From Boone to Buffalo: A pilgrimage


Chris Warner

I took a pilgrimage to my personal mecca, Buffalo, New York, on Sunday to watch the Buffalo Bills square off against the New England Patriots and what I found was much of what I left behind in Boone.

Orchard Park, New York, a small town with a population of less than 30,000 people, is the location of Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Bills. And like Kidd-Brewer Stadium, you would never know there was a stadium there until you pull onto Abbott Road, the town’s own Stadium Drive. But when you arrive upon it, what a spectacle.

Much like the parking lots at Appalachian State on any given Saturday in the fall, Buffalo was packed full with fanatics. Many of them showed up before sunrise Saturday and didn’t leave until sunset Sunday, and I don’t blame them.

A representative from the Guinness World Records was on hand to test the levels of crowd noise to see if the diehards at Ralph Wilson Stadium could break the record of 142.2 decibels, held by Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

The morning began with a College Gameday-like experience. ESPN’s Hannah Storm and Ron Jaworski arrived bright and early to conduct “SportsCenter On The Road,” which included interviews with former Bills’ hall-of-famers Bruce Smith, the NFL’s all-time sack leader, and the 2015 inductee Bill Polian, the general manager during the ’90s Super Bowl runs, among others.

Like App State hall-of-famers Armanti Edwards and Jerry Moore, the men interviewed Sunday were living reminders of better days in the team’s history. The Bills’ heroes of the ’90s never won a Super Bowl, despite four straight appearances – a luxury fans of App State never had to stomach in winning three straight FCS titles, but you’d never know it by hearing the reverence natives speak about them with.

Following “SportsCenter,” what ensued was arguably one of the craziest experiences in my life. Tailgating at Kidd-Brewer stadium, or “The Rock,” is unique, but tailgating outside of “The Ralph,” as my father and tens of thousands of Bills fans have referred to it for some time, is the whole reason this experience felt like a pilgrimage.

Granted, like any tailgate, there was an abundance of alcohol consumption, but I’m not referring to that. Buffalo is one of the “drunkest” sports cities in the country, so no surprise there, except when a Canadian Bills fan “face chugged” on me, pulling me so close I thought he was going to kiss me, and proceeded to chug an entire beer without pause. In London, Ontario, that’s what friends do, the guy said.

But I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is the overwhelming feeling of being in company of roughly 70,000 friends who’ve experienced the same agony, last minute losses, and losing seasons, but still show up to sell out the stadium week in and week out, longing for better days.

Buffalo fans, or the self-proclaimed “Bills Mafia,” paraded signs taunting the rival Patriots in the wake of the Deflategate ruling, including cutouts of Tom Brady’s infamous courtroom sketch and signs that read “Brady steals his neighbors Wi-Fi,” and “Gronk wears Crocs.”

That’s what separates App State and Buffalo. Thankfully for them, Jerry Moore spoiled Mountaineer fans with success, while years of retread head coaches like Dick Jauron, who annually spoiled the Bills playoff hopes like old milk, each building upon the previous coach’s failures. That’s why the team holds the NFL’s longest current playoff drought.

But on Sunday, none of that history mattered. What mattered was the task at hand: Handing the New England Patriots, 2014’s Super Bowl champs, a loss – their first since the Bills “beat” them in Foxboro last season, when they played against their second team and “won” 17-9.

In the offseason the Bills brought in Rex Ryan, whose disdain for New England and Bill Belichick dates back to 2009 when the Jets hired him and said he wasn’t there to kiss Belichick’s rings.

The hiring highlighted what many fans, myself included, would say was the most action-packed offseason since the Super Bowl era of the early ’90s. After the Bills trounced Andrew Luck’s Colts in the home opener, the atmosphere was electric leading up to the game.

Then, the Bills went up 7-0 after an impressive drive by Tyrod Taylor. The Bills’ “Shout” song boomed in unison throughout the stadium, similar to the “Go Apps” fight song, and suddenly it seemed like dethroning the Patriots was imminent.

Fans were screaming, jumping and spilling beer on each other. Life was good.

But just like when the Mountaineers went toe-to-toe with Clemson in the first quarter, that confidence lasted only for a moment. It generated 122.2 decibels, but not enough momentum to hold off Brady.

Brady would bounce back, scoring 21 unanswered points, effectively deflating the crowd.

The score became a lopsided 37-13 by the end of the third with New England on top, thanks largely to contributions from Julian Edelman and Buffalo-native Rob Gronkowski.

The meltdown was eerily reminiscent of the second quarter of the aforementioned App State-Clemson game, when the Tigers exploded for 28 unanswered points off the arm of Deshaun Watson, who led an aerial assault on the Mountaineers defense.

At halftime, Polian was honored for his NFL Hall of Fame induction, and for a second, I thought I was back at Kidd-Brewer Stadium during week one, when honoring Armanti Edwards generated a deafening blend of screams and applause.

In the second half, Buffalo uncharacteristically pulled the game within five points in the fourth, storming back to erase the 19-point deficit.

But Brady remained calm and led a field goal drive, draining most of the remaining time.

When Buffalo did regain possession, Taylor threw a high pass to Sammy Watkins, which was tipped and intercepted by defensive back Logan Ryan.

Tom Brady threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns, emerging victorious against the Bills as he’s done in the last 24 of 26 meetings between the two teams.

The Bills didn’t break the stadium noise record, or defeat Brady, but they showed that unlike the teams of years past, they won’t just lay down. Despite how that may sound for a professional football team, you don’t go 15 years without a playoff appearance by accident.

All in all, the experience made me realize just how lucky we are as students to have the culture surrounding App football. Not many places can unify an entire community around a singular event, but like “The Ralph” in Orchard Park, it happens at “The Rock.”

Story by: Chris Warner, Sports Editor