On Saturday morning, Terry and Kim Pegula will board the Bills’ charter flight to Kansas City, he with lucky socks and her with cookies she baked for players and coaches. This has become a routine for the couple who own Buffalo’s beloved football franchise.
Terry has worn the same argyle socks every game day since Nov. 29 and since then the Bills have won eight straight. Kim started baking on Sunday mornings to burn off nervous energy, posting pictures on social media. Since this is Buffalo, hundreds of others began to do the same, sending her photos of their own pregame Oreo truffles, Snickerdoodles and white chocolate blondies.
This is something you have to understand about Bills fans. There is almost nothing they won’t do to celebrate their team, even leaping onto flaming folding tables after drinking too much beer.
The devotion is born from a few things. Buffalo exudes the closeness of a small town, and is also a place where sports teams have mostly failed. The Bills last won a league championship in 1965 when they were in the old American Football League. Does that count? The Sabres have been in the NHL a half-century but haven’t won a Stanley Cup. Buffalo was also home to an NBA team that never won there or in the other two cities to which it has moved.
So it is understandable that the city and the NFL team’s followers – they call themselves the Bills Mafia – are delirious. With a victory over Kansas City on Sunday night, they will be the nearest they have been to winning a Super Bowl since January, 1994, when they lost a fourth consecutive NFL championship game. Most infamously when the field-goal kicker missed what would have been the game-winner with eight seconds left.
The Pegulas, who also own the Sabres, two professional lacrosse teams and an American Hockey League franchise, have lived in Buffalo since 1993 and bought the Bills in October, 2014. Kim was installed as their president.
“When you own a team, there is no manual,” she says cheerfully. “What we were taking on was completely unknown. We owned the Sabres, but with the NFL we were elevated to such a bigger stage.”
The season had already begun, so for the first year she went to games and tried to learn the inner workings of the league. She has since taken a more active approach, even sitting in on the pre-draft interview the team conducted with its star quarterback, Josh Allen.
Ms. Pegula has spent the past two weeks making plans in the event the Bills reach the Super Bowl. It has heightened her anxiety. All she wants is for Sunday’s game to be over, and for the city to be rocking afterward.
The Bills Mafia formed in 2011, when three friends started a fan club as a joke. There are legions of followers now, but since this is Buffalo, they are no ordinary fans.
When quarterback Josh Allen’s grandmother died late last year, they raised $675,000 and donated it to a children’s hospital in her name. A week ago, when Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson suffered a concussion during a loss to the Bills, one Mafia member started a movement to donate to a charity of Jackson’s choice. Almost $500,000 has already been raised.
Dan Kanopski, the fellow who chipped in the first $25, says if he hadn’t done it someone else would have. He lives in Niagara Falls, and lost his job last year as part of the fallout from COVID-19.
“For the last year, the shining light for me has been the Bills,” Kanopski says.
Win or lose, Bills fans are irrepressible. Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, grew up in Buffalo. On Jan. 6, the night of the elections in Georgia, he opened a segment with, “This just in. Go Bills!” Last week, he appeared on a Buffalo sports radio talk show and talked about the perils of being a fan.
“We have known some winning, but we have known a lot of losing, too,” he said.
Dan Mitchell grew up Buffalo, but has lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the past 26 years. He recalls having his heart ripped out by the Bills when he was a kid. And later as an adult, too.
Last year after a few drinks he started a Bills fan podcast that now has more than 11,000 subscribers.
“No matter how hard the Bills are performing, my PTSD from them kicks in and I wonder when everything is going to go down the drain,” he says. “This is the culmination of everything I wanted this team to be. It’s a swan song of my fantasy.”
Greg Tranter was eight years old when he went to his first Bills game on Oct. 24, 1965. As he and his father watched from Row 28 in Section 14 at War Memorial Stadium, Jack Kemp threw two touchdowns and Wray Carlton ran for two others in a 31-13 romp over the Denver Broncos.
The youngster went home with a bobblehead and a program that day, his romance with the team under way. He is 64 now and has been a Bills season-ticket holder since 1984, even though he’s lived in Boston the past 35 years.
In that time he’s missed three home games – one when his mother had cancer surgery, another when his wife had pneumonia, and the last for an important business meeting.
A former insurance executive, Tranter donated more than 100,000 Bills artifacts he had collected since childhood to the Buffalo History Museum, for which he serves as president of the board of managers. An appraiser estimated the items’ combined value at more than US$1-million.
It includes the bobblehead and $4.50 ticket stub from that first game, the helmet that Scott Norwood wore when he missed the 47-yard field goal that would have won Super Bowl XXV, a box of Doug Flutie Flakes, a garden gnome, hand puppets, a snow blower and lapel pins shaped like footballs that Secret Service agents wore during the 1996 presidential campaign while protecting Kemp, the vice-presidential nominee to Robert Dole.
Tranter has programs from every Bills game played dating from their inaugural campaign in 1960 in the AFL and says he caused a ruckus watching from home this season as the Bills won 15 of 18 games.
“I am so excited, I am just blown away,” he says.
Tranter has been to every Bills Super Bowl, and he and three friends have tickets to the game on Feb. 7 in Tampa.They bought them early, without knowing if the Bills will be there, just in case.
If the Bills lose on Sunday, Tranter says he will probably sell his ticket, which cost him upward of US$7,000. The matchup he dreams about is Buffalo against Tampa Bay.
“If we beat Tom Brady, it would make up for 20 years of misery,” Tranter says.