On his second day of graduate school at Syracuse University, Town of Tonawanda native Gino Bona was sitting in accounting class late Monday morning when he got some news that will look mighty good on his professional resume.
His cell phone buzzed. He saw the 212 (New York City) area code, walked out of class and took the call.
That's when Bona, 33, learned that he had won the National Football League's Super Bowl ad contest, for a commercial that pokes fun at NFL fans bemoaning the end of the season.
Bona's concept will be made into a 30-second commercial that will air during the Super Bowl XLI telecast Feb. 4.
"One of the first things I said is, 'Does this mean I can quit grad school?' " Bona recalled Tuesday.
It does mean Bona will be a busy man for the next month.
He will spend this week going over the commercial's script, by e-mail. Next week, he's going to Los Angeles, to watch the commercial being taped. Then he will work on the media tour in New York City before heading to the Super Bowl in Miami.
"The biggest thrill for me is next week, sitting in a studio lot, watching my idea go from script to screen," Bona said.
Like many expatriates, Bona has left Buffalo -- but never the Bills.
The St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Ithaca College graduate remembers attending the Bills' 51-3 spanking of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game in January 1991. Jim Kelly always was his favorite player. And he subscribes to DirecTV, solely to watch the Bills each Sunday.
"I'm like every single guy who grew up in Buffalo," he said. "I live and die with the Bills. It's like I never left Buffalo."
The NFL ad contest, which attracted more than 10,000 entries, was a natural for Bona, a salesman for a Portland, Maine, marketing firm who has experience as a writer, including some time as an ESPN.com columnist.
When he first saw the ad for the "Best NFL Super Bowl Commercial Ever" while watching the Bills-Bears game in October, he considered the contest the "perfect storm" for him -- the advertiser, writer and Bills fan.
Bona delivered his 90-second spiel to contest judges in November, perhaps winning them over by quipping that he was a big fan of the Bills, "otherwise known as America's Team."
His animated pitch to the judges, which still was available Tuesday at www.nfl.com/superad, outlines a commercial that pokes fun at fans like himself, who are saddened by the end of the NFL season.
The ad, accompanied by Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," will show several season-closing images: A fan putting a Packers No. 1 foam finger back into the closet. The air being let out of an inflatable 49ers chair. A Patriots fan washing his face paint off his body. A bartender giving fans their season-long $6,000 bar tab. A fan taking a Bears jersey off his Great Dane.
Finally, a rough-and-tough NFL icon -- perhaps Dick Butkus -- seen weeping, with the written message stating, "It's hard for us, too."
The ad is noteworthy for its absence of any mention of Bona's beloved Bills.
"I felt any time you mentioned the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl context, people have their preconceived notion that we lost four in a row," Bona explained Tuesday. "I wanted to keep it simple."
The list of more than 10,000 contestants was whittled down to 12, with the public then invited to vote for their favorite commercial idea.
Bona had a built-in advantage here: his brother John III, owner of Amherst Pizza & Ale House. The restaurant used get-out-the-vote fliers with its pizzas, posted notices over the men's room urinals and had employees wearing "Vote for Gino" T-shirts.
Bona finished second in the online voting, which accounted for 30 percent of the final tally. His concept obviously wowed the three judges, whose votes accounted for the remaining 70 percent.
"I tapped into something a lot of people don't like to admit, that [fans] go through a mini-depression [at the end of the season]," he said. "That's something that true football fans feel, but I wanted to do it in a fun way."
Officials with the executive MBA program at Syracuse allowed Bona to defer the start of his graduate program until May. Meanwhile, Bona, who's married with two young children, plans to ride the wave of his contest win and see where it takes him.
"I did it for the Bills," he said. "I see this as my fifth Super Bowl. And I'm not losing this one."