The Buffalo Bills have come from perennially snake-bitten to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
The Bills take on the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday in Buffalo's first AFC championship game since 1994. Ahead of their team’s biggest game in nearly 30 years, Bills Mafia is as enthusiastic as ever. They've been more than just hungry for a contender; they've been starving.
As fervent a member of the Mafia as any is a man known as "Captain Buffalo." He suits up for every Bills game in well-established attire: Bills-coloured tights, face paint and a hat that resembles the head of a Buffalo. The close nature of the fans is undeniable, according to him.
"It seems cliché lately when people say it’s a family thing, but it really is," he said. "That’s why this year has been a tough one socially. There’s all these people that you love to visit with but you can’t."
The Bills Mafia nickname was coined just over a decade ago. Fittingly, it came into being because of the tight-knit nature of a fanbase that firmly defends its own.
The passion of the fanbase was built over many years while the team itself faced hardships on the field. The Bills have enjoyed just five winning seasons since 2000, three of which have come under current head coach Sean McDermott. Fierce friendships have been formed in the meantime in the parking lot at 1 Bills Drive in Orchard Park, N.Y.
"You at least could guarantee that you would go to the stadium on Sunday morning, you would eat some good food and hangout. And afterwards, there was a football game," he said. "You can guarantee that the morning would be fantastic and whatever happened on the football field, happened."
Captain Buffalo is used to waking up at about 5:00 a.m. on game days. He opens the door to his camper parked at Bills Stadium and enjoys a morning coffee while watching employees and then fans flock to the area. It doesn’t take long for a full-fledged tailgate to breakout.
The tailgate at Bills Stadium has become legend in sports circles. Over decades of heartbreak and dozens of games lost, it has morphed into something both eccentric and enamouring.
The tailgate is a makeshift village of cargo bed barbeques, ketchup and mustard showers, and broken folding tables. It’s unclear when the first time was that a folding table was used as an altar in the sacred Bills Mafia pre-game ceremony, but it has become a staple of Buffalo football. So much so that it was being sold alongside Bills merchandise at a Dick’s Sporting Goods this week.
Win or lose, the passion of Bills Mafia cannot be extinguished. It is practically a quantifiable element found in Buffalo fans in Western New York and around the world. Bills fan John Rood grew up in Rochester, N.Y., but now calls Missouri home. His worlds collide this weekend when Buffalo comes to town to take on Kansas City for the AFC title.
"Honestly, the ones I have met since I moved out here have been even more diehard than the ones that I met in New York," Rood said. "I think New York Bills fans are diehard. But I think it’s something that when you move away from Western New York and you start missing your hometown, it’s such a thing to grab onto is the Bills."
Rood is the "club historian" for the Kansas City Bills Backers, a group of Bills fans that gather to watch Buffalo games at a local Missouri bar. Since 2016, Rood has seen the group at Al’s Bar and Grill in Parkland, Mo., grow from under 10 people to as many as 60 on game days.
"We have been going to that bar for years. We have had the worst games and we just sit there and scream our heads off no matter what," Rood said.
Rood says many Bills fans are expected to travel to Kansas City this weekend, whether to attend the game or simply bask in the atmosphere of the event. Arrowhead Stadium is only allowing 22 per cent of its full capacity however. Naturally, the cheapest of tickets have settled at about $700 USD each for the game.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 18, 2021
The notion of building an organizational culture has become cliché at this point in professional sports, but that's exactly what head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have done in Buffalo since they took over in 2017.
The duo’s first draft pick was All-Pro cornerback Tre'Davious White. A year later, they selected their franchise quarterback. The Bills have become the ultimate example of how to develop and build around a young quarterback in today’s NFL. Buffalo insulated Josh Allen with top-tier receiving talent – Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley – and an inventive play caller in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
Any success the Bills have brings back memories of the incredible Buffalo teams of the early ‘90s, that appeared in – and subsequently lost – four straight Super Bowls. Captain Buffalo points to the team’s current stars, however, as icons in the making in Buffalo. Instead of Kelly, Thomas and Smith, the Bills are now led by Allen, Diggs and White.
"This team isn’t them. They don’t have any of that past baggage, past history, past concern. These are new, fresh guys. All of that history, that is with us the fans," he said.
Rood’s prediction for this Sunday’s AFC Championship matches the shared mantra of Bills Mafia.
"As always, it’s Bills by a billion."