Gino Bona was sitting on the couch in New Hampshire last October, watching his beloved Bills lose to the Bears, when he saw the ad for the first time. The NFL was looking for entries in a "Best NFL Super Bowl Commercial Ever" contest. The winner would have a commercial aired as part of the national Super Bowl telecast Feb. 4.
"I have to do this," Bona said.
Bona, 33, figured he was perfect for the job. He grew up in Town of Tonawanda as a huge Bills fan. He got DirecTV solely to watch them play. Bona is a salesman for a marketing firm in Portland, Maine, but he spent many years as a writer, including a stint as a columnist at ESPN.com. The contest would be just the thing to get the creative juices flowing again.
So on Nov. 13, Bona auditioned his 90-second spot in front of a three-member panel in a luxury suite at Giants Stadium. He was one of more than 10,000 contestants who tried out over two days in New Jersey, Denver and Dallas.
"It was like American Idol," Bona said. "It was creepy and quite comical. There were people from all walks of life there, talking to themselves. We stood on line for hours, waiting. They gave everyone a cattle call number. When it was your turn, they took you into this room, started a 90-second clock and said 'Go.' "
They asked Bona for his favorite team. He said, "The Buffalo Bills, otherwise known as America's Team." Bona didn't include Buffalo in the ad. Too many negative Super Bowl connotations. But the spot is terrific. It's a tongue-in-cheek montage of pathetic NFL fans facing the end of another football season.
"The NFL is the most macho sport," said Bona, a St. Joe's graduate. "So I decided to do a self-deprecating thing. The Super Bowl usually doesn't live up to the hype, and I get depressed because there's no football for seven months."
Bona wants his commercial to come on right after the game. It starts with five buddies sitting on a couch as the game comes to an end. We hear the voice of NFL Network's Rich Eisen, saying "And that will do it for Super Bowl 41." One of the guys turns off the TV. Then the music from Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" comes on.
A series of slow-motion scenes follow: A foam No. 1 Packers finger is put back into the closet. The air is let out of an inflatable 49ers chair. A bald Patriots fan is pictured in the shower, his face paint streaming down his body. A bartender pushes a $6,000 tab across a bar as patrons recoil in horror. A Chicago fan peels a Bears jersey off his Great Dane.
Then we see a man sitting on a couch in a dark room, illuminated only by the glow of his TV screen. We hear his wife call out from the other room. "Honey, are you crying?" The camera zooms in on his face. It's Dick Butkus, the toughest NFL player of them all, weeping.
The NFL logo comes on the screen, with the words, "It's hard for us, too."
Yeah, the judges liked it, too. Bona made the finals. He's one of 12 survivors whose ads are now being judged online by the nation's football-loving electorate. His brother, John Bona III, owner of the Amherst Pizza & Ale House, has been waging a spirited campaign at the restaurant to get out the vote (you can vote at www.nfl.com/superad).
Bona is second in the online vote with four days left. He has 23 percent, the leader 32. But the online vote is only 30 percent. The other 70 percent will be determined by a three-person panel that includes actor Don Cheadle.
The leader's ad features a deaf boy who feels the excitement of the game. It's moving, but it's not as good as Bona's.
Vote for Gino while you still can. And if he wins, get ready for the jokes about Buffalo finally winning the big one.