TORONTO - I used to complain to anyone who would listen (nobody did) that going to church took all the fun out of Sundays.
Not that I went to church much. But some of my friends did, and it really put a damper on our road hockey games.
Well, imagine my surprise, years later, when I heard a familiar refrain on Buffalo radio.
We were driving back from Ralph Wilson Stadium — Toronto Sun sports editor Bill Pierce, his dad Cliffy and myself — listening to the Schopp and The Bulldog Show on WGR 550, when an irate caller complained that the Bills were “taking the fun out of Sundays.”
“Where do we go from here?” he asked.
“Well,” answered Schopp (It might have been the Bulldog). “We go to the top of the draft and hope that they don’t screw that up,”
Yeah, another long day on the Niagara Frontier.
Buffalo’s beloved Bills had lost 36-26 to a “nothing special” Jacksonville Jaguars team, to fall to 0-5 on the season, and the gathering gloom in western New York seemed to be rushing in like a snowstorm raging down from “Canada’s prairie praahvinces”.
Which was a shame, because such a gloomy afternoon had started off so well, as we gathered at Danny’s Restaurant at the corner of Jim Kelly and Tim Russert Blvds. in Orchard Park, just kitty-corner from the stadium. Waiting there was former Sun sports scribe Mike Koreen, a longtime Bills nut, and his buddy Shane.
‘Live at little’
It had been years since I had anything like fried chicken and roast beef for breakfast. I usually just eat an apple in the morning. But young Mike, a party animal in Kent Dorfman tradition, suggested that I “live a little.” Of course, I never realized that stuffing my face with deep-fried animal first thing in the morning was living, but I decided to go with the flow. Besides, I didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of our hard-working waitresses, Bonnie and Linda. The latter had worked at Danny’s for 36 years.
“I started when I was 8,” Linda said, with a laugh.
Young Mike looked confused.
Later, we took a stroll around the stadium, wanting to get a read on the fans, and ran into Jake Gauda and Kevin Brick of North Tonawanda. Jake had a Darth Vadar-pimp thing going on, with a funky, spaced-out Bills helmet and various chains, clocks and beads dangling from his neck.
“North Tonawanda, eh?” I asked. “Been to any fires lately?”
“Why does everyone up there say that?” Kevin asked. “I was in Toronto a few weeks ago and this guy, who heard my accent, asked me where I was from. When I told him, he said: ‘Oh, yeah, the fires.’ ”
I explained to young Mr. Brick that many Torontonians of a certain age grew up listening to Irv Weinstein on Channel 7 and that Irv always seemed to be reporting a fire in North Tonawanda.
Young Mr. Brick didn’t seem impressed.
I asked them if they were discouraged with the Bills’ continued ineptitude and if their loyalty was at all wavering.
“Never,” Jake said. “We’ll always support the Bills, even if they left town. There are no fair-weather fans around here.”
“Do you think they’ll ever leave Buffalo?” I asked.
“Not as long as Roger Goodell’s the commissioner,” he said. “He’s from western New York.”
A hockey town
“What about Toronto?” I pressed. “Can you see the Bills moving there permanently?”
“Naw,” Kevin said. “That’s not what Toronto’s all about. Toronto’s a hockey town.”
Jake then pointed out that Bills fans were like Maple Leafs fans — long suffering, but extremely loyal.
He had a point.
As I continued to fire questions at Jake and Kevin, young Mike stood off to the side, looking dopey.
We then strolled through some parking lots where fans were tailgating, barbecuing and beer bonging, past the RVs and trailers, one of which advertised $30 US body piercings. A small crowd gathered in front of a trailer where former Bills greats Andre Reed and Jim Kelly spoke. They urged everyone to keep the faith. The fans seemed to be having a good time, although young Mike insisted that the enthusiasm level was much lower than usual.
As we walked past O’Neill’s pub, a voice from out from the bar’s loudspeaker blared: “Only four minutes until the bar’s open, folks. We’ll get you drunker than you’ve ever been before.”
Booze, young Mike explained, as he purchased a tall can of imported Labatt Blue for $1.75 from a Quicky Dicky store (or whatever it was called), was a big part of Bills games.
Sunday’s match against the 2-2 Jaguars was considered a winnable contest to most Bills fans, despite the team’s slow start, so there was a measure of optimism as the crowds began filling into The Ralph.
“Is there anything better than football on a sunny autumn afternoon?” Bill asked, as we took our seats just prior to the start of the first quarter. (Bill has two moods. Enthusiastic, and more enthusiastic).
“I don’t know,” I replied, thinking of a snarky comeback. “How about ...”
But I put a sock in it, not wanting Cliffy to think I was a jerk.
Just before kickoff, a fan, obviously already well into his cups, stood up behind us, wobbled for a second, and then screamed at former Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, now the Jaguars backup: “I hope you’re playing today Edwards because I’m going to take you down and $%^& your !@#!”
Everyone sat there in silence, not knowing what to do or say. But, finally, the awkward silence was broken when another guy shouted: “That’s just wrong” and everyone laughed.
The Bills scored a TD on just their second possession of the game and the crowd, invigorating in the warm sunshine, really came to life.
And when the Bills jumped ahead 13-3 early in the second quarter, Cliffy suggested that I was the team’s good-luck charm.
“I’m like Glenn Close in The Natural,” I said, standing up so the Bills could revel in my presence.
But then I thought I heard a guy shout “sit down baldy” — so I did.
The Jags came back to tie the game at 13-13 at the half, but the mood was still positive, as the Bills were not yet losing.
At halftime, there was a mad dash for the men’s room and for more beer, before the sale of booze was suspended. At one point, as I stood near a concession stand, one frantic father, desperate to join the beer line while the getting was still good, pushed his young son toward the busy washroom and yelled: “Hurry up. P--- on the floor if you have to.”
At the start of the third, the sun was still shining and the temperatures were rising, and Bills fans were happy and relieved (in both senses of the word).
But then Jacksonville charged ahead 27-20 in the third, and then scored three field goals in the fourth and, quickly, it was all over. As the final seconds ticked away, the Jacksonville fans sprinkled throughout the stadium became more and more brazen.
Not like old days
“You know,” said Bill, shaking his head. “In the old days, they’d never get away with that.”
“That fan over there,” he added, pointing to a guy in a Jaguars shirt, who was really rubbing it in with his waving and taunting, “would have had the s--- kicked out of him.”
Perhaps young Mike was right. Buffalo fans are incredibly loyal (Sunday’s game halted a 26-game sellout streak, but there were still 58,304 fans in attendance). But now they seem kind of beaten down.
“We’re not really bitter,” a fan said before the game. “But there is a growing feeling of hopelessness.”\