Last month I offered a meditation on sports in general and my devotion to the Buffalo Bills in particular under the motto, “Root for the Laundry.” In it, I emphasized that it is devotion to the team as symbol rather than any particular player that gives sports meaning, at least to me.
Well, the last month has been interesting. The Bills did not win that first preseason game against Chicago, which had inspired my post, and looked so awful in the second preseason game the following week in Denver that many professional observers (not to mention the self-flagellants within Bills Nation who populate most Internet discussion boards devoted to the team) concluded that this team was likely to be the worst in the NFL this year, if not in history. One columnist, seconded by a chorus of disappointed Buffalonians, called the Buffalo roster “a crumbling monument to neglect and bad personnel moves,” and predicted nothing good for the immediate future. Words such as “disaster” were thrown around, and cynics even claimed to espy a dark conspiracy of conscious destruction a la Major League, preparing the way for the team to move to Los Angeles or, worse, Toronto.
Then, something happened. The last two preseason games turned out to be encouraging, which was nice, though skepticism reigned as the Bills approached their regular season opener in Kansas City. To the delighted shock of Bills fans, and the plain old shock of most other observers, however, the Bills crushed the defending AFC Western Division champions, 41-7, one of the most dominant opening day performances in the history of the Bills.
But wait, there is more. In the following week’s home opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills fell behind 21-3 at halftime to the Oakland Raiders. The skeptics and naysayers claimed to have been right all along, and began listing the team’s many weaknesses. Then the second half began, and the Bills scored a touchdown, followed by another… then another. Indeed, in five-second half possessions, the Bills scored touchdowns on every one, playing enough defense to walk away with a stunning 38-35 victory, and the team’s first 2-0 start since 2008. Sprits were very high indeed on web sites such as twobillsdrive.com (the very best place to go for Bills news and conversation, period).
As all Bills fans know, however, every silver lining has a cloud. In this case the looming cloud wore the colors of the New England Patriots. Led by their Head Coach, Dark Brooding GeniusTM, Bill Belichick and their Golden Boy Quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots, who had piled up gaudy offensive statistics of their own in the previous two weeks, were headed to Buffalo riding an eight-year, fifteen game winning streak against the Bills. Indeed, Tom Brady’s record against Buffalo as a staring QB was 19-1 going into this past Sunday’s game in Buffalo. Many of those games had such humbling final scores as 31-0, 29-6, 34-3, and, on a painfully memorable Sunday Night in 2007, 56-10.
It is, incidentally, eloquent testimony to the exquisite pain of being a Bills fan that this era of Patriot dominance is not actually the worst such streak in team history. That “honor” is reserved to the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s and their Brooding GeniusTM coach, Don Shula, who defeated the Bills twenty consecutive times from 1970 through 1979. Nor is it the longest streak in terms of years, since the Houston Oilers played the Bills semi-regularly without losing to them once between 1967 and 1983. Indeed, between 1966 and 1980, the Bills did not win a game on the West Coast; and between 1966 and 1983 they did not win a single time in Miami… You get the picture. This one ESPN advertisement captures the feelings of most Bills fans disturbingly well:
At any rate, with the Patriots coming to town, many cautioned that it was much too early to get excited about the team’s prospects, however good they had looked against Kansas City and Oakland. When the Patriots surged to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter, those voices of pre-emptive gloom appeared to be right, and no doubt many fans were prepared for a replay of previous embarrassments. Even last week’s comeback could not offer much solace. Since 1950, when the NFL began keeping such detailed statistics, no team had ever come back from 18 or more points down in consecutive weeks. We’ll get them next time, many sighed into their Genny Cream Ales and Labatt Blues.
But lo, a Buffalo touchdown later in the quarter, followed by an interception of Brady and a last-second field goal, left the score 21-10 at halftime. Could it be? Yes, yes it could. Two more touchdown drives, and two more interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, made it 31-24 Buffalo early in the fourth quarter. The nearly 70,000 Buffalo fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium threatened to set off Richter scales across the region with their cheering and stamping.
Unsurprisingly, Brady calmly drove the Patriots to a tying touchdown (on fourth and goal from the six, no less), but that would be the last pass he threw Sunday afternoon.
As Bills fans in Orchard Park and in front of TV sets, computers, and radios across the country watched and listened in mounting disbelief and joy, the Bills drove to the Patriots’ one-yard-line, then calmly wound down the clock until three seconds remained, lined up for a decisive field goal, and knocked it through the uprights as tens of thousands of more or less alcohol lubricated voices were raised in delirious exultation. The streak was over, the Bills had won, and they now stand, 3-0, undefeated atop the American Conference Eastern Division.
It was quite a game.
