Imagine being a professional athlete, one good enough to be a starting wide receiver in the NFL. Now imagine being in a game situation childhood dreams are made of: It’s overtime on your home turf and you have the chance to catch the game-winning ball. You’ve run this play a thousand times in practice and you’ve run it a thousand more in your head. You possess super-human skills. You know you can do this. You will do this. Then you don’t. How do you reconcile that?
It’s become fairly commonplace after a stellar performance for an athlete to credit “The Man Upstairs” during a postgame interview. But as far as we know, then-Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson’s tweet was the first by an athlete to The Almighty to go viral. And let’s face it, religious or not, in a state of despair, we’ve all looked to the sky and asked, “why me?”
On Nov. 28, 2010, Johnson did just that. But instead of looking skyward, he took to a virtual heaven and in doing so had no idea his anguish would ignite a proud movement that would become known as the Bills Mafia. A movement that’s united Bills fans across the country.
The chances of a Web Development and Technology Administrator from Tonawanda, a college student from Virginia Beach, Va, and a restaurant server from Fredonia crossing paths without the tool of social media, more precisely, Twitter, are remote. That said, without social media, the Bills Mafia would not exist. In essence, the Bills Mafia represents the spirit of extreme fandom at its best. How the Bills Mafia came into existence is the remarkable part.
I spoke by phone with its co-founders, Del Reid, Breyon Harris and Leslie Wille, and came away from each conversation wonder-struck. What comes through most from all three is the same message: The Bills Mafia is a series of accidental events they were mindful enough to seize and turn into a charitable endeavor they’d like to see grow. Simply put, the Bills Mafia is an occurrence of serendipity.
Reid, the former Web Development and Technology Administrator in the Information Technology Department of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, grew up a Bills fan. Some of his fondest memories are Sunday afternoons sitting around the television in his parents’ living room with his family and friends watching the Bills of the early ’90s do their thing.
Reid’s loyalty to the Bills didn’t waver through the team’s next decade-and-a-half of decline. In fact, he joined Twitter in 2008 hoping to find people who were football related, but at the time most joining Twitter were in the technology business. It wasn’t until the 2009 NFL draft that he found the football community was slowly coming together on social media. Commentators and analysts for ESPN and the NFL Network were encouraging viewers during their broadcasts to follow them on Twitter. Following members of sports media led Reid to finally find the football community he sought to interact with. Along the way he discovered die-hard Buffalo Bills fans, Breyon Harris and Leslie Wille, who both joined Twitter in 2009.
Harris too, remembers his family rooting for the Bills, but he was only a toddler when the team made it to its first Super Bowl. By the time he was old enough to understand the dynamics of fandom, those Super Bowl teams had nestled into Buffalo lore.
Although Harris was born in Buffalo, he moved at age 11 with his parents and five siblings to Virginia Beach. The family stayed in a hotel in Norfolk for “a couple of months” while their house was being finished. They moved from Buffalo because “We didn’t live in good neighborhoods.” His maternal grandmother is from Virginia, so his mother decided to move the family to Virginia Beach. After the move, Harris remained a Bills fan.
As a kid, Harris’ favorite player was the Bills’ fiery wide receiver, Eric Moulds. Watching Moulds display his superior talents on Sundays solidified Harris’ allegiance to the Bills.
Wille grew up in Fredonia, former home of the Bills’ training camp. She happily recalls taking the kids she babysat to watch the players participate in two-a-day practices. Like Harris, Wille was a kid when the Bills went to four consecutive Super Bowls. Her loyalty to the Bills began in college, when she started attending games, and credits her husband’s influence on her becoming a die-hard fan.
Venturing out into the Twitterverse
According to all three, the pivotal point for the Bills Mafia came after the Nov. 28, 2010, Bills overtime loss to the Steelers, 19-16. A dropped pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson on their home field, and Johnson’s postgame reaction on Twitter was the catalyst to a string of extraordinary incidents that would be the genesis of the Bills Mafia.
Johnson had the game-winning touchdown catch in the end zone and failed to grasp it. Following the game he tweeted:
“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”
It was widely presumed Johnson was addressing God. The tweet went viral and was picked up by news outlets from the New York Post to Gawker.
Johnson was bombarded with reactions from the Twitterverse. Reid, Harris and Wille all felt like Johnson was being attacked. People were coming at him on a personal level, so they felt the need to stick up for him as much for being a Bill as for being a human. Those who’d stuck up for Johnson, offering words of comfort and support, would later become known as the Bills Mafia. They recited the same words die-hard Bills fans had been offering players for every victory and hiccup in its 50 year history, however the platform of Twitter was far-reaching.
At some point on Nov. 29, 2010, Adam Schefter of ESPN retweeted Johnson’s “God” tweet. Wrong move. In the eyes of protective Bills fans, Schefter was a day late. He was retweeting stale news. In a now-infamous move of playful retaliation, Harris tweeted, “#SchefterBreakingNews And God said, Let there be light….”. Bills fans picked up on it and a flow of tweets with #SchefterBreakingNews followed. Snarky tweets like, “Washington Crosses Delaware. #SchefterBreakingNews,” caused Schefter to counterattack by blocking tweeters using the hashtag.
According to Wille, Schefter was following her on Twitter, so she messaged him. “I said, these guys aren’t bad guys. They’re not trying to attack you. We’re just trying to understand why you keep bringing this up. I was just trying to explain why they were upset about him rehashing the story when it seemed to settle down.”
Wille recounts Schefter thanking her for contacting him and attempting to mediate.
