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Buffalo Fans Wed to Bills : City Loves Team, Showing Up 80,000 Strong at Home Games to Shout About Every Score

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before Buffalo residents Ginger Schroeder and Richard P. Amico were married in a Saturday afternoon ceremony here this month, they decided to delay their reception until the following morning. They held it in the parking lot at Rich Stadium.

There, in an NFL game a few hours later, the Buffalo Bills outlasted the Miami Dolphins, 35-31.

“We had the whole shebang, from champagne to cake, for 150 guests,” Amico said. “This is the ideal place for a wedding reception because in (the past 20 years) we’ve met most of our friends at Billies’ tailgate parties.”

On Sunday mornings, they said, if you live in Buffalo, the Bills’ parking lot is the place to be.

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Of the 80,000 fans at every home game, an estimated 65,000 make it an all-day event, circling the sold-out stadium by 10 a.m. or earlier--even for night games--to grill hamburgers or serve breakfast or wedding cake.

“Hey, Marino, I want you to meet my new wife,” another Buffalo fan shouted as the Miami team bus rolled by with quarterback Dan Marino at a front window.

In one hand, the tall young man held a hot dog and a beer. His other arm was around a smiling brunette.

Summer or winter, in sunshine or snow, the party in Buffalo is always the biggest tailgate bash of the NFL weekend, the best attended, heartiest and often noisiest.

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The uniqueness of Buffalo is that the stadium is surrounded by one parking lot--a 100-acre area that comfortably accommodates 12,000 cars, campers and buses.

With the smoke from all the grills rising into the morning sun, it could be an army encampment. In other ways, Buffalo is uncommon.

“We’re the smallest big city in the league,” Buffalo News columnist Bob Curran said. “Only Green Bay is smaller--and it takes the whole state (of Wisconsin) to support the Packers. Despite our population (under 500,000), we draw the NFL’s biggest crowds.”

Said Bill owner Ralph Wilson: “We’ve led the league in attendance for the last three years.”

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One reason for that is a winning team. Another is the enthusiasm for football shown for most of three decades by the people of Buffalo.

The support was displayed after last season’s Super Bowl, which the Bills had lost to the New York Giants, 20-19. Quarterback Jim Kelly and the other players were welcomed home by a Buffalo crowd of 30,000.

“The same day in New York, I heard that 38 people turned out for the Giants,” said Kevin D. Keeley, president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce.

To be sure, Keeley is not the best authority on New York City. But he knows a lot about Buffalo, where, reportedly, it snows each winter.

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On goodwill trips, Keeley said, he is always prepared to discuss the two most historic Buffalo phenomena: Niagara Falls and the snow.

But around the world, priorities are changing.

In Japan last winter, the mayor of Tokyo, after politely inquiring into the season’s snowstorms in western New York, asked his Buffalo visitor: “How about those Bills?”

Keeley, talking it over later, said: “He knew more about the Super Bowl than some Manhattan politicians.”

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GOOD TIMES NO. 4

For the better part of 30 years, Buffalo has maintained a love affair with the Bills, an affair so serious that the city’s economy often seems to be affected by the club.

When the Bills lose a Sunday game, Monday absenteeism is up all over town.

“Wins made the assembly lines hum. Losses brought them to a crawl,” said Vic Carucci, a writer for the News and author of the best-selling “Buffalo Bills and the Almost Dream Season (of 1990)” and other sports books.

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For 32 years, the Bills have been one of the league’s most inconsistent teams.

Buffalo has followed suit, riding an economic roller coaster with the vagaries of the railroad, shipping and steel industries, the milling business and banking.

Said Keeley: “Before railroads declined in the jet age, Buffalo had more rail track than Chicago or any other (U.S.) city.

“Then shipping and milling held us up until the St. Lawrence Seaway went through. Then steel manufacturing was up until it, too, declined. Then we became a banking center--until the recent unpleasantness with the banks. Now we’re on a new horse: Canadian-American trade.”

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He said the other horses are still racing, although not on the pace. Buffalo is still a cereal center, famous for Shredded Wheat, Cheerios and Wheaties.

With an NFL tie-in, the New York Giants were featured on Wheaties boxes after beating Buffalo in the last Super Bowl.

“What a cruel irony that was,” Keeley said. “My children were forbidden to touch Wheaties for six months.”

The Bills, in step with Buffalo’s boom-and-bust economy, have experienced 13 winning seasons--divided into four eras--and 17 losing years. One season they were 8-8.

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They made a slow start in 1960, but won American Football League championships in 1964 and 1965 with Coach Lou Saban before slumping again until drafting O.J. Simpson No. 1 in 1969.

Simpson helped turn the team into a winner in the 1970s--the AFL had merged with the NFL by then--after which the Bills slumped for four years, until Chuck Knox restored order, coaching playoff teams in 1980 and 1981.

A six-year slump followed, and then another winning era--their fourth--with the present team as led by Kelly, Coach Marv Levy and General Manager Bill Polian.

Why the inconsistency?

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“On this team, (owner) Wilson has been a victim of his own misplaced loyalty,” Buffalo columnist Curran said. “When he has promoted guys from within, it hasn’t worked out.”

By comparison, Wilson’s imports--Knox, for instance, or Levy--have been more successful.

Another theory, held by some employees, is that Wilson spends freely for players only when the club is struggling. When winning, they say, he tightens the screws financially, precipitating a slump.

