Bills Mafia blends ketchup, mustard and, this NFL season, a shot of hope

THE WIND IS swirling -- violent, roiling gusts that reach 40 mph and send those less heftily blessed lurching forward. Meanwhile, there's a driving rain, and if the pinpricks that lash the backs of the milling masses are any indication, pellets of hail are raining down too. Into this morass, a troupe of six or seven climbs atop the roof of a rusted-out gray van that might have been white once upon a time, armed with ketchup bottles and caulking guns filled with mustard. They let the ketchup and mustard fly, in great, looping arcs, spraying their intended target -- the man standing a few feet away and below, at the epicenter of this liquefied, grubby hellscape -- blanketing his glasses, lodging the condiments in the nooks and crannies of his beard, which measures just this side of "Duck Dynasty." That's when this horde of 500 gawkers (Maybe 800? Maybe 1,000? It's hard to tell how far back the crowd stretches, how high up the hill it climbs) reaches its frantic boiling pitch.

It's 11:30 on this Sunday morning in Orchard Park, New York; the Buffalo Bills are 5-1 and surging, and set to take on a floundering Philadelphia Eagles team at New Era Field; Pinto Ron, né Ken Johnson, who is perhaps Buffalo's most cherished, logic-defying Bills fan, is slathered in a glistening patina of condiments; and, damn it, all is right in western New York.

The Bills Mafia, the most devoted, enduring fan base the NFL over, finally has real hope. Er, well, they hope.


THE WIFE OF Bills safety Micah Hyde stands in the bed of a black Chevy Avalanche, bearing the wind gusts and the rain-hail two-for-one combo, reveling in the ketchup-and-mustard ceremony (ritual? shenanigans?). Amanda is no more than 20 feet back from the mess of it all, but she has also stood on that corroding van before as ketchup-and-mustard guest shooter. There's no real mystery as to who she is -- "HYDE HYDE HYDE HYDE HYDE HYDE," blares a white T-shirt under her gray hoodie -- the mystery is why she's here.

She lifts her arm and points to the swarming fans. Hello, look around, yes, that's why.

It seems unlikely she has ever asked Johnson why he does this, dug into what could possibly compel a 62-year-old man to volunteer for dousing-by-condiment, home game after home game, season after season.

Why do Pinto Ron and his minions offer shots of Wisniowka liqueur -- a libation one of the tailgate's many co-hosts likens to downing cough syrup gone very bad -- from the finger holes of a black bowling ball? (Another co-host, Nick, guesstimates he took his first go at said shot when he was 13.) Why do they keep a tin of pickles from a 1996 tailgate stashed in the back of Johnson's red, also extremely rusted-out 1980 Ford Pinto? ("They used to be pickles," Nick says, as he nudges the tin open just a crack to display the decaying contents. "Ooooooh," he recoils as his hand swipes one. "I touched that.") Why does Nick's dad, "Pizza Pete," cook his pizza in a filing cabinet and his Italian wedding soup in an oversized silver watering can? (He unloads a gallon-sized freezer bag, stuffed to the gills with raw chicken, diced celery and mounds of acini di pepe, into that watering can, which sits on top of a bed of coals, which all sit together in a decrepit wheelbarrow-cum-stove.)

Why? Because they did it last year and the year before that and the year before that. Because they did it in a lot, where the field house now stands, until 1997; then Lot 1 until 2011; then in the far back corner of Hammer's Lot, their current home. Because.

There's a frenzied, nonsensical feel to the entire venture. A few hours before he'll help drench Johnson in ketchup and mustard, Nick rounds the bend of the Pinto's back passenger side. He happens upon a free-standing toilet -- one that bears some truly alarming brown stains -- and opens the lid to reveal a cache of Labatt (Blue) and White Claw (mango). And as he snakes his way toward the front of the tailgate, a man waits at the bar to take a bowling ball shot. He's wearing a red O.J. Simpson jersey, Speedo-sized red shorts, rainbow mirror sunglasses and a white motorcycle helmet with stenciled letters that read "Donnie Darts." He'll take his cough-syrup-gone-bad shot ("It's a little disgusting if you think about it," he says) and then move on to other lots and to other tailgates. "Donnie Darts, he doesn't stay in one spot. Donnie likes to get around and see everybody. Donnie's not selfish," Donnie says. "We always talk about Donnie like that," he goes on, then drops to a whisper. "Because Donnie's real name's not Donnie."