In April 2011, the first tweet using the words #Bills Mafia appeared as a #FollowFriday. Reid sent out the tweet suggesting the follows of Harris, Wille and the few others who were blocked by Adam Schefter. According to Reid, the addition of the word Mafia was an “impulse” prompted by the thought that the blocked were kindred spirits; a family.
Reid is adamant he wasn’t intending to be “a jerk, or a troll, or to be nasty.” Rather, it was “all in fun.”
Flash to July 25, 2011, and the end of the NFL player lockout. Football drought is annulled for millions. Deprived of a full training camp experience, tweets are flying between rabid fans the world over in anticipation of the impending football season. On July 28, linebacker Nick Barnett is picked up by the Bills via free agency. On a whim, Harris tweets Barnett and invites him to join the Bills Mafia. To his amazement, Barnett responds that he likes the sound of that, and retweets Harris’ invitation.
Awestruck that Barnett responded, Harris immediately contacted Reid. Knowing they had a unique moment to seize or let pass by, Reid came up with an idea to print T-shirts he figured would unite and identify members of the Bills Mafia. His concept was the Twitter bird symbol with a red stripe through it.
Reid thought his idea of a blue bird with a red streak through it was creative. Two corporate giants didn’t see it that way.
“I’ve learned a lot about intellectual property since then and neither the Bills nor Twitter were very happy,” Reid admitted. “Everything I did back then was in complete ignorance. I’ve learned a lot and am very mindful of the laws and rights of others.
“Growing up, we had a picture of O.J. Simpson hanging in our house. Catholic families have a picture of the pope hanging in their house, Bills families had O.J.. Point of me saying this is that this is in my DNA. I didn’t want to take advantage just to sell a few T-shirts. I had a few question the purpose of selling T-shirts, so we decided to donate the proceeds. At the time, I worked for Roswell Park and I could literally see their fundraising floor from my office. It occurred to me to donate the money from the shirts to them, but first I had to explain to Roswell what Twitter was. Roswell asked me, ‘Is this (Twitter) a bad thing?’ No! I just want to give you money.”
Reid estimates the number of shirts sold was around 50, and the first donation to Roswell in early 2012 was $100. At the time, the Bills Mafia was only making $2 per shirt.
In early August 2011, Harris received a message from Johnson suggesting a Bills Mafia Twitter account be created. Harris contacted Reid with Johnson’s suggestion and an account was set up. Harris then messaged Johnson that the account was live. On Aug. 7, 2011, Johnson sent out a tweet with the new Bills Mafia Twitter handle.
Reid recalls being in church when, “All of a sudden my phone went nuts. I only had about 300 followers, then in a span of a few hours I had about 500 more. We were part of something big! Something cool and Stevie Johnson was a part of this. I had such a fan-crush on Stevie at the time, so it was so cool that he did that – told people to follow.”
And just like that, the Bills Mafia was born.
The Mafia’s helping hands
In 2013, the Bills Mafia received 501(c)3 nonprofit status and have benefitted many WNY charities and beyond. They work with former Bills player Brian Moorman’s P.U.N.T. Foundation and have raised money for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, giving to the Red Cross of Boston. Says Reid, “People need help everywhere.” The Bills Mafia also staffs events like the Buffalo Soup-Fest by recruiting volunteers via Twitter.
Harris finally made the journey from Virginia Beach to Orchard Park on Oct. 9, 2011. The generosity that so adequately describes the soul of the Bills Mafia supplied Harris with his first Bills game experience; a Bills Mafia member bought him a game ticket. Harris chose the Bills vs. Eagles game as his inauguration because it was the ‘Tweetup’ game, the first game where members of the Bills Mafia met for what’s now become an annual tailgate.
Harris was amazed with the 70 or so folks who turned out for that first ‘Tweetup.’ “It was a family atmosphere even though it’s the first time you’ve ever met. People fed me. I was overwhelmed with how nice they were.”
Since, the annual Bills Mafia tailgate has grown to include several hundred members. Held in “Hammer’s Lot,” it’s the game fans from out of town choose to attend because they can put faces to people they would otherwise only know virtually. Besides potluck food and drink and general fraternity, members participate in a chance to win a 50/50 raffle and a gift basket with all proceeds going to Roswell Park.
All three founding members feel the association with the word “Mafia” is a positive thing. In fact, they feel the cachet of the word’s edginess is what attracted past and present Bills players to embrace it.
Wille finds it amazing the Bills Mafia has become such a “household name.” Even the Bills 2016 first-round pick, Shaq Lawson, included the hashtag in his tweet the night of the draft. She is proud of the opportunity to funnel the Bills Mafia’s passion for the team into some good for the community.
Asked how it feels to have such a fluke thing turn into a movement, Reid says, “Surreal is the only way to put it. It began as a throwaway joke and it’s become this. I’ve put so much love and time and energy into this. It’s opened up so many opportunities. Hard to believe that people that only used to live in my television now use the hashtag. I’m in awe of how something like this could happen.”
Reid’s emotion for the Bills Mafia penetrates the phone – he rattles off with such enthusiasm, I can hardly keep up.
Asked if he sees any sort of collaboration with the Buffalo Bills organization in the Bills Mafia’s future, Reid pauses for a moment, then replies, “I think it would be great to someday see our efforts embraced by the team. If they really knew us, they’d know that we’re only here to deepen the experience of what it means to be a Bills fan. Our intentions have always been pure, never a detriment to their operation. The Bills play such a deep role in our lives that it would only be natural. It’s only natural that the Bills Mafia sprang out organically. The team embracing our efforts may be a pie-in-the-sky thing. If not, that’s fine. We’re not missing out – but it would be so cool if we did.”
Janine Talley, wife of Buffalo Bills great Darryl Talley, writes an occasional column for The Buffalo News.