It’s early September.
The kids are back to school, the weather’s starting to cool, and Labor Day has come and gone.
You’re beginning to close out your summer –making room in your closet for more sweatshirts, jackets, jeans, and layers – stocking your fridge with seasonal beers and gearing up for fall.
It’s an annual movement, something we all go through. In a few short weeks, the leaves will start falling and every third woman you encounter will be losing her gourd over pumpkin spice something-or-others. There are plenty of folks who favor autumn and are looking forward to its arrival for a multitude of reasons. There’s plenty more who’ve been preparing for their favorite season for weeks already.
While so many have been waiting for apples and brisk temperatures, the rest of us have been checking on scouting reports, following final cuts, drafting our fantasy teams, and nitpicking the schedule. This is the one that matters. This is our season.
In a few short hours, thousands of us will flock to the lots surrounding Ralph Wilson Stadium in quiet Orchard Park, New York.
The Buffalo Bills entered this 2012 season with expectations as high as they’ve been in years after an offseason of additions and moves that had fans thinking playoffs in the Summer months. They entered with these towering prospects in so many eyes and still fell flat on their face in their season debut this past week in New Jersey. In a quick afternoon, the excitement and anticipation that consumed this entire region was reduced to nonexistence – replaced by frustration, anger, and disappointment.
When we assemble later today in those gravel-filled expanses, we’ll forget all of that, though. None of it will matter. That, I think, is what’s always drawn me to these games and this stadium. The remarkable ability of an atmosphere and location to completely overrule everything else is astounding. Nothing else has ever allowed me to spend an entire day without the worries of the world – without even the worries of the sport. My undying loyalty to this team stems from the feeling I receive from being around them. When I’m in Orchard Park, tailgating off of the small stretch of Abbott that locals lovingly embrace as Jim Kelly Boulevard, I couldn’t care any less about the record or the opponent. All that matters is that we’re getting together to convene around a team that we all have used as a crutch, as a safety net, at some point in our lives.
My purchase of season tickets back in 2006 came on a spur-of-the-moment decision between myself and a lifelong friend. A decision to do something with our spare time – simply, a decision to watch some football. Really, that was it. We each used some money that we had received during high school graduation from various rewards and the like to make down payments on the inaugural ten games of our tenure as season ticket holders, and neither of us has ever looked back. I’ll never understand why I was awarded for my attitude towards others, (which was mostly bitter anger and unfounded resentment at the time) but I’ll always be thankful for whomever it was that thought they saw something positive enough in me to designate me with the honor. Without that, I likely never would have purchased the tickets, and I wouldn’t have nearly the interest in or knowledge of the team that I currently do.
I’m fed insults and personal attacks year-round based solely on my allegiance to an organization that has unknowingly given me so much over the years, and I’ve got to tell you, I couldn’t care less. There’s not a negative word that you can throw me in regards to the Buffalo Bills that wouldn’t elicit a grin and a shake of the head that suggests that you really just don’t understand, that you really don’t ”get it.” Really, unless you’ve been through it – unless you’ve felt what joy the Ralph can bring, you never will.
The home opener is a day unlike any other for us. Yeah, last week may have been game one, but this is our unofficial start to the season. This is our chance to make a mark. There’s a prodigious feeling of gratification that comes from being able to give your team a true home field advantage, to actually have an effect on the opposition. It takes each and every one of the seventy-three thousand plus fans in attendance to make up the 12th man – and when we’re on, we’ve proven to be some of the most impactful in the league.
When the lots open up in a few short hours, we’ll be far more consumed with firing up the grills, tapping the kegs, and finding our friends than things as silly as playoff hopes, Jamaal Charles’ yards per carry, and winning. The gathering, the camaraderie exuded by the thousands of strangers that, for that day, are family – that’s more than enough for me. Yeah, it would be nice to get a win, but there’s always next week and – as long as we’re here to support them – there always will be.
For a few hours, our faith is restored – our confidence is at its height. As the burgers cook and another game of catch finds a football glaring off of your quarter panel, we prepare for the season all over again. This morning, we are undefeated. This morning, we are on top of the world. As game time closes in, the stands fill up, and the players are announced the anticipation rises. We’ll all look out through winced eyes over a sun-kissed crowd, hard-pressed to find an empty seat as the National Anthem is sung, the fireworks go off, and we wait for the traditionally tardy Air Force flyover.
This is why we go. At that moment, nothing matters more. Football is back. The Bills are back. We’re back.
Raise a glass, a bottle, a can, a plastic cup, even a funnel – whatever you have – raise it and toast with us. Here’s to gameday.
Here’s to the 12th man.
Here’s to Buffalo.