There is also, however, a logic to all of this sensory overload. It's chaos powered by madcap genius and wonkiness undergirded by total, boring ordinariness. Johnson is a software developer, and his brother, Tom, is a mechanical engineer, which helps spark his creativity when it comes to finagling a way to cook baked potatoes with crushed beer cans and reused coal. Donnie Darts is a real estate agent who can't even go to the game today because he's showing a house in nearby Cheektowaga at 4 o'clock.

Between bites of food made in office furniture, Nick and the other co-hosts tiptoe around the precarious optimism threatening this season. That's what optimism does in this place, it lurks like an intruder, because these western New York natives are loath to really grab hold. "It's still early," Nick says. "We're still getting used to being good." He pauses, just briefly. "We got a lot of time to screw this up."

Despite the fact that -- or maybe, really, because -- these fans still treat positivity about their football team like foreign bodies in their systems, they've dedicated themselves to crafting the most college-like, chaotic tailgating panorama in the NFL. "I've had some weeks in the past where I'm like, f---, I'm ready to sell," says Eric Matwijow, the lot owner. "But we all look out for each other. I mean, we're all Bills fans. It's not gangs on gangs."

Reputation notwithstanding, it's not all debauchery and marauding red-white-and-blue-clad numbskullery, is what he's saying. Sure, the atmosphere feels a little more charged today, he says, with the Eagles and their own fanatics in town, but there's nary a table-smasher in sight, Eric points out. Then, in the same breath, he gestures over his right shoulder to the building next door to Hammer's Lot that looks like a home but is really Buffalo Spine & Chiropractic. It looms like a redbrick warning of where you might find yourself with the wrong table-smashing escapade.

Buffalo fans' propensity for tailgating one-upmanship, the rare but still present mob-mentality-seeking faction of Bills Mafia, scared parts of the Bills front office enough for them to take steps to rein in that particular subset of extremists, fan backlash be damned. (Political backlash too. Tom Reed, a representative for New York's 23rd district, railed against the team's "nickeling and diming" of fans just out to enjoy some friendly neighborhood tailgating.) The problem, of course, was that some -- including Andy Major, the Bills' vice president of operations and guest experience -- didn't think it was all friendly neighborhood tailgating. He watched game after game last season from the command center, monitoring what he calls "near-riot situations," and finally, during the last home game of the year, he went undercover to understand the fan behavior close up. Major put a Bills jersey on, a hoodie on over that. He felt wildly out of place without a beer in his hand, so he picked up an empty can off the ground to blend in. He waited to see whether this frenetic pregame energy would escalate into dangerous misbehavior. It did, and "it was ugly." It did, and he was scared.

Major and his team briefly considered imposing a tailgating moratorium in the bus lot, the site that concerned him the most. In the end, they settled on a less dire tack to clean up the bus lot's image. Raise the cost of parking permits (weeding some fans out). Ban tailgating alongside vehicles (limiting the opportunity for jumping off said vehicles). Introduce a tailgating village -- essentially a sanitized version of the real thing -- and let it be BYO for food, beer and games (minimizing the opportunity for the more wild, wild west elements of previous Bills tailgating experiences).

Money grab? Some fans think so. One, a guy named Matt standing outside the camper his father parked the Friday (Friday!) before the game against the Eagles, scoffed at the idea of being made to start tailgating later, as though mere 48-hour sessions were an affront to his sensibilities. "It drives me nuts," he says. "I don't know why they're squashing it."

Necessary evil? Some fans think that too. Where they're united -- tailgating-safety truthers and tailgating-safety reformers alike -- is here: Protect this endeavor, this absurd, Buffalo-specific tradition, at all costs. Can't they at least have this, these perennial have-nots? No Super Bowl title in franchise history, no postseason tickets punched in 18 of the past 19 years, no playoff game won, period, since 1995. Misery doesn't love company in Buffalo. Misery loves tailgating.

