There was a late December game during the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl run when the stadium then known as Rich was packed with 80,000 people and several inches of snow that had fallen the night before. The wind-chill was so brutal that afternoon that those of us sitting in the front row of the frigid but hermetically sealed press box had to repeatedly scrape ice off the glass in front of us in order to see the action.
That’s the day I discovered that credit cards make pretty good ice scrapers. It’s also the day I developed a Pacific Ocean-deep appreciation for the devotion of Bills fans. As I looked out at the bundled-up die-hards on the other side of the window, I shook my head in amazement. “These people are bleeping nuts,” I told a shivering colleague.
I thought I would never see a greater example of insane loyalty. But then came Sunday’s Blizzard Bowl at the stadium now known as New Era Field. There might have been 30,000 fewer fans in the stands than during that sub-zero day a quarter century ago, but this showing might have been more impressive, given the ferocity of the snow blowing off Lake Erie and the mediocrity of the Bills in recent weeks.
The Lake Effect was so blinding, so relentless that you could barely see the spectators on the other side of the press box glass, let alone the players on the field. Most fans seemed content to plop down on the snowy cushions in their seats and allow the white stuff to accumulate on their ski caps and parkas, making them look like a bunch of abominable snow men. Some fans even made real snow men in the stands. Others engaged in friendly snowball fights. In true Buffaloanian fashion, these hardy souls made the best of a bad situation. They had won just by getting there. And they seemed determined not to let a little blizzard spoil their parade.
Their faithfulness was rewarded when LeSean McCoy went dashing through the snow on a 21-yard touchdown run in overtime to give the Bills a 13-7 victory and keep alive their faint playoff hopes. It would have been extremely cruel had the football gods not warmed them with a win.
What made this display of fan loyalty more remarkable is that it occurred in the midst of not only an epic blizzard but a 17-season playoff drought. I thought there might be 20,000 people in the stands, given the frightful forecast and the ugly streak of four Bills losses in five games. Instead, about 50,000 fans showed up, and a goodly percentage of them stayed to the bitter (cold) end.
Kyle Williams, the 12th-year defensive end from down in the bayou, made a point to thank the spectators immediately after the game. “You know what, before I answer a question I want to say that our fans are the toughest damn people in the world,’’ said the former Louisiana State University star who has come to embrace Western New York as if he were a native. “They’re why I’ve been here so long and the reason I enjoy being here, so much. They deserve as much credit as anybody. I love being here and I love playing for them.”
On days like last Sunday, it’s hard not to admire their crazed devotion. They’re bleeping nuts. And I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.
The addition of gargantuan slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a lineup including Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius gives the New York Yankees a modern-day version of Murderers’ Row. But it doesn’t necessarily give them a World Series title. I remember the elation of Yankees fans and the deflation of Red Sox loyalists back in February 2004 when the Bronx Bombers beat out the Beantowners for the services of Alex Rodriguez. A newspaper colleague argued that they might as well award the Yankees the next five World Series titles. I wrote a column saying the Yankees may come to rue the day they signed the fraudulent A-Rod. As it turned out, the Pinstripers won one championship in Rodriguez’s tumultuous 12 seasons with the team. The Red Sox, meanwhile, won three World Series titles, including the curse-ending one at the expense of A-Rod and Co.
There was a similar hue-and-cry when George Steinbrenner signed Dave Winfield to a 10-year deal in 1980. They made it to one World Series, which they lost, while Big Dave was in New York. It wasn’t his fault because he produced some superior seasons with the Yankees, just as A-Rod had. But one guy, even one as big as Stanton or Winfield, doesn’t guarantee anything.
It will be interesting to see how Stanton handles the massive expectations of Yankees fans and the suffocating media scrutiny. He will quickly discover he’s not in Miami any more, where the Marlins were an afterthought. As we’ve discovered time and again, not everyone is big enough to handle the pressures of playing in the Big Apple.
Add leading MVP-candidate Carson Wentz to a long list of lost-for-the-season National Football League players that includes J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham, Jr., David Johnson, Andrew Luck, Richard Sherman, Deshaun Watson, Joe Thomas and Ryan Shazier. I know pro football is a sport of attrition, but the carnage involving big-name players seems higher than ever. On a positive note, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be returning after being sidelined with a broken right collarbone.
Award-winning Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak will be signing copies of his new children’s book, “Let’s Go Yankees! An Unforgettable Trip to the Ballpark,’’ as well as other books he’s authored, at the Barnes & Noble in Webster, Friday evening from 6-8 p.m.