I was born in Buffalo and spent my childhood in Buffalo. Well, I spent my childhood in Eggertsville, just outside Buffalo, on the city line to the east and north. By my late twenties, I was married and living in various towns around Hartford, Connecticut. Ask me where home is, and I’ll tell you I have two homes, Buffalo and Hartford.
Buffalo continues to be home to me, even though I have no family and only one good friend in Buffalo. I own no property there. It continues to be home to me for two reasons: The Buffalo Bills and my sister, who lives in Seattle. My sister because she is more attached to Buffalo than I. She reads the Buffalo News, for Pete’s sake. When she and I talk, my attachment to her attaches me to Buffalo.
It’s the Bills that make me feel a part of Buffalo, feel like I can call myself a Buffalonian with a straight face, despite the Connecticut addresses where I’ve gotten my mail for the last 50 years. I lived in Buffalo for only the first seven of the Bills’ history, but I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve been a serious fan for the past 20-25 years, and a season ticket holder for about 15. Being a fan ties me to Buffalo and somehow, almost magically, allows me to feel akin to these people, those fair, honest, hardworking, community-driven, loving people. And they accept me as one of them, because it’s my birthright, and because of the Bills. The Bills are near the very core of Buffalo culture, and Buffalo is at the very core of Bills fan culture.
Part of the shared Bills-Buffalo culture is heartbreak. The Bills have a heartbreak list too painful to recite here. The Bills are one of the very most star-crossed franchises in NFL history and would be in that position even if the only thing that ever had happened to them was to lose four Super Bowls in a row. Bills fans know the list; if you’re not a football fan, trust me. It’s ugly.
Bills heartbreak is only one category of Buffalo heartbreak. I’m not the expert, but the nearly total economic collapse in Buffalo, a collapse that began in the fifties and blossomed in the sixties and beyond, was and is an enormous tragedy. Western New York struggles to overcome the impacts of that collapse, even today. The national jokes about Buffalo’s weather, no matter how well intentioned, have a psychic reality.
Heartbroken, maybe, but not defeated. Never defeated. Buffalo always gets up. Buffalo always helps its neighbors up. Buffalonians do it not to survive, but to help their neighbors survive. They fight hard, and they fight side by side with smiles on their faces. They’re proud that they always will face the challenge.
Impossible as it might seem, Buffalo heartbreak reached new levels in the past twelve months. I can’t presume to create the definitive list, but hanging heavy on me have been
The murders at the Topps Market.
The apparently-serious health issues that afflicted Bills owner Kim Pegula.
The lake-effect snow that moved a Bills home game to Detroit.
The devastating Christmas-time blizzard, as devastating as many of the worst hurricanes and wildfires. The loss of life, the deprivation.
Damar Hamlin’s collapse in the first quarter of the Bengals game.
I’m not suggesting that each of these events was of equal importance or significance. I am saying only that Buffalonians and the Bills and Bills fans everywhere recently have borne a lot.
It’s all taken its toll on me. I’m grieving for Damar Hamlin, his family, and the team, even though for all I know Damar will make a complete recovery. I’m grieving for all those people who lost parents and children, spouses and siblings in the blizzard. I’m grieving for Buffalo’s east side, for the decades of neglect and for the tragedy of the murders.
When Damar Hamlin collapsed, the looks on the faces of Bills players were looks of grief. This was, for the moment, almost more than they could bear.
Those looks told me that they could not resume the game that night. If football is in any sense “safe,” it is safe only because the physical strength and the commitment to hitting is more or less equal on both sides. The players’ faces told me that they would not be able to muster the emotional commitment to play the game with maximum physical aggression. It would be too dangerous to play, because they were emotionally unable to stay focused on hitting and being hit.
The conclusion of the game has not been rescheduled, and it is not at all clear that the game ever will be concluded. For now, the Bills must prepare to play the New England Patriots on Sunday. Are they emotionally ready to prepare? I don’t know, but they are Buffalonians, too. They earn that name every weekend playing for this city. Ready or not, they will go out and compete, because that’s what Buffalo does.
If it were up to me, I’d consider forfeiting the Patriots game, regardless of the playoff consequences, and try to regroup. Don’t ask these men and this city to suffer more, not right now. Regroup and go the playoffs, home or away. Heck, for my personal well-being, I’d forfeit the playoff game, too. Let the wounds heal. Give us all a little time to rest, to take stock, and to let our indomitability take over again.
Should I drive 400 miles on Saturday to see the game? I’m strong enough for the drive, but am I strong enough to survive another day of heartbreak? And yet, because Sean McDermott, Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Tre White, because all the Bills, are Buffalonians, they may, they probably will, rise up to deliver the most glorious of wins over everything that’s happened – over the murders and the storms and the tragedy of Damar.
Yes, I’ll go. I’ll go, but I’ll be a different fan this week. I’ll watch and cheer, like always, but that’s not why I’ll be there. I’ll be in the stadium to hug this team and to hug this city. They’ll hug me back. That’s what we do.