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Amid Snow, a Moment in the Sun

Dobermans are snapping and yapping. Rich Stadium rent-a-cops tug at their leashes, as misbehaving football fans are dragged across the artificial sod toward the Buffalo Bills’ painted helmet logo at midfield, being manhandled in much the same manner that the trespassers from Los Angeles have just been handled by the Bills. Warnings had been issued sternly: After the game, win or lose, stay off the field.

But nobody wants to leave.

Nobody but the Raiders.

Ten yards away, a dandruff of snow sprinkling onto their uncovered heads, a dozen or more football players clasp hands and kneel in prayer, not for themselves, but for the safety of brothers and sisters overseas who have spent this particular Sunday preoccupied not with a Raider game or a Bill game, but with a far more precarious patriot game.

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Mounted patrols are poised on horseback underneath the goal posts, helmets on. Buffalonians do not belong on the field and must be restrained, because security demands it. Of the 80,324 in the stands, more than have ever been here before, some could be nuts who cause trouble, others simply nuts about the Bills.

And nobody wants to leave.

Nobody from the home team wants to go home.

Nobody cares whether there is stormy weather. Nobody frets over beating the traffic, even though the lopsided football game is over before it’s over. Nobody worries about the war, not for now, not for one brief reprieve from reality, because this is Buffalo’s happy hour. This is the big day, a day to laugh it up and party down, a day to finally feel like winners for a change. Snow? What snow? It is beautiful here today, where the Buffaloanians roam.

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Californians didn’t need this one, not the way these poor wretches did. Out west they can handle another defeat, even as savage a beating as this one. Here in Buffalo, the laughs don’t come easy, unless maybe Mark Russell is giving a concert. No parades or City Hall rallies ever need be held for hockey champions, basketball champions, baseball champions. Keys to the city remain in the mayor’s desk, rarely given out.

And yet, who supports their teams any better? Again, Buffalo led the NFL in attendance, making that three consecutive years, and no town does more for minor league baseball, either. You come to Buffalo, you get fans, not tans. The reputation of Buffalo seems to be that it’s a nice place to play, but you wouldn’t want to visit.

“These people deserve a winner,” said Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ owner.

These people have one. Pessimism and skepticism were put aside long before Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett and the rest of the Bills chewed up the Raiders and spat them out like so many California raisins. A gateway at Greater Buffalo International Airport welcomed weekend visitors, the Raiders included, with a “Home of the Future World Champions” sign. It won’t be taken down in the week ahead.

Dead set on leaving behind the Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Saints, Browns, Buccaneers, Oilers, Falcons and Lions as the only NFL teams never represented in a Super Bowl, the players and fans of Buffalo have formed an alliance that eschews disbelief. Neither the Raiders nor Giants frighten them, the Bills already having handled both during the season past. We did it once, we can do it again.

“Everybody is saying: ‘Boy, the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl!’ But let’s get this straight,” said Kelly, the Bills’ quarterback, “Our goal is not to go to the Super Bowl. It is to win the Super Bowl.”

And they don’t care who knows it.

Furthermore, they want their fans to be in on it, from here to Tampa. That is why Bruce Smith strikes his master-of-the-universe pose after a big sack, flexing backward like a man about to summon down thunderbolts from the gods. That’s why Mark Kelso runs all the way to the wall after making an interception, just so he can slap hands with the fans. That’s why fullback Jamie Mueller punts the game ball into the crowd, after Kenneth Davis merely spikes it. Audience participation.

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The Raiders came a long way to take a short nap. Their entire effort was a melange of mistakes, a hodgepodge of poor passing and poorer tackling that must have fogged Al Davis’ glasses. This was not the team he and we saw all season. Jay Schroeder, who wore a hood beneath his helmet, might as well have worn it backward. Yet calling this game the quarterback’s fault would be like blaming hunger on one grocer.

Talk about a nothing performance. Not only did they have difficulty doing anything right, but with no Raider committing a penalty until six minutes remained in the fourth quarter, they could barely do something wrong. About all the Raiders did do Sunday was hold Buffalo to one touchdown in the second half--so they could lose by 48 points.

They couldn’t get out of here fast enough.

But others lingered.

You couldn’t drag them out of here with wild horses. Not for a while, at least. Not until the football game was over, and the field was frosted with snow, and the bad days were finally behind them and there was more than one reason to dream of Florida.


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