Pride in Pegulaville
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It’s 9 p.m. on Saturday, 16 hours before the Bills host the Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and the camper lot is already filled to capacity with more than 200 RVs. It’s the first time the lot has ever sold out so early.
Actually, it was full by lunchtime.
Campers began lining up in the wee hours on Saturday morning, the queue snaking down Abbott Road and disappearing from view behind a community college. By now, the celebration is in full swing, with someone setting off fireworks that turn the sky red, white and blue. “Only when Mr. Pegula buys the team,” says Bob Morrow, 61, a season-ticket holder since the 1970s.
The city of Buffalo has been in a state of euphoria since Sept. 9, when Terry and Kim Pegula, the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Sabres and investors in the downtown waterfront, reached an agreement to purchase the Bills and keep the team in Buffalo. Sunday’s game felt more like a party, with 69,954 close friends and family witnessing a 29-10 victory over Miami.
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For die-hard fans, the whole thing felt like a well-deserved reward for unflinching loyalty, for sticking with the team through four straight Super Bowl losses and then 14 years (and counting) without a playoff appearance. Suddenly, they had everything to cheer for: Jim Kelly, the beloved quarterback who made his home in Buffalo after retiring, is cancer-free and received a minute-long standing ovation during a pre-game ceremony that honored the team’s founder, Ralph Wilson. By the end of the day, the Bills sat alone atop the AFC East at 2-0.
And while standings can change, the future of this team has been secured—the Bills will remain a fixture in Western New York rather than becoming a novelty in Los Angeles, or Toronto, or London, or some distant locale where fans wouldn’t arrive at the stadium 36 hours before kickoff. This largely blue-collar fan base pushed back against the buying interests of Donald Trump and Bon Jovi, whose songs were boycotted local businesses and radio stations. On Sunday morning, one fan even set fire to the rock star’s Slippery When Wet album in a raucous tailgating lot.
The NFL is expected to approve the purchase in October, and superfan Pinto Ron says,‘The sale hasn’t gone through yet! Send him vegetables—tell him no beer, no sex with your wife. We have to keep Terry Pegula alive!’
Spotted in another lot before the game: A woman in a C.J. Spiller jersey, embracing her friend and shrieking, “Canada didn’t get our team!” In yet another, a season-ticket holder with a booming voice rallying dozens of fans near the famous tailgate of Ken Johnson, a.k.a. “Pinto Ron,” the 56-year-old software engineer from Rochester who grills on the hood of his 1980 red Ford Pinto.
“Knock, knock!” shouted Nick Papagelis, a 28-year-old whose family has had season tickets since 1992, from the roof of a white van.
“Who’s there?” the crowd roared back.
“Buffalo Bills are staying in New York, thanks to Terry Pegula!”
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Ralph Wilson, who paid $25,000 for the original American Football League franchise in 1959, died in March, at 95. As his health began failing in recent years, uncertainty mounted over the team’s future. When news broke of the Pegula’s winning bid, worth a reported $1.4 billion, the city rejoiced. Chris Graczyk, 23, woke up to a text-message alert from WGR-550, the local sports radio station, and started crying. His mom took him to his first Bills game when he was 10—a win over the Packers—and it’s something he’s always envisioned doing with his kids one day. Until last Tuesday, he wasn’t sure that would happen.
“For the last eight or nine years, there’s been a black cloud over our heads. When the Pegulas won, it just drifted off,” says Pinto Ron, holding the burned Bon Jovi album and pondering whether to add it to the full trunk of “rally chips” he’s collected from the 327 straight home and away Bills games he’s attended. (Among the chips is a 21-year-old potato chip bag from the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Bills’ 41-38 overtime victory over the Oilers after they had trailed by 32 in the third quarter).
The NFL is expected to approve the Pegulas’ purchase in October, prompting Pinto Ron to add, “The sale hasn’t gone through yet! Send him vegetables—tell him no beer, no sex with your wife. We have to keep Terry Pegula alive!”
What is so vital about keeping this team in Buffalo?
“The Bills represent pride in our city,” says Heidi Liberatore, a massage therapist who grew up in nearby Hamburg and now lives close enough to Ralph Wilson Stadium that she can hear the crowd’s roar when the wind blows just right. “We are always the underdog. In the ’90s, when the team was great, Jim, and Andre, and Bruce, and Ralph gave us such pride in our city.”
When a pair of skydivers dropped into the stadium just before kickoff, with Wilson’s “RCW” initials printed on their parachutes, a member of the local media quipped, “It’s the Pegulas!” But the Bills’ anticipated new owners have local roots (Kim is from a Rochester suburb) and a down-to-earth manner that fits in well in Western New York. Their self-made fortune came from an oil-and-gas company that has used the controversial drilling method called fracking, but Buffalo has responded to their investments in the community with overwhelming gratitude—and the nickname “Pegulaville.”
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Even with a new moniker, it felt a bit like the old days last weekend, back when Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were battling for the division crown. The Dolphins’ team bus had a police escort but still got stuck in traffic going to the stadium, which hasn’t happened, according to veteran Miami PR man Harvey Greene, since those great rivalries of the early ’90s.
The crowd roared for Jim Kelly before the game, and it roared even louder early in the second quarter, when the Bills sacked Ryan Tannehill on back-to-back downs. “I’ve seen this stadium rock a lot of times,” team president Russ Brandon said, “but I’ve never felt it like that.”
At dusk on Sunday, the camper lot was still full, per custom in Bills’ country. And down Abbott Road, at the Big Tree Inn, another tradition was being upheld. At the local watering hole that Jim Kelly and Andre Reed frequented—Reed even mentioned it in his Hall of Fame speech—in walked a couple Bills players, including center Eric Wood, who sidled up to the same bar that his predecessors once did.
“No way is he buying beer for himself in this place!” one fan whispered to a friend.
In Pegulaville, the games go on. And so do Buffalo’s traditions.