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Sean Kirst: After the storm, even a Bills loss feels a lot like home at a Florida bar

Doug Crowe found the place almost 30 years ago. He moved to Florida after he was laid off from a job in Niagara County, and a couple of hard winters reinforced his feeling that he needed to get out.

He went to the Tampa area with a bag of clothes and a single trunk. Crowe started over. One day, he spotted a bar in St. Petersburg called Nickel City that offered Genesee Cream Ale and beef on weck.

Crowe walked in. Three or four regulars were seated at the bar. One of them was Roger Reese, who had been his study hall teacher during high school in Lockport.

The nation's Gulf Coast was a long way from what we call the North Coast in Buffalo. Yet in that instant, all Crowe could think was:

I'm home.

Now 67, he was there again Sunday. About 200 Upstate transplants – most in wild variations of Bills blue and red – packed into the Buffalo City Bar and Grille, an especially prosperous example of establishments in faraway communities typically described simply as Bills and Sabres bars. Many, including dozens in Florida, are linked as official gathering points for Bills Backers groups.

That includes St. Petersburg's Buffalo City, a tavern that features two working bars and 52 televisions, most tuned to the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Carolina Panthers.

At opening kickoff, the rooms reverberated with a great roar. The noise continued throughout the tense, frustrating – at least for Buffalo – and low-scoring game, reaching a second half crescendo when Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka managed to angle in a 45-yard field goal off an upright, ending a Buffalo scoring drought.

"People are venting," said Jerry Marcinowski, 75, a retiree from Clarence, watching as Bills fans danced, as they pumped their fists and hollered, as they sang along to "Shout," with the song cranked to high volume. "They've been cooped up a long time, and everyone here knows this thing could have been a lot worse."

Former Niagara Falls resident Robert Leroy Swendsen Jr. dishes out the hometown-style beef on weck sandwiches in the kitchen and restaurant next to Buffalo City Bar and Grille. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Forget football. He was talking about the storm. The bar closed last Sunday as Florida reeled from Hurricane Irma. It was the first and only time the tavern has shut down on the day of a Bills game since Frank Sukiennik gave up retirement to open the Buffalo City Bar in 2003, five years after he sold his thriving, Buffalo-themed Nickel City tavern.

"I almost came down here on Sunday to watch the game," said Artie Ritchie, 60, who is officially called sports director at the bar, but is really both master of ceremonies and part of the soul of the place. The bar was sealed up last week against the storm while the Bills - far away - were busy beating the Jets. But even with the place empty, Ritchie couldn't stand the idea of sitting home while the Bills played.

He has been around these St. Petersburg Bills bars almost from the beginning. Ritchie is a close friend of Sukiennik, who moved to St. Petersburg in the 1980s after his family's Foxfire Inn burned down in Amherst.

Sukiennik figured out a simple truth, early.

Even if they had no plans for going back, thousands of Western New Yorkers who moved to Florida hungered for something almost spiritual in the underdog communion of the city they left behind.

"I miss the hell out of my friends and out of my football, but look what I got out of it," said Kevin Arnold, 26, formerly of Niagara Falls. He brought his 3-year-old son, Derek, to the bar Sunday. The boy is named for Derek Jeter, and Arnold – who flirts with the idea of a Western New York homecoming – wants to immerse the child in the manic loyalty that links every Bills fan in the nation.

Arnold has a good job in construction, installing air conditioning systems. Still, he spoke with longing of a greater Buffalo community he defined in this way: "We love family. We love to eat. We love to work hard."

As Sukiennik realized, as Arnold reaffirms, the cord tying all of it together in many distant locales is the Bills.

Former Niagara Falls resident Kevin Arnold checks his phone as he waits for kickoff with his 3-year-old son Derek, named for Derek Jeter, in the Buffalo City Bar and Grille in St. Petersburg. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Last weekend, with electrical power out at thousands upon thousands of homes and the threat of Irma looming over Florida, many former Western New Yorkers either missed the Bills-Jets game or had to be remarkably creative to follow it.

John P. Rudy, for instance, is a 32-year-old Army combat veteran, a Purple Heart recipient who wears a tattoo honoring his native South Buffalo. He boarded up his home, lost power when the storm hit and then came up with a way to watch the game:

Offering specific directions by phone, he coached his 76-year-old grandmother in Buffalo, Jane Selden, so that she could hold up her iPad to the television screen, live streaming the game to her grandson in Florida.

