By Daniel Higgins
Photo by Brendan Bannon
It’s two hours before kickoff in a tailgate parking lot adjacent to New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills, and a man jumps from the roof of an RV. He overshoots his target, a plastic folding table about eight feet below, hitting the table with his ankles, and hitting the ground with his face. He appears to lose consciousness as bystanders howl in amazement and someone tries to rouse him by pouring beer on him.
Elsewhere in “The Grass Lots” — the biggest privately-owned parking area outside New Era Field — rowdy tailgaters successfully smash through tables while a shirtless man puffs his chest as he debates with his friends the rules of a drinking game, which involves throwing a Ping Pong ball at top speed at your opponents’ genitals. He stops in mid-tantrum to turn his attention to a couple walking by, who are wearing New England Patriots jerseys, representing the Bills’ opponents on this December morning. He scolds the couple with a depraved remark before returning to his argument about the drinking game.
A massive security guard, six-feet-ten-inch-tall Ryan Shaw, stands with his arms folded and surveys the scene: “Have you seen the naked Canadians fighting each other yet?” he says languidly, shaking his head. “That happens every week. I might have to go over there.”
As Shaw gazes across the acreage of the massive parking lot, he sees smoke rising from open fires set directly on the ground next to parked cars; footballs as well as full beer cans sailing through the air; drinking games unfolding on plastic tables that will soon be destroyed and sometimes set ablaze in what appears to be a rite of passage. The rituals and antics — which include public displays of sex — are part of the weekly tailgate scene for a subset of Bills fans known as the Bills Mafia. With the help of viral videos picked up by such media outlets as Deadspin, Barstool Sports, and Maxim, they’ve come to be known as the wildest (or most awful) fans in the NFL. The worst of them might even be called deplorable, in both the pre- and post–2016 Election sense of the word.
A subset of Bills fans known as the Bills Mafia have come to be known as the wildest (or most awful) fans in the NFL. The worst of them might even be called deplorable, in both the pre- and post–2016 Election sense of the word.
Conrad Berry, a 22-year-old countertop installer, says tailgating is a way to cope with the Bills’ penchant for losing. Currently, the team is on a 17-year postseason drought, the longest in professional sports.
“It’s how we guarantee we’re going to have fun on Sunday, no matter what,” says Berry, who had just witnessed someone throw a full can of Budweiser in a perfect spiral, striking a Patriots fan wearing a Tom Brady jersey.
When asked about fear of reprisals, Berry chuckles. “Are you kidding? They know better. They’re outnumbered here.”
It’s not surprising that tailgating has become synonymous with football. As detailed in Domesticating Public Space Through Ritual: Tailgating as Vestaval, tailgating has often preceded the spectacle of violent conflict. The first event in America we might think of as a tailgate took place outside Manassas Junction, Virginia, in 1861. There, residents and members of the press gathered with picnic lunches to watch what would become known as the First Battle of Bull Run. Other social encampments have taken place adjacent to and preceding atomic bomb tests, and more recently on the edges of the Gaza conflict.
In the world of American football, tailgating is very much a demonstration of a fan’s sense of identity. The team represents the hometown, and the hometown represents the fan. In parking lots surrounding stadiums, tailgaters recreate their neighborhoods — where they belong and where others do not. Parked cars serve as home bases, with folding tables and chairs serving as front yards.
In Buffalo, this dynamic is especially felt as the Bills team itself is a mirror for the city’s fall and staggeringly uneven rise. The team was founded in 1960, when manufacturing jobs started to decline. Over the next 30 years, the city struggled with deindustrialization, depopulation, disinvestment, urban blight, and other problems that have plagued communities throughout the Rust Belt. All the while, the Bills either wallowed in the standings basement or in hopeless mediocrity.
Then, in 1990, the Bills dominated the AFC and went to Super Bowl XXV. They were favored to beat the New York Giants, but lost in one of the most famous game-ending blunders of all time: Kicker Scott Norwood’s field goal that would have won the game went wide right. Even today, “wide right” is used as a taunt against Bills fans.
