Buffalo Bills and finding inspiration in a broken heart

Buffalo Bills and finding inspiration in a broken heart

The Buffalo Bills season ended in heartbreaking fashion. But every heartbreak can be what binds a fanbase together and what connects all sports fans.

“Wait!” I shout into the phone. Then my voice gets quieter. “There’s still enough time for the Chiefs to win…”

In the waning moments of what’s been widely hailed as one of the most epic playoff games in NFL history, I’m talking to Dr. Peter Francia, public-opinion researcher and political science professor at East Carolina University. Known as “Dr. Francia” to his students, as well as the media pundits who reach out to him year after year for his expert analysis on voting trends, I know him simply as Pete — one of my dearest friends and easily my favorite person to talk sports with.

I’m so in the habit of texting Francia during football games, in fact, that I have to make it a point to leave my phone on the other side of the room lest I miss a great play because I’m too busy with my nose pointed down at my phone screen. Tonight, though, as I watch Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen connect with Gabriel Davis for yet another touchdown with just 13 seconds left in the game, the excitement and surrealism of the moment is just too much.

I reach for the phone.

A few minutes later, when the Chiefs win the coin toss after tying the game, Francia wails into my ear from 700 miles away, echoing what countless people across Western New York State must be saying at the exact same time: “No, no, noooooooooo!!!!”

Although Francia, who was raised in northern New Jersey, is a lifelong fan of the New York Giants, I appreciate talking to him above all other sports fans I know because, like me, he’s as much a fan of the game as he is of his own team. Unlike those homers who disconnect from the playoffs as soon as their team is out of contention — or the superfans who can’t help but steer every conversation about the sport back to their team — Francia sees the bigger picture. Like me, he’s enraptured by the story, as if every season matters in the grand scheme, an arc of victory and defeat that somehow mirrors life for all of us, regardless of your team affiliation.

And, like Francia, I’m not a Bills homer either. But I live in the Western New York city of Rochester, where I first met Francia over 25 years ago. Located 60 miles east of Buffalo, Rochester — where it seems like you can spot a flag with the team logo flying in front of homes on every block — is deep in Bills country. This means that I can’t help but have a deep, abiding affection for the team. For Francia — who lived here as an undergrad from 1992 to 1996 and once told me, “You don’t realize how much you love that area until you leave it” — four years were enough for the Bills to carve a place in his heart that they’ve never left. As Francia and I watch, though, we’re well aware that the Bills aren’t our team. We’ll never take it quite as personally because, if we’re telling the truth, we’re just sympathetic observers. We can detach.

That’s what we tell ourselves, at least.

“Now I need to drink,” Francia texts me after the game. “My blood pressure is super-high right now.” He’s half-joking, but I know he’s hurting. “I really wanted Buffalo to win,” his text concludes.

No surprise, Francia and I both go to bed with that awful, sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs. The thought of the coming week — that this will be how history is written, that the outcome will be the same tomorrow, and that it’s unchangeable — looms over my thoughts like one of those giant, foreboding gray cloud masses that threatens to swallow the sky as it portends ominously of heavy precipitation to come. I wonder about the blanket of despair that’s about to descend on the entire region I live in. I wonder — in all seriousness — whether anyone might be more likely to take their own life after a game like that.

Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

If this is how bad it feels for people like Francia and me — noncommittal fans with one foot in and one foot out — I can only imagine how devastating this must be for the Bills faithful around me. Strangely, though, my feelings are being tugged by a contrasting sensation. I’m nearly overcome with a sense of admiration and gratitude that I will only comprehend in full once I’ve had more time to reflect. I’m not quite sure if this is my system’s reflexive way of shielding me from the truth — I’m certainly in shock, but I’m not sure if I’m in denial. “I don’t think I’m just grasping,” I think to myself. For the moment, I can’t deny the fact that a part of me feels oddly positive, as if I’d just been given an extraordinary gift. I mean, to watch these players give everything they had in order to try and win…

Late that night, hours after the game is over, I hear the Bills fan who lives across the hall from me sobbing in the hallway. Lately, his neon sign of the team insignia has proudly reflected the team’s colors in a purple-y haze onto the snow-covered street in front of the house. The following morning, as it hits me in a dreadful wave that what I saw last night actually did happen, I have a realization that warrants me speaking it aloud: “Wow,” I say, “what I’m feeling is actual grief.” I didn’t check on any of my friends who root for the team because, well … I knew better. I mean, what can you possibly say when someone gets hurt so badly?

A loss like the one the Buffalo Bills suffered can inspire actual, visceral feelings of grief

While doing the rounds on local media following the loss, Buffalo-based psychiatrist Dr. Wendy Weinstein assured fans in a WGRZ news segment that it’s “not at all” a stretch to classify what they’re feeling as grief. “Don’t try to deal with this alone,” she practically pleaded with fans via Spectrum News, advising them in a WKBW segment to “try to let yourself feel it because if you push it away, it’ll just come back stronger.”

