Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

In Buffalo, Waiting’s No Game– More like a Religion

Posted on November 24, 2009 by John Wingspread Howell


Are the Bills becoming the Cubs of the NFL?

Are the Bills becoming the Cubs of the NFL?

I would venture that a higher percentage of the population of Buffalo, New York actively follows their professional sports teams than any major league city in North America. This is especially true of Buffalo’s women, who may be more knowledgeable and fanatical about football and hockey than any women in the world.

Perhaps this is because Buffalo isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind, a religion, a cultural overlay that works like ethnicity even though it isn’t exactly. It isn’t but it is.
Being Buffalonian is like being Jewish in a way. Being Buffalonian outside of Buffalo, is like being Jewish in Tehran.
And therein lies the bulk of my experience. The ex-pat. The diaspora. If there is a Jewish bar in Tehran, I can imagine the comraderie there. Pretty much like what you’d find at the Nickel Bar in Tampa or the Buffalo bars in a hundred other cities that get less snow. It’s instant kinship.

Run into someone with a Bills or Sabres cap or jacket– in the airport, on the beach, in some other city’s stadium when the Buffalo teams are not even playing– and it’s always the same. It’s like meeting the twin you never knew you had. All you have to do is say, “Wide Right,” or “In the Crease” and you’ll keep buying each other drinks until you both need a designated driver. 

Bills fans across the globe shudder at the words "wide right."

Bills fans across the globe shudder at the words "wide right."

I wear my throwback logo Bills cap because it reminds me of the Kemp-Dubenion era when the Bills were the class of the AFL. But not just because of that.
The old grazing buffalo is pure (as opposed to the flashy, charging one with speedlines). I wish they’d go back to the old uni’s permanently, like the Jets did. That retro look fits Buffalo, in the way Buffalo is eternally retro, always was retro before retro was retro, sort of iconic in a way that’s both quaint and a little musty. Of course the speeding Buffalo reminds us of the K-gun. Like I said, I like the retro look.
Back when those were our uniforms, we had dreams of making the Superbowl without the accompanying nightmares, without the creeping, nagging suspicion that the Bills may have morphed into the Cubs of the NFL. God, must we wait a 101 years?
And the Sabres seem equally cursed. From Kate Smith, the Aud in the fog, to a non-goal in the crease, things don’t go better in the HSBC (Arena) any more than they do in the Ralph (Ralph Wilson Stadium).

I’ve spent all this time talking sports, mainly, but it isn’t really about sports at all. Sports are the metaphor, the religious rite. It’s what makes the Buffalo sort-of-but-not-but-sort-of ethnicity so similar to being Jewish. We are bonded not only by our common roots, but to the ritual. Watching the Bills or the Sabres is like going to Temple for Yom Kippur. We have this common ritual of atonement.
Atonement for what? In a way, for being Buffalonians!

Like Rodney Dangerfield, people from Buffalo often get no respect.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, people from Buffalo often get no respect.

We’re like Rodney. We don’t get no respect. Our homeland is often reviled as Cleveland’s ugly stepsister. Queen City? Not unless it’s Drag Queen. And we’ve done a lot of this to ourselves. Especially in the past.

Buffalonians who’re old enough, remember Stan Roberts (who is Jewish) on WKBW Radio giving the weather report on “Lake D-reeeear-y.”

Like the Jews, we’ve wandered in the wilderness for generations awaiting deliverance. We await the coming Messiah, having endured many false prophets. We thought it would be O.J., then Kelly and company, then Dominick Hasek for the Sabres. We thought the second coming of the Mighty Marv might finally lead the Bills, with us, to the promised land.

Jim Kelly got the Bills close, but never made it to the promised land.

Jim Kelly got the Bills close, but never made it to the promised land.

People who have not lived elsewhere for an extended period of time might not be aware of this– that once one leaves Buffalo, one realizes that there is something unique about the experience of growing up here, being from here, and then going elsewhere, that is not the same as if we were from someplace like Miami or Denver or Columbus, for instance. It may be similar coming from certain other Rustbelt towns– Cleveland, for instance. I’m not sure. But the point is that there is a sense in which being Buffalonian has more meaning than where someone lives or lived once, or grew up.

And I say this from a theological and a theologian’s perspective. In the theological sense being Jewish is being a people who have experienced/endured a common history, whose identity is in a significant sense tied to a geographical location who were once slaves, delivered together from bondage, wandering in exile, and finally taking possession of the promised land, thinking they had finally arrived, that it was the end of history, only to learn that history repeats itself. And still, repeating.

So, like the Jews we wander. We hope. We have our hopes dashed. We hope again. And we go to Temple. The Ralph. The HSBC. We fast. We sacrifice. We sob. We celebrate.
We wait. We celebrate. We curse! But we do it together. As one. We are the chosen people. We still don’t know what exactly we’re chosen for, but we’re chosen.

Waiting is part of it, most of it really. Waiting till next year. Waiting for the next good quarterback. Waiting for the next good coach.

At least now the coaching question appears due for an answer. We’ve got half the answer. Dick Jauron is gone. So until his replacement is named we have that almost giddy hope, that kid before Christmas hope that one of the biggest wishes on our list will be fulfilled.

Mike Shanahan is one of several coaches with a Super Bowl pedigree being rumored as a candidate to be the next coach of the Bills.

Mike Shanahan is one of several coaches with a Super Bowl pedigree being rumored as a candidate to be the next coach of the Bills.

But if we’re using the Jewish metaphor we have to change the Christmas imagery to Chanukuh. And if you think about it, that actually works better. Chanukah’s all about the miracle of the lights. It’s about a small amount of oil burning night after night, vanquishing the cold, overwhelming the darkness, without being used up. It’s about eight consecutive nights of surprise.

It may not be coincidental, then, that there are eight unattached coaches who have ascended the mountain and brought back the tablets, who have parted the waters and led their people to the other side: Dungy, Cowher, Holmgren, Shanahan, Billick, Gruden, Johnson, and Gibbs.

“Ride a painted pony, let the spinning (spinnaker) spin.”

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