ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — I was rummaging through a stranger’s tailgate on Sunday morning, looking for a place to charge my phone, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, when a stern-looking older man spotted me. “Is that a statement?” he asked, pointing at my chest.
I was wearing a red San Francisco 49ers number 7 Colin Kaepernick jersey. All morning, the jersey had elicited some sort of reaction from nearly everyone. They’d either curse at me under their breath, offer a high five, or launch into a political diatribe. By wearing this particular jersey to a random Bills-Jets game in early September, people assumed I was trying to make a political statement.
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I explained to the man that I was just a reporter working on a story. I wasn’t here to make a statement, but rather, to find out how people would react to the sight of the jersey. He introduced himself as Dan Dreyer, former Marine. He was wearing a Marine hat decorated with a skull and two machine guns crossing one another other. This was his tailgate. You could tell because he was flying three flags above it: an American flag, the Marine Corps flag, and a black flag that spelled out the word Infidel in both English and Arabic. We started talking about Bills fans, as one walked by shouting something into a megaphone, drawing a crowd. “It’s all harmless,” Dreyer said. “Nobody’s malicious or mischievous. Drunk guys. There was one problem, and that was with an Oakland fan probably about six years ago. Because: I’ll test the waters. I’ll fly that Infidel flag and then I’ll put up a Confederate flag and s*** like that. Just to see—like you—just to see what kind of feedback you get. I’ve never had a problem, so . . .”
He seemed to be equating flying a Confederate flag to walking around in a Kaepernick jersey. There was a lot to unpack there, but I started with a simple question: Why would you fly a Confederate flag? “Just because you can,” Dreyer said. “It’s about the first [amendment], you know?”
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I was confused. Dreyer had mentioned at one point that he had a black foster son; his wife worked in foster care. Now he was being friendly to me, a reporter wearing a Kaepernick jersey. “You know what? I’m conservative, just by nature,” Dreyer said. “But there’s two sides to every friggin’ story. The best route, I learned, because I was in Washington for a long time . . . you’ve got your left and you’ve got your right. It’s a ying and yang. They offset each other. Sometimes the best route is down the middle. [Otherwise] we’d argue until we’re blue in the face.” Then Dreyer started on about Washington and the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and he was just getting going when a man from the next tailgate over interjected.
“I thought you weren’t going to be cordial with Colin Kaepernick,” the man said, referring to me.
“He had some moonshine!” Dreyer reported, happily.
We had. Shortly after Dreyer had spotted me and learned what I was doing, he pulled out a Mason jar filled with clear liquid and two black XX’s on the lid. His friend in Calhutta, Ga., makes this stuff and sends him a case every June. Dreyer poured us each a shot, his version of a peace offering. Cheers. We drained them. It burned all the way down.
Then, a few beats later, he asked cheerfully, “Want another?”
A few weeks earlier, a sadistic Sports Illustrated editor had floated the idea of a reporter walking around an NFL game in a Colin Kaepernick jersey, as a way to explore what it’s like being a Kaepernick loyalist at a time when the entire NFL is shunning if not blackballing him. We chose the Bills-Jets game because both teams are in need of a quarterback—the Bills, a backup to Tyrod Taylor, and the Jets, well, any competent QB at all.
I accepted the assignment knowing there was a possibility I’d get punched in the face. Bills fans, otherwise known as the “Bills Mafia,” are infamous for their raucous tailgates. Some fans arrive as early as Saturday, and come Sunday morning the party has reached a crescendo of aggressive drinking, partying and debauchery. A Bills Mafia favorite tradition, for instance, is for some inebriated person to jump from some height through a folding table. When I told my Uber driver Friday night about my story, she predicted that I’d have multiple beer bottles thrown at me—and that I better hope they’re empty. When SI’s Greg Bishop told a friend of his, a longtime Bills fan, about my story, the Bills fan texted back, “I hope he will have undercover security.” And then he added, “(I’m only kidding … kinda).”
I didn’t have undercover security, but I did have a childhood friend attending the game with me, Pat “Doogs” Dugan. Doogs and I grew up in Erie, Pa., about 90 miles west of Buffalo, so we know the area pretty well. Doogs had lived here for about four years and was nervous about this whole thing. As we drove down Abbott Road on Sunday, about a half-mile from the stadium, he announced: “I’m surprised no one is shouting things at you yet.” Though the windows were rolled down, we were still seated in his car.
Once we pulled into the parking lot, Doogs made me leave the car before he parked, so no one would slash his tires. Then we started walking down Southwestern Boulevard, the street perpendicular to the stadium, and people started turning their heads. One man pointed me out to his friends and shook his head; his friend next to him wore an O.J. Simpson jersey. A pickup truck turned a corner and a man in the backseat shouted, “Nice jersey. Get the f*** out of here.” Just as the truck pulled away, a group of teenagers passed us on the sidewalk: “F*** Kaepernick,” one of them said, under his breath, without looking back.