Tailgating has often preceded the spectacle of violent conflict. The first event in America we might think of as a tailgate took place at the First Battle of Bull Run.
The Bills’ ignoble history doesn’t end there. The team set an NFL record by appearing in the next three Super Bowls, and set another record by losing them all. Jim Kelly, the quarterback who led the team in that era, would have been on the all-time lists next to Tom Brady and Terry Bradshaw — he is, in fact, a Hall of Famer — but instead holds the dubious distinction of four-time loser.
The recent successes of the city itself have the same hollow quality. In the last decade or so, Buffalo’s financial and civic fortunes seem to have turned a corner. Housing prices are up in many city neighborhoods (not all). Construction cranes can be seen on the skyline putting up new buildings, like a $140 million federal courthouse. The most promising is the “Buffalo Billion” project, which in 2012 saw Governor Andrew Cuomo promising to inject $1 billion in state funds into the city of Buffalo. The program has resulted in Panasonic and Tesla manufacturing solar panels on the former site of a Buffalo steel plant. But the project’s future is in question after top officials were indicted in a bribery and bid-rigging scheme earlier this year.
As for the tailgaters, the tradition goes back to 1973, when the stadium (then known as Rich Stadium) opened in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park. The stadium has 10,000 parking spaces for cars, and hundreds more for buses and campers. When those spaces fill up, roughly a hundred private lots nearby park cars for up to $30 a vehicle. Some of these private lots are at small businesses or in the front yards of homes near the stadium. But over the years, some have turned parking, and the tailgating culture that follows it, into big business. It’s lucrative enough that some have even bought foreclosed homes, torn them down, and reopened them as private parking lots for Bills games and other events that take place at the stadium throughout the year.
Orchard Park Town Supervisor Patrick Keem sees the expansion of private parking as a blight, affecting property values as it perpetuates the rowdy tailgate culture that he wishes would settle down.
“I still tailgate,” Keem says. “I’ve been doing it since the stadium opened. But I mean, have some coffee and grill a few sausages in the morning with friends. These people are going to hurt themselves, or, worse, someone else. It’s not good for our reputation.”
“I’ve been tailgating since the stadium opened. But I mean, have some coffee and grill a few sausages in the morning with friends. These people are going to hurt themselves, or, worse, someone else. It’s not good for our reputation.”
Keem and others are looking to the future, unsure of what it will bring for the tailgate culture, which results in a handful of arrests each week for fights, public intoxication, and DUI.
New Era Field’s lease with Erie County expires in 2023, after which there will be pressure from the league, and some fans, to replace the old stadium. Conventional wisdom in Buffalo has stoked rumors that a new stadium would be built in the city center of Buffalo, where there would simply be no space to accommodate the sprawling tailgate culture. Terry and Kim Pegula, the billionaires who own the Bills, say there’s no plan for this, but it doesn’t stop the chatter on social media, and in the Grass Lots themselves.
Keem says he’d fight to keep the stadium in his town, because tailgating “is such a part of who we are. We want it to settle down a little, but we don’t want it to go away.”
Back in the Grass Lots, Conrad Berry and his friends share beers around the back bumper of an SUV. On the ground is a blue Bills jersey, with the name “Gilmore” on the back. Gilmore is Stephon Gilmore, currently of the Patriots, and previously a member of the Bills’ defense. Gilmore not only now plays for a hated rival, but as he was leaving town, he made a comment that fans took as an insult. On Twitter, Gilmore said he was excited to be playing for the Patriots, where friends and loved ones are now more likely to see him on TV. It’s true that the Patriots — one of the best teams in the history of football — get far more time on national TV than the perpetually struggling Bills.
But for the Bills Mafia, the slight meant Gilmore is persona non grata. Later that morning, the Gilmore jersey is held aloft and lit on fire.
Daniel Higgins is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. He teaches journalism at Canisius College. Twitter: @dan_higgins