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Whenever something good happened, she'd pat the screen as a long distance high-five.

Asked if he misses Buffalo, Rudy sipped his Genny Cream and said simply: "All the time." His sister, Brittanny, was also at the bar. She drove more than an hour to get there from her home.

This is no kidding:

She arrived by using a vast highway over Tampa Bay called the Skyway – or, more accurately, Florida's Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

"She drove more than an hour and crossed the Skyway to watch the Bills game, and she does it every week," Rudy said. "We've made our own little community down here, because that's what Buffalo is."

South Buffalo transplant and Purple Heart recipient John P. Rudy watches the game with his beverage of choice, Genesee Cream Ale. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The bar, which features a giant bison head in a football helmet, is now supervised by Sheryl Sukiennik, Frank's daughter. She left Western New York and moved to Florida with her family when she was 16. Her father, at 77, did not feel well enough Sunday to come to the tavern.

When Frank's not there, the regulars don't let anyone use his chair at what is called "the round table," the sacred spot near Ritchie's sound system where many of Buffalo City's original patrons assemble amid the big crowd to watch the game.

"We all miss him," said Tracy Jones, 53, a native of Rochester, who said she has been watching Bills games at Buffalo City, well, forever – and that Frank Sukiennik is always at the heart of the event.

How passionate are the crowds? Tim Yea, 57, a West Seneca native who now has two of his three grown children in Florida, said his extended family gathers every Saturday night to flip a coin. The loser has to show up early – typically by 11:30 a.m. – to grab a table before the big rush into the bar.

If little Derek Arnold was the youngest person in the place, Yea's 82-year-old mother, Betty, may have had the most seniority. She was in a particularly good mood because the power at her house finally returned Sunday.

"I've been a vagabond," said Betty, who's been staying with her children.

The Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge that crosses Tampa Bay into St. Petersburg — much different than Buffalo's Skyway. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Joyce McMahon, 78, stopped in with her son, Norm, a retired commercial painter from Sloan who drove his mother back to Florida. Joyce was in Buffalo during the hurricane, and you could feel her sheer relief about the way St. Petersburg and the area around it dodged the most frightening predictions about potential mayhem.

"Oh my God," Joyce said. "You worried about what could happen, and about whether your place would even be there when you came back to it."

Everyone at Buffalo City seemed to have a story. There was Steve Notto, a Southtowns native and an Army veteran of Iraq, who spoke of how "a Bills fan you find anywhere is an instant friend."

Or Cheryl Martin and Rich Horton, who attended a high school prom together 33 years ago in Lockport, reignited that teenage connection in Florida, and now show up as a couple for Bills games.

Or Robert Leroy Swendsen Jr., a Niagara Falls native and master chicken wing and beef on weck cook at the restaurant next door, also owned by the Sukienniks, a guy whose bandana always matches his Bills shirt of the day.

Or Mark Smith, who said he was a limousine driver for the great Bills teams of the early 1990s. He now lives in Florida with his wife, Dawn, who grew up two doors away from Smith's family on the East Side. Three trees fell on his neighbor's lawn during the hurricane, and Smith went over there this weekend to help out the guy by mowing his lawn, which is as close as it gets on the Gulf Coast to shoveling your neighbor's sidewalk.

"That," he said, "is the spirit of Buffalo."

St. Petersburg is near Tampa, the site of the greatest and most enduring heartbreak in Bills history, the 20-19 oh-so-close loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. One truth about Bills loyalists: Through all the numbing years, they keep the faith.

Sunday's game had a typically painful culmination. It came down to the final minutes with the Bills trailing 9-3, while quarterback Tyrod Taylor led his team on one last march down the field.

Over the sound system, Ritchie blared Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and implored the crowd to call in any favors they had with the Almighty. The whole thing hinged on one final desperate pass, and 200 pairs of arms went up in the air as Taylor hurled the ball and it ... came ... so ... close ...

Zay Jones, despite a desperate, twisting effort, couldn't quite pull it in. There was an instant of silence as the entire place swallowed hard at another dose of aching, familiar disappointment.

But the familiar, in its own way, was exactly what these pilgrims from Buffalo came to find.

After a hurricane, after weeks of uncertainty, they could be sure they'd all be back again next week. So they shook their heads about the fortunes of the Bills, shared some hugs, then left friends from their old world and returned to their new one.

Sometimes by the Skyway.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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