“You thought you’d won!” she marveled in her WGRZ appearance. “[But] you know,” she offered, “that’s a really good message that I always take from this: ‘it’s not over ‘til it’s over’ [also] goes in life — if you think something is really going well, you’ve gotta wait ‘til the outcome. [It also works] the opposite way: if you think something’s going awful, give it that extra time and wait for the outcome.”

Much like University of Georgia psychology professor, Dr. Janet Frick showed after the Bulldogs’ crushing loss to Alabama in 2018’s college football championship game, Weinstein wasn’t just speaking as a mental health expert but as a fan.

“That game,” Weinstein observed, “kind of emulated our season—we were winning a few games, then we lost a few games, then we were winning a few, and then we came back, and now we lost. It emulated the history, in a way.”

As we inevitably revisit the Bills’ divisional-round loss over the coming months, we would do well to heed something Frick said back in 2018:

“What we do know about the [grieving] process now,” said Frick, “is that we don’t necessarily get over a significant loss. We [just] learn to live with it. We learn how to move forward with that experience.”

Photo Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport

Of course, you don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that this type of loss hurts in a way that can haunt an area for years, if not forever. As an 18-year old college freshman, I watched the 1991 Super Bowl in the dorm room of two sophomores — John, a Giants fan, and Bob, a Bills fan — who held positions that were somewhat akin to RA’s assistants. A bunch of us who roomed on the same hall were piled practically on top of one another on Bob’s water bed, all of us pitching up and down as waves rolled across the bed with every explosion of cheers and hollers and squeals as the game progressed.

I was utterly disinterested in football at the time, yet I was having a blast, basking in the camaraderie of the occasion, which now cast a warm, golden glow in my memory. There’s one moment, of course, that stands out most vividly. As Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s kick sailed wide right at the end of the game, Bob howled in anguish. I remember the image of John standing up and cheering, but I was focused on Bob, who rolled over and buried his face in the bed, his body motionless for enough time for it to seem troubling.

Seriously, it was like he’d been shot. I’ll never forget it, and I’m guessing Bob remembers like it was yesterday. None of that will likely impress longtime fans of the team, all of whom, if they’re old enough, experienced that moment in some fashion similar to the way Bob did. Which is to say: it left a scar.

Since that night over three decades ago, two things have held me back from jumping on board the Bills bandwagon with both feet. First, I’ve felt reluctant to intrude on something that the football fans in my region have worked for. Like other snakebitten fanbases, Bills fans have invested decades’ worth of sweat equity and have truly suffered for the honor of reveling in the team’s success. I haven’t put the work in. As a spoiled New York City-raised fan, I’ve been conditioned by teams with a culture of perpetual winning to look down my nose at fandoms cursed by endless loss. This brings me to my second reason for never fully committing to the Bills: I could always afford to back off.

Not only are Big Apple sports fans entitled, but deep down we see losing as something people manifest as if their collective self-esteem is so low that they’ve somehow brought the losses onto themselves. But the Bills faithful aren’t in the same position as the fans of woe begotten, perennially moribund franchises like the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. It’s not like the Bills are reliably terrible. In fact, the situation around here is worse precisely because the organization has excelled fairly reliably, producing multiple generations of teams that have gotten oh-so-close to the mountaintop.

The Bills fanbase has had its hopes elevated, only to have those hopes crushed — in the most brutal, excruciating fashion — multiple times. If part of my hesitation to go all-in arose out of respect, the other part of my hesitation stemmed from a fear of facing defeat and taking the full brunt of what it actually feels like. That all changed after that loss to the Chiefs, where, as it turns out, the Bills stole my heart once and for all.

It’s typical for people to fall in love with a team once the team starts winning. I’d hoped the Bills were going to win, and as Josh Allen and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes traded blows like two heavyweight title fighters in the final two minutes of regulation, I started to picture what it would look like if Allen and the Bills walked out of Arrowhead/GEHA with a win. I started to imagine them as victors. I started to think I would love the team for winning.

I had no idea you could feel so inspired by a team in a loss. Yes, I know that if the defense had been able to get even a single stop in the span of 13 seconds, the game would’ve gone to the Bills. Yes, I’m aware of the argument that Bills head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier should have opted to squib kick rather than kick the ball into the endzone. Yes, I’ve read the comments online blasting the defense for not “doing its job.” As someone who’s never had much, if any, athletic ability, I’ve always found it odd that people expect Herculean effort from others while sitting comfortably on the couch.

