As they awaited the snap for the play that would determine victory or defeat, Michael Mayer and his son, Alexander, fidgeted in their seats, not far from the locker room tunnel at Bills Stadium. They were hardly alone in their nervousness. In fact, most of the 6,700 fans scattered about the cavernous, 70,000-seat arena late Saturday afternoon were anxious, too. They had come in hopes of celebrating the Bills’ first playoff win of this century. But with Buffalo clinging to a three-point lead and one more play for Indianapolis, there were concerns a dream season might end with another nightmare on One Bills Drive. Were the Colts about to do what the Arizona Cardinals had two months earlier and snatch away a win with a Hail Mary? Was Buffalo about to experience another heartbreaking moment to join the likes of “Wide Right” and the “Music City Miracle”?
“Being a Bills fan,’’ Mayer explained, “you always have in the back of your mind that the rug is going get pulled out from under you.”
Fortunately for the Mayers and fellow Bills diehards, deflating history would not repeat itself on this unseasonably sunny day. After hanging in the air for what seemed an eternity, Colts quarterback Philip Rivers’ desperation heave from the Bills 47-yard line was batted down short of the end zone by safety Micah Hyde. There would be no replay of Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray’s “Hail Murray.”
Instead, a victory would be preserved. A victory that would enable the Bills to advance to Saturday night’s divisional home playoff game against the equally hot Baltimore Ravens. “We all exhaled and then the place went bananas,’’ recalled Mayer, the longtime Rochester Red Wings team dentist and ardent Bills fan. “You only wished the place could have been packed so that more people could have shared in the celebration. It would have been, as Van Miller liked to say, ‘Fandemonium.’ ’’
There is, as Mayer has learned since attending his first Bills game, circa 1979, no substitute for being there. Even during these strange, pandemic restrictive times. Saturday proved both joyous and surreal. For the first time this season, fans were able to watch their beloved team in person, but only a limited number were allowed into Bills Stadium because of COVID safety precautions. A season-ticket holder since 1992, Mayer had opted not to seek a refund this year, thereby giving him a chance to attend either a regular-season or playoff game if and when New York State deemed it safe. Mayer’s gamble — and season-ticket seniority — paid off.
Still, it was, in his words, kind of an “eerie experience.” The buzz was missing. No bottleneck traffic and crowded parking lots. No hot dogs and burgers sizzling on grills. No tossing of spirals with family and friends. No tables being smashed. And it was even “eerier” when he walked into the stadium and saw it filled only to about 10 percent capacity for the most significant home game in 25 years. “It was not the same,’’ he said.
And, yet, he’s so happy he went. Some more good memories were made. After he and Alexander reached their seats — which were surrounded by numerous empty seats to the front, back and sides of them — they noticed a woman carrying several home-made signs. One read:
BE SURE TO WEAR MASKS
The third piece of advice related to last week’s funny scene of Bills receiver Stefon Diggs flossing on the sidelines during a break in the action. That moment clearly resonated with Mayer the dentist, so he asked the woman if he could borrow the sign so his son could snap a photo of him holding it. She happily complied. “After the television cameras caught Stefon cleaning his teeth, my phone blew up,’’ Mayer said, chuckling. “I heard from so many friends and patients. I’m not so sure about Stefon’s technique, but, hey, some flossing is better than no flossing.”
Interestingly, Mayer, who received his undergraduate degree from Syracuse University in 1986, was watching the Orange men’s basketball game Saturday night when SU center Marek Dolezaj took an elbow to the mouth while going up for a rebound. One of Dolezaj’s front teeth wound up being knocked out by the blow.
Mayer cringed, and shook his head. The man who’s tended to the teeth of Wings baseball, Knighthawks lacrosse, RazorSharks basketball, and Raiders indoor football through the years has long advocated that athletes in every sport wear protective mouth guards. But his preaching often is ignored. “People are creatures of habit,’’ he said. “They complain that the mouth guards are too restrictive, even though we now make ones that are tailored to individual mouths. If Marek had been wearing one, he still would have suffered some mouth trauma, but he likely wouldn’t have lost that tooth. He’s in for a lot of pain and a lot of time in the dentist’s chair.”
Mayer’s love of dentistry and sports has been a winning combination. A visit to his Fairport office is a visit to a mini-sports museum. The walls are festooned with photographs and signed jerseys he received from the likes of local Super Bowl champion tight end Roland Williams, “Miracle on Ice” goalie Jim Craig, and one of the Red Wings teams he served. And, yes, there’s a wall devoted to his beloved Buffalo Bills.
Mayer attended the team’s first two Super Bowl losses, but stayed away from the Bills’ next two appearances in the big game because he thought he might be a jinx. Watching this year’s team, even though it’s mostly been from afar, has been a blast. To ensure as many season-ticket holders as possible get a shot at this week’s allotment, the Bills restricted fans to just one home playoff game, meaning Mayer won’t be able to go again Saturday. But if the Bills reach the Super Bowl, he will explore the possibility of attending this year’s game in Tampa. “The feeling of being there when they finally hoist that trophy would be indescribable,’’ he said.
Like last Saturday’s memorable win, it would be joyous and surreal — a moment he wouldn’t want to miss.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.