I was born in Lackawanna, a scrappy industrial town 10 minutes south of the Queen City, where the steel dust fell from the sky like snow. Without a dad around, I was looking for a father figure. In my uncle’s car, we’d drive over to Henry’s Hamburgers, star tight end Ernie Warlick’s restaurant. Then I’d watch Warlick anchor the sports segments on the TV news. He was a standout beyond the field, a barrier breaker, a role model just like my never-swearing uncle.
My father left when I was 2 and times were hard for my mom, a hard-working waitress with a knack for writing who occasionally procured a Bills autograph. We didn’t have much money. Certainly, there was none left over for tickets at the Rockpile, as War Memorial Stadium, the run-down stadium on Buffalo’s East Side, was known.
By 6, I would walk with mom down Electric Avenue to her best friend Helen’s house, and they had a color TV. Helen’s husband, Wallace, would watch the Bills, cold beer can in hand. He was a gruff, bitter dude, but he yelled like a warrior when Jack Kemp threw a touchdown. It was in that house that I learned to be a Bills fan.
At 8, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and from then on I was sick almost daily. At 12, a supposed friend tried to sexually assault me. At my sickest, without hope, the Bills were among the things that inspired optimism. They were losers then, losers in a town where steel mills were closing and unemployed men sat on their porches, drinking and feeling useless. I was sick and feeling useless myself. But the Bills kept trying, just like my mother kept trying to get me healthy. When a doctor gives you a 50 percent chance of living, trying is inspiration of the highest kind.
In high school, when I began writing about football on my uncle’s Royal typewriter for the two Lackawanna papers, I researched Bills players at the local library. I looked at them as humans with foibles and troubles. The Bills weren’t immortals. That made them even better.
My Uncle Joe was my father figure. He never talked much, but he taught me to drive in his sea green Chevy Impala. He loved giant Buffalo fish fries, 15 inches long. By the time of the team’s last Super Bowl appearance, in 1994, he could no longer eat them. Neither could I. But we still had the Bills in common.
When he had a stroke and could no longer speak, I would head to his house, and we would watch the Bills together. It was the only time, post-stroke, that I saw him smile. He would raise his fist after a touchdown pass and squeak out weak but happy words if they won, like “Go, Bills!” or “Jim Kelly!” He was born in Pittsburgh, but he died a Bills fan.
Those 1990s Super Bowl years were like epic tales of Gilgamesh. Before the first of four straight Super Bowls, I remember driving to town with fellow Buffalonian Jeff Z. Klein, my sports editor at the Village Voice, on a road trip from New York City. Bonding forever, we parsed every bit of Bills minutia during the seven-hour drive. With my college pal Mike, we watched the Bills face the Giants on a giant, faded projection screen at a smoky bar.
Super Bowl XXV? A 47-yard field goal with eight seconds to go? Long, but not too long, right? But then, Scott Norwood kicked it wide right. Suddenly, I could smell the room’s choking mold. The place became dark, uninviting. There was silence. There was whimpering. People cried out, loudly. We had been so certain of victory. Yet these are the ties that still bind us.
The Bills run so deep in my high school friends’ blood, it’s like a mystical, shared DNA. When the Bills succeed, as they have during this year’s 13-3 season and march to Sunday’s AFC championship game, it feels like an old friend has succeeded. I’m more energetic, happier, more fun to be around. It’s not just me. My three pals kick into another gear, too. They tell Bills stories that are as ingrained in our lives together as any trip we’ve taken, any joy or sadness we’ve shared.
What we’ve shared beyond the Bills is what outsiders don’t really know about Buffalo: the punky rock bands that should have made it big; the jazz poets who seared our souls with honesty; that spectacular view of downtown and the rushing Niagara River from Fort Erie, Ontario; the Chestnut Ridge waterfall whose hidden natural gas you can light.
We’re older now, and to us, the Bills are the city — wherever we are. I don’t think it’s about living vicariously through them while we’re apart. Nor do I think it’s any fantasy of athletic accomplishment. It’s that they keep going, and we keep going. After all, what’s the alternative?
Now, I don my Josh Allen jersey at home. From way back in the dresser, I dig out an old Bills beret someone gave me in 2000. I never thought wearing a beret was very Buffalo. But after decades of drought, I don’t care. I wear it happily and hold onto a tiny, plastic, ’70s Buffalo Bills helmet for good luck. After Allen’s eagle-eyed passes, after Stefon Diggs’s spectacular catches, loud cheers of “There he goes!” annoy my neighbors.
But being Bills is more than just a player, more than just a team, more than all the fans. It’s a state of mind. It’s the Henry’s Hamburgers, the beef on weck. It’s your history, your genes, your life. It’s your closest friends. It’s Buffalo.