Mike LaBoeuf is well into his Bills tailgating experience.
Eight beers. Two bloody Caesars. Coffee with Bailey’s.
“I’m on a roll,” says the Ontario policeman, in the RV parking lot across from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It’s 10 a.m. Saturday.
There’s 27 hours until kickoff. Bills vs. New England Patriots.
Ralph Wilson Stadium is widely recognized as one of the NFL’s top game-day tailgating locations. But for a growing number of fans, the pregame partying is turning into a weekend-long experience.
The Ralph’s RV lot, which holds 130 vehicles, has filled up faster than ever before the past two weekends. The huge vehicles began assembling Friday night, lining Abbott Road back to Southwestern Boulevard. They began being dispersed by Orchard Park Police – some of whom tapped the vehicles with billy clubs – at 11 p.m., only to reassemble and pass through the gates at 6 a.m., two hours before the official opening time.
Like most in the Bills Nation, the group emerging on the yellow-striped blacktop is primed for Sunday’s return of arch-nemeses Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. But the RV tailgating experience is different from game-day tailgating.
The fans here are older, and the social gatherings – while there’s no shortage of alcohol – are more contained and not as loud as game-day events, when hordes of intoxicated young men roam the parking lot.
“It’s not as crazy here,” said Joe Biagiotti of Williamsville, who runs an insurance business. “Everybody’s very friendly, and you don’t have the college students who overdo it and get rowdy. You don’t really have any of that.”
“You have to remember people also pay a lot of money for their toys, and they’re not going to mess that up,” said Biagiotti, standing in a canyon of RVs and campers.
Mike Salvadore still gets a rush at the sight of Ralph Wilson Stadium. He relishes memories of the AFL title years, 1964 and 1965, and the Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993.
“I drive by here in the winter just to look at it,” the Wilson resident says. “I was at the Rockpile when I was a kid, and remember going to them games when I was 5, freezing behind a post.”
Salvadore has parked his 40-foot RV across from the stadium for home games the past half-dozen years. He is joined by family members and his employees at Catco Construction.
A TV dish is set up for watching college football later inside a tent on 60- and 70-inch flat-screen TVs. A smoker, two deep fryers, and charcoal and gas grills are on a nearby hitch.
“I just love seeing this place come to life on a game weekend,” Salvadore said.
Two crosses and medallions of Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary and St. Francis of Assisi dangle from his neck.
“I call on them all,” when it comes to the Bills, says Salvadore. “We need everybody.”
An inflatable figure representing Brady hangs from an RV in effigy.
“We’re going to buy a Brady T-shirt to put on it,” says Marco Daigle, clutching a Genny after a breakfast of steak, eggs and potatoes.
He and three Bills fans from Montreal chipped in to pay $1,000 to rent the RV for the weekend. The group, which arrived Friday night, has no intention of running out of brews.
“We brought 200 beers,” Daigle says. “We’re starting slow, but by the end of the day I am pretty confident half will be gone.”
Anyone come and not drink beer?
“No, uh, no,” he says, laughing at the thought.
LaBeouf’s Canadian entourage, including several other policemen, say they’re glad to come to Buffalo and let their hair down.
Beer cans pile up around the bottom of a blow-up plastic palm tree around which the men sit. They drink from “wizard sticks” –cans stacked on top of others they’ve drunk, held together by tape.
One of the men explains the object of the “wizard sticks” is to drink your height.
A couple of the guys show off gorilla suits nine of them will wear Sunday for the game. Dave Buckle said he got the idea from seeing people in gorilla suits in stands as a kid.
“It was a bucket list thing for me,” Buckle says.
Even Pats fans
The six men sitting in a circle wear no Bills jerseys or caps. There are no Bills bumper stickers or flags, either.
The only giveaway that they’re Patriots fans is a single Bud Light can displaying the team logo. The can is from one of eight 30-packs lugged to Buffalo for tailgating.
The men, from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, aren’t Bills fans, but prefer RV tailgating in Buffalo to Gillette Stadium.
“You can’t do this back home – pay 50 bucks the day before, and spend the night and then the next night until you leave,” Chet Baker said. “It’s four hours before the game, and you’re out of there.”
Eric Desrochers said this is the sixth time he’s attending a Patriots-Bills game. Only once, he said, did the taunting escalate beyond what he called “the usual harassment.”
“This year could be one of those years,” he said, because of the controversy surrounding “Deflategate,” which each of them said was much ado over nothing.
“They hate us because they ain’t us,” Baker said.
“There it is, that’s the first one of the trip,” laughed Luke Lakoma over the catchy phrase often recited by Patriots fans.
Party for 200
Bill “Petey” Robinson has a job to do.
“I’m putting my barbecue sauce – I call it ‘my special sauce’ – on my ribs,” he said. “Then I’ll put them back on the grill to let the sauce kick in a little bit.”
Ziploc bags full of frozen ribs are thawing, waiting for Robinson to brush on that thick, brown “special sauce.”
Richard Peterson and Derrick Norman – known affectionately to Bills fans as “the chefs” – are manning an industrial-strength smoker, packed with 80 chicken halves rotating between the upper and lower grills.
All of the guys are getting a head start cooking for more than 200 people. Those ribs and chicken halves are on the menu for $25, along with macaroni and cheese, greens, cabbage, baked beans and salad.
“We’ve been doing it for 12 years, after starting with three people and a hibachi grill,” Peterson said. “Now we have an oil tanker.
“We love the Bills, and tailgating is just a part of it, you know?”