ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It’s 10 a.m., and about the same number of degrees outside. “A little early for beer,” remarks a patron at this local watering hole. This is merely an observation; not a deterrent. He proceeds to take a long swig of cold Bud Light.
Here at the Big Tree Inn, a few football fields from the home stadium of the Buffalo Bills, they are certainly used to drinking at this time on a football Sunday. Just not a football Sunday in January—at least, not since the days of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed and Bruce Smith, the Bills greats who used to pop by this neighborhood joint in the 1990s.
But on this Sunday in January, 800 pounds of wings are waiting to be cooked in the kitchen; the first employee arrived at 4 a.m. to set up the bar; and there’s a playoff game to be nervous about, for the first time since the year 2000.
“Nothing is going to bother me today,” says Brian Duffek, co-owner of the Big Tree Inn. “Of course I say that, until the game starts.”
Bills fans have become famous for their Zubaz pants, and their hardiness, and their unfathomable willingness to fling their bodies onto folding tables that are sometimes on fire. Then there’s the thing that really binds a fan base that has experienced four straight Super Bowl losses and a 17-season playoff drought: The agony of having both high and low expectations at the same time. To sit on a corner barstool at the Big Tree Inn as the nine-point underdogs Bills played the Jaguars in the wild-card round is to take a ride on the Bills roller coaster of the past three decades.
In the hours before the 1 p.m. kickoff, customers, mostly regulars, fill up the small brick building on Abbott Road. Pretty much everyone has a story about where they were when Andy Dalton made the touchdown throw on fourth-and-12 in Week 17 that punched the Bills’ ticket to the playoffs.
One couple, both graduates of Orchard Park High, says they lost their voices from screaming, even though they were just watching at home. Erin Hillery, 40, let out what her boyfriend says can only be described as an “animalistic scream,” so loud that it sent their cat into hiding for at least 30 minutes. Pat Abulone, the 28-year-old cook who is in charge of making sure the wings are at their proper crispiness, was back in the kitchen listening on the radio but poked his head out to check out the reaction in the main barroom.
“It was crazy, but at first everyone was stunned,” he says. “Not that no one wanted to cheer, but, no one knew how to cheer. It had been a long time.”
This Bills team was hardly expected to be the one to break the streak, not when the Bills embarked on a total roster rebuild, trading away players like Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby and Marcell Dareus, or when Tyrod Taylor was ill-fatedly benched for the rookie Nathan Peterman in a demoralizing 54-24 loss to the Chargers. But the team, like this resilient Rust Belt city, never gave up, and for once got some of the breaks that had eluded both the team and the region for all of this century.
Thousands of Bills fans made the trip to Jacksonville—some with folding tables in tow—and talking about their own fans taking over the road city seems to be one way to ease nerves. Danny DeMarco, who bought the bar in 1980, informs the room that his daughter is down there and proudly reported that every bar she went to Saturday night sold out of Labatt Blue—a Canadian brew that’s a local favorite in Western New York. Matt Wales, a 40-year-old Orchard Park native, is watching a video of Bills fans in Jacksonville executing their infamous table bodyslam.
“I do have a feeling something bad is going to happen from someone jumping through a table one of these days,” he says. “Other than catching on fire.”
He’s talking about impalement, in case that wasn’t clear. But what he does feel better about are the Bills’ chances—so much so that he booked a room at a roadside motel 1.6 miles from New England’s Gillette Stadium for the divisional round. Duffek, on the other hand, is already riding the wave of nerves. When a Zubaz-clad customer comes in to pick up a to-go order—“best wings in town,” he proclaims—Duffek wants to know his prediction.
“23-17,” the customer replies.
“We are winning, right?” Duffek verifies.
In a small city like Buffalo, pretty much everyone has a direct tie to the Bills. Will Wolford, Bills offensive lineman during the Super Bowl years, texts DeMarco to see if he’s in Jacksonville. Hillery had a recent run-in with Tyrod Taylor at a local Target. Wales graduated from Orchard Park High with Mike Pegula, son of Bills owner Terry Pegula, and spent a year as his roommate. Before the game he calls Mike, a hockey coach out in Los Angeles, who is on his way to coach a youth game. Mike’s going to miss most of the Bills game, he says, but he’ll be wearing his Bills polo on the ice for good luck.
“I was in the Marines the last time we made it to the playoffs,” Mike says. “It’s nice to take that step, to start building that foundation and to know [Sean] McDermott knows what the heck he’s doing.”
The turmoil experienced by Bills fans over the past 17 years is reflected by the fact that most of the jerseys worn in the Big Tree Inn are of bygone players. There’s Watkins, traded away in August. Fred Jackson, cut in 2014. Steve Tasker, who last played for the Bills in 1997. There’s also a signed Doug Flutie jersey—and the fan wearing it selected it for the precise reason that Flutie was the quarterback for that last playoff game. “I’m literally partying like it’s 1999,” says John Griveas.