Wilson’s own theory is more conventional.

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“You can’t win forever,” he said. “You have a group of great players, then they retire. How do you find another group that good? There are 10 Pro Bowlers on this team. We won’t always have 10 Pro Bowlers.”

For Polian, that is the challenge. He and former personnel chief Norm Pollom--who brought Polian to Buffalo--found and recruited most of the talent that has won won three consecutive AFC East titles since 1988.

GOOD-HANDS OWNER

In the late 1950s when, as he is now, Wilson was a Detroit businessman, his goal was to own a pro football club, preferably the Lions.

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Playing tennis three times a week, as now, he told his friends about his dream, and, although the Lions were proving hard to get, his friends egged him on.

One day Wilson impulsively flew across Lake Erie to Buffalo and agreed to buy a proposed AFL club to be known as the Buffalo Bills, if the league got off the ground.

His friends’ reaction?

“Buffalo! You don’t want Buffalo. All it does over there is snow. You didn’t sign anything. You have no obligation to anybody.”

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“Yes, I do,” Wilson said. “I shook hands on the deal in Buffalo.”

With Wilson, a handshake is the same as a notarized signature, lucky for him. The team he got for a song reaps $32 million a year from television alone, and it has made him a big man in New York’s second-biggest city.

That was demonstrated again a year or so ago, on the day that Buffalo clinched the division championship, inspiring waves of fans to assault the goal posts.

Sawing off a crossbar, they formed a line and passed it overhead from one group to another, all the way up to Wilson’s box.

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“Ralph! Ralph! Ralph!” they yelled as Wilson, beaming, acknowledged a gift that, no doubt, will be an expensive collectible.

Though an absentee owner, one of several in the NFL, Wilson, 72, is a sociable sort who manages to remain popular here, at least on the days that Buffalo wins.

He often attends Quarterback Club meetings, where he looks like any other New York banker.

His heart, however, is still in Detroit. Living in the exclusive Grosse Point area, he puts in a full workday supervising his various businesses, one of which is a San Jose TV station.

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Son of the first Cadillac dealer in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson is a father of six--a veteran Bills’ scout among them. She is Linda Wilson Bogdan, the NFL’s only female scout.

Like most sports fans, Wilson identifies with his athletes.

“He comes to practice in (football) shoes and likes to go out and catch passes,” Kelly said. “He has pretty good hands, too.”

ARMY WITH BANNERS

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The world seemed to stop for a moment on a recent Sunday when Buffalo fan Ginger Schroeder Amico started taking off her dress while standing in the biggest parking lot in the NFL.

It was a long, white wedding gown that was clearly inappropriate for the game that was about to begin in the nearby stadium.

A few paces away, her new husband, Rich, was taking off his tuxedo. They had worn their wedding clothes to the game--having put them on at the hotel over their football-watching clothes--so they could pose for pictures with their guests at their tailgate reception.

And now on a warm, late summer afternoon, the Amicos, married barely 24 hours, looked like any other Bills’ fans in T-shirts and walking shorts.

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“Nothing is bigger in Buffalo than a Bills’ game,” the bridegroom said. “In November, Ginger and I will be flying down to Miami for the Monday nighter.”

If they are needed in court that day, the Amicos, both lawyers, will insist on a postponement, their friends said.

It is the size of the stadium here--capacity 80,290--and the surrounding parking lot that make a Buffalo football party what it is.

On game days, before 9 a.m., the roads leading to the stadium are jammed with vans, campers and other big recreational vehicles, most of them flying Bills’ signs, banners and flags.

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“It looks like an army with banners going into bivouac,” said Bill Munson, a team executive.

On the day that the Miami Dolphins helped the Bills open the season, the largest banner stretched from the front to the back of a monstrous RV. In red and blue letters two feet tall, the sign read: “God, I Hate Dan Marino.”

Another big RV carried a specially constructed scaffold on the back end. There, twisting in the wind, was a toy dolphin.

Though surrounded by thousands of other fans and vehicles, most Buffalo people find their way to the same picnic site for each game. Members of tailgate cliques of a dozen or more fans have been lighting their grills by the same light pole for 15 years or more.

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Many cliques play football against one another in the parking lot before lunch, even in the dead of winter.

“It isn’t touch football, it’s the real thing,” said one player, Louis Sabo, a Buffalo businessman who owns a floor maintenance firm. “For an hour or so, most of us are Shane Conlan or Bruce Smith.”

Donald F. Sabo, no relation, a sociology professor at Buffalo’s D’Youville College, said the area’s interest in the Bills is rooted in the fact that their games seem both important and unpredictable.

“Sports events of this kind are always a deep mystery to all,” he said. “And everybody likes mysteries.”

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At game time, the stadium party can be livelier than the parking lot.

A Dolphin, thinking back, said the day’s most remarkable incident was the rhythmic effect produced by 80,000 singers after the Bills’ first touchdown.

The crowd, on its feet, loudly sang the lyrics written for the club’s so-called victory song--"The Bills Make Me Want to Shout"--a number paraphrasing a 1959 Isley Brothers’ tune, “Shout.”

But that wasn’t all.

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The 80,000 sang--or shouted--after every touchdown, as they always do. The Bills scored five times, as they often do.

It’s no place to be if you don’t like to party. Or shout.


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