I didn’t stop and interview any of these people, perhaps for my own safety. But they were obviously associating me—someone wearing Kaepernick’s jersey—with Kaepernick’s anthem protest. This may be unprecedented in the history of sport. Normally when we wear jerseys, we are associating ourselves with the players’ on-field achievements. No one wears a Jim Brown jersey because of whom he supported in the election. But wearing a Kaepernick jersey now indicates that you’re aligned with his politics, too. Many people wear the jersey solely for Kaepernick’s politics, and not his play on the field.
The comments continued, as people kept passing us:
“Someone’s not standing for the anthem.”
“Kaepernick’s a p***y.”
“Kaepernick! More like Kaeper-d**k.”
Doogs was uneasy. “I feel like I’m going to puke,” he said. “Someone’s going to try to fight you.” O.K., I said, let’s go visit Greg Bishop’s friend’s tailgate, in one of the tamer parking lots. At least we’d have a home base. We arrived and were there for maybe two minutes when a man at the next tailgate spotted the Kaepernick jersey and came rushing over, in excitement. He had long hair and a beard and his name was Duane Steinel. The jersey had him fired up. He started talking about Kaepernick getting blackballed and that morphed into discussion about Trump, Charlottesville, and the danger of labeling the media as “Fake News.” The others at the tailgate got involved as Steinel got more animated. “It’s crazy how a jersey inspires political talk like this,” remarked Jeff Shepard, another Bills fan listening in.
For all the negative comments I heard, I did meet a few people, like Steinel, who were excited to see the jersey. On our way to that tailgate, two Jets fans—LaCresha Mirrielees and David Perl, two middle-aged African-Americans—asked to take a picture with me. (All of the other people that commented or approached me were white males.)
Mirrielees had a Kaepernick jersey at home, she said, and she had bought one for her son, too. They wore them to express support for Kaepernick and his cause. “I wear it everywhere!” she said. “Every weekend I have that jersey on!” Except this weekend, in Western New York. Had Mirrielees worn her Kaepernick jersey here, you could imagine her experience would’ve been vastly different than mine. I am a 6-foot-2, white male who could hide behind the fact that I was a reporter—and I was still getting cussed out. “I hope you survive out there,” Mirrielees said with a grimace, offering me a high five.
At the tailgate, once Steinel talked himself out, we decided to leave with another Bills fan we’d met, a friend of a friend of a friend named Chris Cortash, whose tailgate was in a lot across the street, in the heart of Bills Mafia. “This is where they film all those crazy Deadspin videos,” Cortash said, leading the way. “If you’re lucky you might see someone get thrown through a table.” This parking lot, just off Southwestern Boulevard, hardly resembled a parking lot at all. The pavement looked as though it’d been jackhammered into crumbs. Everywhere you looked, there was another party. People playing beer pong, flip cup, corn hole. In one area, a DJ had set up turntables and speakers and people were dancing.
At the edge of the lot, watching the mayhem from afar, is where we met Dreyer, the ex-Marine who sometimes flies the Confederate flag. Then we met James Raymond, a disabled veteran who had wandered over. He’d lost his left knee, he said, when an RPG hit him in Afghanistan in 2003. Once he heard that I was a reporter, he led me over to his tailgate, gave me a Jello shot, and then explained why Kaepernick was disrespecting veterans. “I spit on the ground he walks on,” Raymond said. It became clear that Raymond—and maybe Dreyer, too —had given me alcohol to ingratiate himself so he could get his point across.
No one else in the lot seemed particularly concerned with a guy walking around in a Kaepernick jersey; they were too busy getting drunk. But when a group of green-clad Jets fans walked through, the Bills Mafia rushed them, flipped them the bird, and rained boos and jeers down upon them, mercilessly. “Don’t put that in the story,” one Bills fan appealed to me.
Inside the stadium, more people made comments as Doogs and I walked the concourse.
“Kaepernick jersey? What the f***?”
“Kaepernick, he’s a b****.”
“Oh look, a Kaepernick jersey. You’ve got to f***ing go.”
Doogs and I had tickets in the end zone, section 101, one of the rowdier sections, Bills fans told us. But we were mostly left alone. After the national anthem, an older man approached me, and I thought this might be my first confrontation . . . then he reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you man for standing with that jersey on,” he said. “We appreciate it.” We. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would watch me during the anthem. Apparently they had.
By now I was a bit surprised. People had made passing comments, sure, but no one had tried to hit me or break a bottle over my head. The people I met face-to-face were aware; they had feelings about Kaepernick and wanted to discuss him civilly.
The actual play on the field confirmed part of the assignment’s conceit—that both of these teams could use Kaepernick on their roster. Josh McCown, the Jets’ starter, threw 39 times for 187 yards. Taylor, the Bills’ starter, threw an interception in the end zone on the opening drive. The most exciting play of the day, perhaps, came in the stands, when a drunk, twentysomething girl gave a Jets fan a wet willy right in front of us. The Bills eventually won, 21-12.
Leaving the stadium, I heard a stray comment here and there, but everyone seemed tired after a long day. Doogs and I walked up and down Southwestern Boulevard, surveying the scene. Slowly, the parking lots were clearing out and people were heading home. As we walked back to the car, one last Bills fan called out from behind: “Hey Kaepernick!”
We turned around. The guy was holding three Bud Lights.
“You want a beer?”
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