Griveas also makes a confession: He chose to boycott the 2017 regular season. A lifelong Bills fan and a Navy veteran, he decided after the preseason that he wouldn’t watch any NFL games this season on account of the national anthem demonstrations by some players around the league. He stuck to his word for 17 weeks, stashing all his Bills gear in the basement and finding other things to do on Sundays. But on New Year’s Eve, he and his partner, Jackie Lovern, walked into a family party seconds before that fourth-and-12 play. “And at that very moment, I thought to myself, OK, I lived up to my word,” he says, “and now it’s time to support these players again, because this is amazing.” He showed up at the Big Tree Inn wearing a Bills flag as his only covering over that Flutie jersey.
The first wings start coming out of the kitchen by noon. By kickoff at 1:05 p.m., the Tim Hortons coffee cups have long since been replaced by long island iced teas and Labatt Blues and vodka sodas. The first Taylor completion draws cheers. The first close-up camera shot of ex-Bills coach Doug Marrone, now the head coach of the Jaguars, sparks a debate about whether or not he quit on their team when he left as head coach after the 2014 season. The first tackle by Dareus is met with scoffs.
For much of the first half, the only thing to really cheer for are punts. Then, a few minutes before halftime, comes a Bills’ goal-line series that is a microcosm of the previous 17 seasons. They almost get there—and just can’t make it in. Even worse, thanks to questionable clock management and play-calling, the Bills allow Jacksonville to match their field goal before halftime. With the score tied 3-3, uneasiness sets in.
“It’s always a fight, isn’t it,” Duffek muses. “I don’t know how we are going to win. But we are not going to lose.”
It was a good time for Cincinnati Jay to walk in. He’s a transplant from the Queen City who now lives in downtown Buffalo, working as a soap salesman. Whenever the Bills are playing, every TV in this bar is committed to the hometown team—except for a small 9-inch screen on which DeMarco lets Cincinnati Jay watch his Bengals. Now he’s a reminder of the serendipity that got the Bills to this afternoon. The idea of an Andy Dalton wood statue, joining those of Kelly, Reed and longtime ESPN announcer Chris Berman, out front, is floated jokingly (we think).
Over the past week Bills fans had poured out their thanks to Dalton, in the name of nearly $350,000 in donations committed to The Andy and Jordan Dalton foundation, benefiting kids with disabilities and special needs. Cincinnati Jay contributed $100. A retired Motorola salesman on the other side of the bar donated $50. So did Eugene Smaszcz, who is known around here as Mel Kiper for his vast football insight, and who has only missed five home games in 39 years (two for the birth of his children). Smaszcz works three jobs—on the General Motors assembly line, in the maintenance department for Erie Community College and part-time at the Big Tree Inn. But his team making the playoffs was so important that he not only shed a tear, he donated $17, one dollar for each year of the playoff drought, to an opposing QB.
“That’s the true heart of Buffalo,” says Mike Pegula. “That doesn’t surprise me at all. The people of Buffalo respect things that happen in their favor. They don’t take anything for granted.”
It’s getting late in the afternoon. As the Bills offense continues to sputter, the crowd at the Big Tree begins chanting for a pick-six. This may be, they reason, their only chance to win. Then a Blake Bortles pass bounces off the hands of Bills safety Colt Anderson. “That was the play,” someone shouts. Griveas holds his hands open, either mimicking the act of a non-catch or questioning, why? Maybe it’s both.
“If we win, I’m going to drink,” announces Big Tree general manager Chris Stone, who is wearing a loud Bills blazer that he once purchased for a friend’s wedding. “If we lose, I’m going to drink. Not a lot of wiggle room there.”
The second half, as a Bills fan, is an exercise in willing things to be true. Willing Jaguars tight end Ben Koyack’s TD catch to be overturned for an ever-so-slight bobble, just as happened to the Bills in New England just two weeks ago. Nope. Willing Charles Clay’s foot to not step out of bounds before he makes a first-down catch. Nope. Willing Taylor to, in the words of one fan, “be more like Tom Brady.” Nope.
“I literally got the entire season in one game, “ Griveas says to his partner. “The highs. The lows.”
The end of the playoff drought had felt so good just one week earlier. Now, the CBS broadcast flashes a clock, with the seconds ticking upward, of the years and days since the last Bills playoff win. 22 years, 9 days, 1:08…1:09…1:10… “It’s like they come up with a new stat every hour,” Duffek grumbles.
Of course the game comes down to one final two-minute drive. On a third-down run that comes up just short, Taylor sustains a blow that sends him back the locker room and into the concussion protocol. With the season on the line, on a fourth-and-3, in comes Peterman, the rookie who threw five interceptions in a single start in the game that nearly cost the Bills a playoff berth. You can’t make this up.
Someone says what the entire room is thinking, and hoping: “This guy can’t really be that bad, can he?” He converts the fourth down—maybe not! He completes a pass. Hope floats! Then, Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey picks off what looks to be the game-sealing interception. There’s more willing on this play, that the ball hits the turf, that it’s incomplete instead. Nope.
Stone, standing in the middle of the bar, bellows out, “That’s a bunch of [bleeping] horseshit!” The bar falls quiet. Hands that were clasped in prayer fall down limply. Heads shake. 10-3, Jaguars. It was an ending that, in retrospect, felt inevitable. And yet…
Stone adjusts his blazer and stands up a little straighter.
“Hey guys,” he says firmly, “we are going to the Super Bowl next year.”
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