The 1980 red Ford Pinto will remain sequestered in Ken Johnson’s Rochester garage the entire football season. No trips this autumn to Hammer’s Lot, across the street from Buffalo Bills Stadium, where the jalopy with the 186,000 miles on the odometer has become a symbol of the rowdiest pre-game party in the National Football League, perhaps in all of sports.
Like many things in 2020, Johnson’s legendary “Red Pinto Tailgate” has been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. For at least the first two Bills home games, fans are banned from the stadium and adjacent parking lots. And Johnson, better known as “Pinto Ron,” is totally on board with that, given the gravity of COVID-19 and the need to avoid large gatherings. But just because his car and party have been benched doesn’t mean he has.
“If there’s a game where fans are allowed to attend, I’ll be there,’’ the 62-year-old software developer said the other day. “And for games where they aren’t permitted, I’m going to embark on what I’m referring to as my ‘Bills Backers Tour.’ ’’
To call Johnson a Bills superfan doesn’t do him justice. “Superfanatic” is more accurate. After all, this is a guy who, before last Sunday’s spectator-less season opener in Orchard Park, hadn’t missed a Bills game, home or away, since the team’s last Super Bowl appearance in Atlanta in 1994. A total of 423 consecutive games. And, in Johnson’s mind, the streak continues, albeit with an asterisk. “I tell people that even though I wasn’t able to attend last week because of the fan ban, the streak’s not over,’’ said the man who’s been featured on ESPN and the Food Channel, and had a cameo in a made-for-television movie, titled The Second String. “As long as I’m at games in which fans are allowed, it’s still alive.”
Which means the streak will reach 424 this Sunday when the Bills play the Dolphins at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins are one of a handful of NFL teams permitting a limited number of fans to watch games in-person. Johnson has a ticket and will be among the 13,000 spectators in the 65,000-seat stadium. “I’ll be driving down Thursday afternoon,’’ he said. “As long as my car doesn’t break down, the streak survives.”
And, no, he won’t be driving the old Pinto. That rust bucket is for show only, as the centerpiece of those Bills home tailgate extravaganzas. “My streak would have ended long ago if I depended on the Pinto for road games,’’ he said. In previous seasons, he drove it to Orchard Park for the first game, parked it at a nearby garage, and brought it out just for home games. “I only tack on about 200 miles a year,’’ he said. “To and from Buffalo, and to and from the garage to Hammer’s Lot. That’s it.”
That Johnson would become a Bills diehard is no surprise, given he was born and raised in Buffalo. “It’s hereditary,’’ he joked. “In my DNA.” The SUNY Brockport graduate has been attending games since the 1970s. Despite his canyon-deep passion for the team, he never envisioned becoming this obsessed. His original gameplan called for him to attend every game in a season. A single season. Not 26 in a row. “I guess I overachieved,’’ he said. “I did all 16 games during the ’94 regular season, and figured that would be that. But I went to some early road games the next year, and it got up to 25 straight, so, I decided to do another full season. Then 32 became 48, and when I hit 50, there was no turning back. I was on a mission.”
For games within reasonable distances — New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Boston — he usually drives. Of course, there was no way to drive to the London game he attended in 2015, so he flew across the Atlantic. One of his more memorable and nostalgic road trips was a cross-country drive to San Diego with his dad, a retired truck driver.
Since Johnson wasn’t allowed to be at Bills Stadium last Sunday, he hit the road, and watched the game with fellow Bills Backers from outdoor seats at the Public House NYC bar near Grand Central Station in Manhattan. “It was strange because I hadn’t watched a Bills game on TV in years,’’ he said. “Definitely took a little getting used to because when I’m at a game there are different things my eyes look for. On television, your eyes can’t wander. The cameras are your eyes.”
Though Johnson enjoyed being among fellow Bills Mafia members and loved watching their team throttle the New York Jets, the party was a thousand times more subdued than those Hammer’s Lot tailgates, which have become an experience to behold since Johnson started them in ’94. Party-goers wolf down burgers and bacon barbecued to perfection on a charcoal grill resting on the hood of the Pinto. They munch on wings served in an Army helmet and pizza cooked in a metal filing cabinet that was converted into an oven. And they top it all off with 100-proof cherry liqueur shots from the thumbhole of a 16-pound bowling bowl.
The zaniest moments occur when Johnson stands in the center of a circle and allows people to douse him with mustard and ketchup while the Bills’ “Shout!” song is played. It’s a pregame ritual that attracts hundreds.
He picked up his “Pinto Ron” moniker years ago after a writer screwed up his first name in a magazine feature. People found out and wouldn’t let it go. “They started calling me Ron,’’ he said. “I tried fighting it, but it was no use. It stuck.”
Johnson is hopeful a percentage of Bills fans will be able to attend home games later this season. But the Pinto and the famous tailgate party it spawned will remain sidelined until 2021. In the meantime, Pinto Ron will continue to show up at any Bills game he can. He learned long ago there’s no substitute for being there.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.