For years, the question has hung over football fans in Western New York: Will the Bills leave Buffalo? A diehard fan on what it means to know the Bills are staying
By Luke Russert
For as long as I can remember, it’s been there. Call it a fear, a worry, a perpetual sense of dread. A feeling that the clock was slowly ticking away on something that brought so much joy and happiness to me, to my family, to communities across an entire region. This feeling gave way to a question that hung over Thanksgivings, Christmases even casual phone calls with friends and family back home: Could Buffalo survive if we lost the Bills?
Everyone seemed to have an answer. Some said that Buffalo was already left for dead when the manufacturing jobs left, filled by low-wage workers overseas. Losing the Bills would make no difference, better the region focus on reinventing itself rather than caring so much about sports. But for most, it was understood that losing the Bills would be a catastrophe. Sure, the jobs might be gone, most kids who went on to college would never be coming back, but if nothing else Buffalo would always have the Bills. How to keep them in Western New York, was another question.
I remember one holiday, my late father and I were getting a ride home from the airport from my late Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill worked for Citibank and was pretty good with numbers. The entire car ride Uncle Bill told my dad about his plan to save the Bills, one he felt somebody should present to then-owner Ralph Wilson. It was always on his mind.
My late Grandpa, affectionately known as “Big Russ,” was the most optimistic guy I ever met. He was in a plane crash during World War II; he saw friends die, but he survived. He worked as a garbage man his entire life and never complained. His glass was always half full. Every Sunday he’d retire to his Barcalounger and watch his beloved Bills, every win, every loss. Yet even Big Russ would confide in me, he didn’t see how the Bills could stay long term if things “stay the way they are.”
My father harbored this worry as well. As the NFL grew and the league became more valuable, big market teams like Dallas, New York and New England were moving the NFL toward things like ultra-luxury suites and personal seat licenses, things foreign to a working class town like Buffalo. Dad had meetings with Mr. Wilson, elected officials and business leaders to come up with the best way to keep the Bills in town and always thought there might be a chance, but it would come down to timing.
I got to my desk and saw the headline. Then, I cried. I cried for my grandpa, my Uncle Bill and for my dad. I cried for all those Buffalonians who had fallen on hard times, who looked to the Bills to bring some joy into their lives.
Ralph Wilson paid $25,000 for the Bills in 1959 when he co-founded the AFL. He kept the Bills in Buffalo through the AFL-NFL merger, through good and bad economic times and always resisted the overtures to move when calls came from places like Los Angeles and Toronto. Yet, Mr. Wilson had always said that upon his passing the team would be put to auction. That was his right; he’d given so much to Buffalo and the community was always respectful of his wishes. Mr. Wilson also had good timing. His last gift to Buffalo, before passed away, was an ironclad lease that kept the Toronto and Los Angeles bidders at bay, and gave Buffalo until 2020 to figure out a way to keep the team. Thankfully, it didn’t take that long.
Late Monday night, while watching the Chargers blow a lead in Arizona, I started to see some tweets from Bills fans. Buffalo News reporter Tim Graham was reporting that billionaire Sabres owner Terry Pegula, (St. Terry, as he is affectionately known in Buffalo) was in line to buy the Bills. Terry Pegula saved the Sabres and now Terry Pegula was going to save the Bills. Through his fortune and desire to see Buffalo become a world class city once again, he would answer the question that has haunted the city for too long: Yes, the Bills would be staying. I processed this, said a prayer for it to be true and tried to sleep. Sleep was hard to come by.
On Tuesday morning I was engaged in my day job, covering Capitol Hill for NBC News. But my mind was not focused on Speaker John Boehner talking about the role of Congress in the fight against ISIS, it was on Twitter, where Graham was now reporting he had two sources saying Pegula buying the Bills was “a done deal.” I was elated. However, being a Bills fan, I pinched myself knowing that nothing is certain until it’s totally certain (lest anybody forget the Tragedy in Tennessee, known by its “Music City” moniker outside of Western New York). It wasn’t till I got to my desk and saw the headline on the Buffalo News web page that I knew it was really happening. Then, I cried. I cried for my grandpa, my Uncle Bill and for my dad. I cried for all those Buffalonians who had fallen on hard times, who looked to the Bills to bring some joy into their lives. I cried because I knew some day, God willing, I’d have the opportunity to take my kid to a Bills game and form that bond, that connection, just like my father had done with me. I cried because I finally knew something that I loved so much, cared about so deeply, could never be taken away.
Some of you might read this and laugh or scoff—It’s just a team, It’s just a game, There are bigger problems in the world, Why do you care so much? Sure, there’s truth to that. But that passion is what makes the Bills so important. Let’s be honest, in recent years, Buffalo hasn’t had much to believe in. The economy is slowly recovering from collapse, there are no skyscrapers, no year- round ocean beaches, there’s probably more self-loathing than anything else. For Buffalo, the Bills are the reason to believe.
So thank you, Mr. Pegula, and thank you Mr. Wilson for all your efforts. For believing in a small-market town like Buffalo. For believing in the most loyal fans in the NFL. For believing that Buffalo can support a new stadium. And, most importantly, for believing that one day, Buffalo will be known for its Super Bowl Champion Bills.
Luke Russert is a political correspondent for NBC News. A life-long Bills fan, he has family ties to Western New York where his late father, long-time Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, grew up.