If we want to argue that many athletes make obscene amounts of money — or that their supreme physical gifts rightfully come with higher expectations — that’s fair, but it’s still not legitimate grounds to expect perfection. I mean, how often do you perform flawlessly at your job when facing the equivalent of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce? I refuse to chastise anyone who spent 60 minutes’ worth of football running and tackling their guts out to the best of their ability. On the contrary, in the wake of an epochal game that’s sure to be talked about for decades to come — where “13 seconds” will forever ring in infamy alongside “2nd-and-goal from the 1-yard line” and “28 to 3” — I’m overwhelmed by the wish that I could say one thing to the Bills players in person: Thank you.

I’ve always thought of moral victories as the desperate refuge of fans whose teams have a chronic habit of not being able to seal the deal. This is different. If, in our assessment of the Buffalo Bills’ performance, all we can think to say is that they came up short, that assessment is technically accurate but it misses the bigger picture. I do wonder how much concrete damage it does when the agony of defeat inflicts this kind of disappointment on so many lives. But, if we’re being honest, we also have to recognize that the Bills taught us something about the value of effort.

A win would’ve been amazing. I’m still agonized by my mental images of stunned Chiefs players and fans as the Bills celebrate on Kansas City’s field. If only we could have all experienced the glory of such a scene. I must say, however, that what we got instead was priceless — and that’s before you even get to the $300,000-plus in donations to a Buffalo children’s hospital that Chiefs fans raised, fittingly enough, in $13 increments.

And speaking of Chiefs fans…

Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“THIS GAME MIGHT SERIOUSLY KILL PEOPLE IN KC AND CINCINNATI!!!!” I yell out loud to no one as the Cincinnati Bengals start clawing their way back into the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs in another historic edge-of-your-seat nail-biter of a game that refused to let up on the thrills. Once again, I can barely stand the tension.

“Good grief,” I text my friend Pete. “I need to take sedatives before watching these games.”

“I love the NFL,” he replies.

Later, in overtime, I text him again: “HOW. MANY. TIMES. is this game going to tantalize us??!”

A few seconds later, I answer myself: “At least once more!”

“Clearly,” I text Francia as the game draws to its storybook conclusion, “Cincinnati studied the s*** out of KC’s game tape from last week.”

Alas, this time I do get to see what it looks like when despondent and miserable Chiefs fans watch another team come in and snatch victory from their team on their home turf.

The following day, multiple former players — including Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Marcus Spears — blasted the Chiefs in talk-show segments for their “arrogance,” while Mark Schlereth condemned the team for its “football hubris” on the FOX Sports show Speak For Yourself. Opining on Good Morning Football, Carter offered that the Chiefs and their head coach Andy Reid showed “disregard for the basics of football.” Brother From Another co-host Michael Smith was emphatic in his assertion that “this was worse” than Buffalo’s 13-second debacle the week before.

Of course, I was happy to see the Chiefs lose, but as I put it all in perspective, I wonder about their fanbase too. It must’ve been one hell of a gut punch to be at that stadium, a place where the team has had such a history of playoff success in the Reid-Mahomes era. I mean, to feel relief when Bengals backup QB Brandon Allen called heads and the coin came up tails to decide which team got the ball first in overtime, only to have that sense of impending victory snatched from their hands…

We may think of the Chiefs fanbase as win-fattened and entitled now, but it wasn’t so long ago that both football and baseball fans in Kansas City endured long, torturous droughts of their own. FOX Sports analyst and First Things First host Nick Wright — an unabashed Chiefs homer who gloated and taunted Bills fans a week earlier — captured that history of suffering in a lamentation he recited with near-operatic flair. And as the inevitable comparisons to Dan Marino come up, as more and more of us entertain the question “What if Mahomes never even gets back to another Super Bowl?” the cruel dance of hope that is sports fandom comes into full focus.

The Chiefs, widely viewed as an unstoppable juggernaut and one of the league’s premier franchises — if not the premiere franchise — for the past three seasons, appear to be teetering at the precipice of a fate that’s eerily reminiscent of the 1990s Buffalo Bills. Trying to make sense of the way the AFC Championship Game unfolded, it’s impossible to resist the impression that, with one ill-advised screen pass to Tyreek Hill in the flat at the end of the first half, Patrick Mahomes threw the game away. Did he throw the future away as well?

As we all know, there’s a poetry to the way sports history goes down. Sometimes it’s just uncanny, as if there’s an invisible hand guiding the outcome: the Immaculate Reception, the David Tyree catch, the Philly Philly, and now Bengals safety Von Bell’s interception of Mahomes’ pass to Hill in overtime.

This is, of course, why we watch. We don’t like feeling heartbroken, but it’s worth the risk just for the chance that your team can pull off something miraculous — the chance to feel for a few moments, however brief, like we lived through glory in real-time. I feel like I got a taste of that glory, thanks to how valiantly the Bills performed in their loss.

I wonder how it’ll play out for Cincinnati’s long-suffering fans this Sunday.

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