Of course, any sports victory is only as important as people choose to make it, and this one win, or even the two that preceded it, have not suddenly improved the lives of individual fans. But it feels so good to be part of a community of joy, as friends old and new shared their happiness in person, on the phone, or across Facebook. “We won! We beat them! Finally!” The laundry had triumphed, and there was much celebration throughout the community…
Check out these reactions:
At Ralph Wilson Stadium:
Virginia Beach, VA:
Ft Worth, Texas:
New York City:
I do not personally know a single person in any of those happy scenes, but I feel bound to them all nevertheless. We have suffered together for so long, and for one moment, all that suffering melted like snow in the happy glow of victory.
As I savor this victory, and imagine (though, trained by years of hard experience, do not expect) more to come in the future, I also have to admit a caveat in my earlier statements that the uniform always matters more than the player in it. Now the Bills happen to have particularly snazzy new uniforms this year. Better than that, though, this Bills team also happens to have on it some very interesting, and easy to like, inhabitants of those uniforms. Two specifically come to mind.
One wears number 22, running back Fred Jackson. In a league where running backs are often high draft picks and household names, and date highly visible TV divas like Kim Kardashian, Fred is something else entirely. He did not attend a big name football factory, but graduated from Division III powerhouse Coe College. Coe is a lovely school in Iowa, but not exactly a direct pipeline to the NFL, and Jackson went undrafted. Instead, he worked his way into the NFL by way of NFL Europe and Arena Football, and signed with the Bills as a street free agent. As it happened, the Buffalo General Manager at that time was Coe’s other great bequest to the NFL, Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy, and Levy gave Jackson his big break. Jackson has taken full advantage, fighting to stay on the roster, surviving challenges from higher-drafted backs, and impressing anyone who bothered to watch with his skill, tenacity, and work ethic. Going into the Patriots game, he was the NFL’s leading rusher, and although his running statistics declined a bit, he came through with several big plays, the biggest of which was his 38-yard catch and run to the one that set up the winning field goal. A humble husband and father, underpaid in a league of overpaid overhyped mediocrities, he is an ideal hero for the town his team represents.
Jackson caught that decisive pass from the other hero of the day, number 14 in your program, Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick also came to the NFL via an unconventional route. A seventh-round (that is the last round) draft choice of the St. Louis Rams in 2005, Fitzpatrick arrived in Buffalo in 2009 after stops with the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals, where he had been a backup and spot starter. He only took over the starting job for the Bills in the third week of last season. He is now one of the top ten rated passers in the NFL. He is also a Harvard graduate in perhaps the only environment where that Crimson pedigree can be considered a liability rather than an asset. (Ironically, Marv Levy, in addition to being a Coe College graduate, also holds an MA in History from Harvard, though he did not have a hand in bringing Fitzpatrick to Buffalo.) It is a no secret around here that the RP and I were roommates in Cambridge once upon a time, so it is not surprising how much it pleases me to see one of the “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” leading my hometown team. But Fitzpatrick’s charm is greater than the aura of our common alma mater. Famous for wearing his wedding ring while playing, the “Amish Rifle” (an ironic nickname bestowed upon him last ear because of the bushy beard he grew over the weeks) showed up at the postgame press conference on Sunday wearing a t-shirt emblazoned not with the corporate logo of this or that sponsor, but with a picture of his children. Humble yet confident, Fitzpatrick is smart enough to know how lucky he is to have this chance, and determined enough to earn it by continued hard work. He wears his Ivy League background lightly, though one moment in that press conference made me laugh out loud. When asked whether it felt better to beat the Patriots or beat Yale, he responded: “Well, I never lost to Yale… so I guess this is better.”
Jackson and Fitzpatrick lead a team largely made up of other late-round draft picks, street free agents, and castoffs, with a couple of high draft choices included for extra seasoning. Their lack of obviously impressive credentials was once proof of the fecklessness of Buffalo’s management and the inevitability of their failure. It looks different now.
It is a cliché to say that Americans love an underdog. Worse than that, it also happens to be false. Americans, especially football fans, do not love an underdog, but prefer to heap scorn upon it, and upon those silly enough to hope that the underdog will win. For proof, read just about anything written about the Bills (either by the professional sports media or by many of their own fans) up until about September 12. Americans love underdogs after they win, because it makes them feel good about themselves in hindsight, but for the most part are afraid to embrace them until they win, lest they allow themselves to be somehow tainted with losing in a culture that worships success. The sports media and casual fans are beginning to warm to the Bills now that they are winning, and that is very nice. I am certainly happy to make room on the bandwagon for any latecomers. But I feel a special pride and bond with my brothers and sisters in Bills nation who were gathered together before good things happened, who had placed their hope and faith in the “misfit toys” all across the Buffalo roster, and are now feeling the full joy of seeing those hopes fulfilled. No one can say where the ride will end, but it sure has been fun so far.