These days, access to most professional athletes is limited to long lines at memorabilia signings or the occasional spotting at an airport or in a hotel lobby, and the interaction is swift.
However, for a span of 10 years, many to the chagrin of me and my football sister wives, a little spot occupying the northeast corner of Abbott Road and Big Tree Road was a refuge after a long day of meetings and practice for marquee Bills players before heading to their homes. The Big Tree Inn was an extension of the Buffalo Bills locker room of the '80s and the '90s. A place where members of those acclaimed teams unwound and ribbed each other about game play – good and bad. And occasionally it was a place for shenanigans too unsavory to print here.
The players didn’t have far to go to get there. The Big Tree Inn is prime real estate; its backyard is New Era Field, back then known as Rich Stadium.
The watering hole was the place where anyone could sit elbow-to-elbow with a future Hall of Fame inductee as he devoured a basket of wings and pounded a pitcher of beer. A place where anyone could get in on a game of darts with the guy who just scored the winning touchdown in a playoff game, or drop coins in the juke box with the guy who set a team record for sacks.
Hall of Famer Andre Reed is a crack storyteller, delivering his tales with sidesplitting humor. When we get together, he often recalls the escapade of his first stop upon arriving in Buffalo his rookie year; it wasn't the stadium, but rather the Big Tree.
He was flying into town for the first time after being drafted by the Bills in the fourth round in 1985 to attend rookie mini camp. He’d never flown before, and his inaugural flight was on a propeller plane that took him from Allentown, Pa., to Philadelphia. He was excited to be heading to Buffalo, but terrified the crop duster playing bumper cars with the clouds wouldn’t make it to Philly for his connection to Buffalo. Once there, he got on the second leg of his flight, which afforded him his first experience on a jet and the peace of mind of no turbulence. He was one of the first seated. Last to arrive on the aircraft was a guy wearing sunglasses who Andre describes as “This big dude damn near the size of the plane.” It was Bills first round draft pick, Bruce Smith.
Andre waited until he deplaned to introduce himself to Bruce and ask him some pretty basic questions: “Is someone meeting us?” and “How do we get to the hotel?” As it turned out, there were no arrangements for someone representing the Bills to meet them, so Bruce invited Andre to ride with him.
Bruce informed Andre his friend, Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, was picking them up. Darryl was waiting outside of baggage claim leaning against his mother’s red 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible and Andre thought, “Who the hell is this guy?” Not thinking a professional football player would be driving around town in a 10-year-old car that belonged to his mother, Andre didn’t realize the person standing curbside was in fact Darryl Talley. Once inside the ocean liner of a car, Darryl informed Bruce and Andre he was taking them to the Big Tree. Andre thought they were headed to a restaurant; he was hungry from the travel, so he was good with the plan.
On the Thruway, Darryl told Bruce and Andre he was glad they were there because he was tired of losing. He told them about the dismal prior season and how with the addition of Bruce and Andre, they could all get on the same page and be something. That day, in that bar, the three of them discussed what they could do right then to be a better team. Andre says the confidence Darryl had in the team resonated with him from his first day in Buffalo, and he told Darryl he was there to win too.
Andre recalls he was just a kid from a small town and a small school, but that day at the Big Tree had an impact on him he carried throughout his time with the Bills. “I didn’t know one coach, one play, or catch one ball, but felt like I was welcome right away, and just wanted to make the team.” Andre attended his first day of meetings and practice as a professional football player feeling like he was already acclimated to the area, and always shares the story with a gleeful recollection reserved for the birth of a first child.
Other players of that era also count the Big Tree among one of their first stops upon arriving in Buffalo. Sure they frequented other Buffalo area bars and eateries, but none as inclusively as the Big Tree Inn.
No craft cocktails featuring muddled fresh herbs or trendy small plates assembled to look like a Van Gogh still life at the Big Tree; the place draws the boilermaker and wings crowd, and the owner is fine with that.
Before Dan DeMarco and his then partner, Bill Lindy, purchased the establishment in 1980, DeMarco was a bricklayer. The cobbled walls of the interior, erected by the proprietor, are lined with the names and numbers of Bills players of a bygone era. The autographed jerseys are gifts from the players to a place that made them feel welcome enough to let them be genuinely in touch with their blue-collar roots.
Fitting that a team synonymous with the phrase "blue-collar" would find themselves frequenting a pub in such close proximity to the stadium catering to a blue-collar crowd. It was the place where they passed out cigars after the births of their children. The place where they celebrated being selected to the Pro Bowl or drowned their sorrows for not. It was the place where together, they let the pressures of performance evaporate for a while.
Anyone familiar with the behaviors of the Bills of the late '80s and early '90s knows after a few drinks they got wild. The Big Tree embraced their wild behavior because it was already a part of the establishment’s culture. They were treated like all of the regulars, not lofty football players; such was the appeal.
That was 25 years ago. A sighting of current Bills players at the Big Tree is a rare occurrence, limited to the occasional rookie sent to carry on the ritual of buying lavish amounts of take-out food for his teammates. The upside to this is they probably all make it home in time for dinner with their families.
A few years ago, the Big Tree found itself on the national stage when Sports Illustrated featured on its cover then-Bills head coach Rex Ryan, and Hall of Fame players Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. A framed copy signed by those on the cover hangs among the place’s extensive collection of Bills memorabilia.
The Big Tree Inn has developed a devoted following in the last 37 years, hosting Bills fans from across the country who make the pilgrimage to eat a basket of wings, slam shots and take photos with the jerseys of players past. Catering to boisterous crowds before and after Bills home games is an event unto itself. During those home games, the Big Tree’s parking lots are reserved for regulars who manage to cling to the notion that they’ll soon see their team back in the playoffs and their city once again associated with winning.
Until then, one can still run into those players of a bygone era when an event collectively calls them to town. The Big Tree is usually their first stop off of the plane where they catch up and feed their cravings for camaraderie, authentic wings and blue-collar surroundings.