in this town. Nationally, people have forgotten about Buffalo. But we haven’t forgotten about each other.”

In early November, Allen’s grandmother, Patricia, died unexpectedly on the eve of a game. An online campaign began, fans urging one another to make $17 donations to Oishei Children’s Hospital in Patricia Allen’s name, in honor of Allen’s number and a cause he supported. Within less than a month, 27,000 donations had been made, totaling more than $700,000.

The Bills Mafia name has grown associated with the wilder elements of fandom. Reid, once a season ticket holder, is not one of the rowdies, and he feels the perception is overblown.

“It’s not so prevalent you have to fear for your life,” Reid said. “Most people are sitting back grilling and having some beers and talking about how much they hate the Patriots.”

‘Let’s make the tailgate the thing’

“I’m Pizza Pete,” Peter Papagelis said over the phone, as way of introduction.

Papagelis joined forces in Hammer’s Lot with Ken Johnson — “Pinto Ron” — in 1992. They bonded in their love of the Bills and of the eccentric. They took cherry liqueur shots out of a bowling ball. Papagelis hollowed out a filing cabinet and fashioned it into a pizza oven. Over the years, they discovered ever-stranger cooking methods: chicken wings on the hood of a car, pancakes and bacon on a shovel, venison kebabs from deer Papagelis had bagged himself on a screwdriver cooked over a toolbox. A friend from New England would join them every year for the Patriots game and bring 50 lobsters. Papagelis concocted a race, sending pairs of lobsters down a plank into boiling water.

The notion that Bills fans are a particularly raucous breed has grown in recent years, but the spirit is not new. During the Kelly years, Tasca said, “The upper decks and end zones were, like, perilous places to be if you weren’t interested in partying.”

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The behavior has intensified. In the mid-2010s, Deadspin devoted often-hilarious coverage of Bills fans performing outrageous feats. It became a kind of contest for fans to make it to the website, upping the ante on stunts and booze consumption. It was not enough to leap from a pickup truck through a folding table. The table had to be on fire.

“My age group, you didn’t have the product you want on the field, and you still loved going,” Brother Bill said. “So let’s make the tailgate the thing to go to.”

Papagelis, 62, gave up the cherry liqueur shots from a bowling ball because, “that stuff will knock you on your back end real quick.” But he still encourages strangers to indulge, especially visiting fans. He still takes out the guts of a filing cabinet to make a pizza oven, and he still stands by and watches his friend get covered in ketchup and mustard.

At the end of a conversation this week, a reporter asked Papagelis what he does for a living. He laughed.

“I’m an analytical chemist,” Papagelis said.

‘It would have been bedlam’

As the Bills wandered through the competitiveness wilderness for the first two decades of this century, the tenor of Bills fandom hardly abated. Other than the NHL’s Sabres, the Bills are Buffalo’s only major sports franchise. The weather breeds community, a city hunkered down together, and it flows to the football team.

“Yeah, it sucks when they go 3-13,” Reid said. “But you don’t drop a family member when you’re going through a tough time. You love them through it.”

Tasker settled in Buffalo after his playing career; he thought he would stay four months, and he has been there 35 years. He adores it — the winter activities, the bonhomie in restaurants, the perfect summers. He senses within Buffalonians a mix of thick skin and sensitivity, aware that the rest of the world teases them about their city and their football team.

Now that Buffalo is exporting a great team again, fans have to process it in a new way. Brother Bill will wake up Saturday and make a coffee beer. In a normal year, he might have loaded into a party bus with about 30 people, two kegs and a couple dozen cases of Labatt. He would have made sure to get to Pinto Ron’s tailgate at 11:20 to watch in a crowd of hundreds.

“I try to imagine what a tailgate experience would be like right now,” Brother Bill said. “We did so much crazy stuff together when we were bad.”

“It would have been off the charts,” Tasca said. “Not every Bills fan is a maniac. We got that younger generation that’s coming up, though. This is the first taste of winning they have had in their entire lives, and they like to get after it. It would have been bedlam.”

Reid only attended about half the home games after his two daughters got older, the pull of family keeping him home. He struggled to rope them into Bills fandom. The pandemic has allowed him, like so many others, to connect profoundly with family. They watched every single snap together this season. Reid dropped his two season tickets a few years ago, feeling it unfair to leave his wife and daughters behind if they didn’t want to go.

“Next year,” Reid said, “we’re going to have four tickets.”