Across the way from Pinto Ron & Co., nestled in the B2 section of the camper lot -- there are RVs as far as the eye can see -- sit a few friends who became friends doing exactly what they're doing now. One of them, Tee, brings her corgi, Annie, to every home game, has for the seven years she's had her.

"She's the T-O-M B-R-A-D-Y corgi," Tee says.

"Tom Brady!" Tee yells, and Annie charges, barking with enough brio to be ferocious if she weighed more than 25 pounds. "Tom Brady!" Tee yells, and Annie loses her dog mind again, in a way that makes her seem rabid. Tee swears that she didn't intentionally train her dog to hate the sound of Tom Brady's name. It's just that she and her tailgating friends have now spent nearly two full decades returning to their campers after games, spitting out the New England quarterback's name like it was a curse -- and Annie read the room. Well, the parking lot.

"She picked up on our saying 'Tom Brady, damn it!'" fellow tailgater Dina says. "Because we literally would come back after getting our ass kicked and say 'Damn Tom Brady.'"


THE TIME AND effort and intestinal fortitude Bills tailgaters display on any given Sunday -- and this year aside, typically on losing Sundays -- all raises a vital question: Why on the tailgating gods' green earth do they do this? They sacrifice sleep. Like Tee's friend Russ, who braved the elements the Saturday night before the Eagles game, rousing out of his camper at 2:30 in the morning to hammer down the stakes of a tent that was uprooted by those 40 mph gusts. They sacrifice time at home. Like Tee's other friend Pete, who has driven six and a half hours from Enfield, Connecticut, for nearly every home game for 27 years. They sacrifice hometowns. Like Rich, who grew up in central Jersey in Giants and Eagles country but adopted the Bills as a kid because back then New Era Field was called Rich Stadium. He moved to Orchard Park in 2015 with his wife six weeks after getting married, and the impetus for their relocation was "99 percent for the Bills."

The not-so-dark underbelly of this whole enterprise is that they love it but they love each other more. There's a community here, and the pull is strong enough to make them want to make these sacrifices.

As for the Bills themselves, for all their historic bumbling on the field, they do seem to want to do more than just recognize this weird, beautiful symbiosis between city and football team. They want to honor it, like an unspoken thank-you for sticking with and believing in a team most fans in most cities would not have. The players stream out of the stadium on Saturday nights after pregame meetings, and tailgaters like Rich bum-rush the curb to wave their hats and scream for them. The players honk their approval all down Abbott Road. Coach Sean McDermott has traversed the camper lot on Sundays, before and after games. "I see a lot of myself in them," he says.

Even Josh Allen, just 18 months into his new life as a Buffalonian, has shown smarts in his wooing of this town. The Bills beat the Giants in mid-September, and when a reporter asked the quarterback what kind of impression he thought he left on New York City fans and "New York teams," Allen shrugged, said "One New York team" and winked. Did he mean to echo Jim Kelly, who needled the New Jersey-based "New York" Giants and "New York" Jets 33 years ago -- 10 years before Allen was born -- on the "Late Show With David Letterman"? Did he mean to sound exactly like one of the most beloved Bills of all time? He didn't. He didn't even know, at the time, that Jim Kelly had uttered similar thoughts. He was just kicking back at all the people who kick down Buffalo. "We get a bad rap here," he says, standing guard outside his locker. "People think of it as cold. That's really all. And it's a beautiful place here. When people kind of just say, 'We're not a part of New York'? We are absolutely part of New York."

The spectacle isn't beside the point. The spectacle is the point.

Ray and Adele Cracknell, 73 and 71, gave up their season tickets two years ago after 27 seasons -- too much cold, too much standing up -- but they still tote their Windsport camper to an RV lot, as they've done for 30 years now. They park themselves on Fay Street, right off of Bills Drive and no more than a few football fields' worth of yards from New Era Stadium. When they arrived for the first game this season, they found that the Bills organization had erected brown fencing the whole way down Bills Drive. They hate that fence. "It blocks our view of the people," Adele says.

They liked watching this parade of die-hards flooding the stadium. They were those die-hards for nearly three decades, and they liked the view, this reminder of what they were a part of then and are still a part of now. These legions who, against all odds and all reason -- with so little hope for so long -- keep coming back for more.


"I DON'T THINK we know how to deal with hope," says Pat Duffy, an ardent Bills fan and morning radio show host in nearby Rochester.

Buffalo boasts one of the seven best records in 2019 and might be ... good? And this California-by-way-of-Wyoming kid, Josh Allen, who has led three fourth-quarter comebacks already this year might be ... good? And this coach, with his Andy Reid and Ron Rivera pedigree, might be ... good?

The answer to these questions is so on-the-nose-Buffalonian it practically hurts. Are they good? Maaaaaaybe, but probably not. As it turns out, all this hope Buffalo fans hope they have after the team's best start since going 7-1 in 1993 might be pinned on a teetering house of cards. Buffalo, despite its place in the AFC East standings, ranks 26th in ESPN'S Football Power Index this year, worse than the 2-6 Browns and the 1-7 Falcons. The Bills are the worst 6-2 team, period, since 2015 -- as far back as these numbers go -- and it's not even close.

In less dire news, two things can be true for the Bills. They can be wholly unimpressive but still have put themselves in a strong position, at the midpoint of the 2019 season, to crack the postseason again. They're more likely than not, FPI says, to do just that. It's what comes afterward that's dicey. Buffalo has a 63% chance to make the playoffs ... and a 13% chance to advance to the divisional round.

What FPI is saying is that come January, the most Bills fans might have to root for is the Patriots falling short of making it to their fourth straight Super Bowl. That's a feat only the Bills have achieved in NFL history. Even though Buffalo lost all four, even though the Bills' greatest successes were also their greatest failures, that record streak is something to want to hold on to, says Del Reid, one of the unofficial godfathers of the Bills Mafia.

"The Patriots have taken a lot from us over the past 20 years," he says. "Don't take that. Please don't take that."

Damn Tom Brady.


"I'M NOT DISTRAUGHT now," Russ says. His tailgating friends, Tee and Dina and Annie the Tom Brady corgi, are nowhere to be found, perhaps taking shelter from the still swirling winds. It's just Russ and the post-Eagles-game detritus, the camper lot strewn with gnawed-over chicken wings and what looks to be a mound of macaroni and cheese.

Russ doesn't really get distraught anymore, not after the first Super Bowl loss after the 1990 season and the Dallas Stars' "no goal" that beat the Sabres for the Stanley Cup in 1999. "After those two times, it was, 'All right, well, I can handle anything now. Nothing's going to kill me.'"

The resignation, it burns.

The Bills, you see, did again this Sunday what they've done for so many Sundays that came before. They lost, 31-13 to the Eagles this particular time. Their loss wasn't as alarming as the way they managed to lose, with ugly quarterbacking (Allen's 18.9 QBR was his lowest of the season to date), disappearing defense (Eagles running backs gashed them for 3.8 yards before first contact per rush, almost 1.5 yards more than the defense allowed in its first six games) and a general inability to prove that this time will be different. And a win the next week against the one-win Redskins? Not exactly a balm for frazzled nerves.

McDermott and his players mostly reject the notion that the Eagles loss carries any big, bad, metaphorical meaning. It's a week-to-week league and all that. The Eagles were desperate for a win and played like it, and so on.

"Everybody's waiting. 'We think they're pretenders,'" says linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, one of the Bills' veterans, parroting the team's hypothetical critics. "You're going to lose at some point. Does that define you, that one game?"

And so it was that 90 minutes after the final snap, the lots are a ghost town, a calm after the storm. The rain has mostly stopped now, but the air feels wet and the wind is still howling, so nearly all the tailgating revelers have holed up in their campers or hightailed it home in their cars. A smattering of fans huddle beneath an enclosed white tent, a portable heater blasting, watching the late afternoon slate of games. Rich, the New Jersey-to-Orchard Park transplant, runs alongside his Bills-festooned bus with the Zubaz lining and yells "See you at the Super Bowl!" to prove how hardy his resolve is for this team. And across the way, back in Hammer's Lot, Pinto Ron and his brother get started on the hourslong breakdown, putting away the wheelbarrow and the pizza cabinet and the bar where the bowling ball rests. It's a little like Tetris, this exercise, maneuvering all this oversized paraphernalia. But Pinto Ron does it home game in and home game out, and he'll do it all again next week. They all will. Look for them. They always come back.