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Bills carry civic pride on their backs

Yes, having a winning football team means more here than anywhere else.

One title that Buffalo is always in the running for is America's Most Downtrodden City. You can depend on some national magazine to sporadically place us among the Top 10 Most Miserable Places to Live or the Lowliest Pits on Planet Earth or some such dubious dishonor.

You cannot travel 400 miles without encountering someone whose reflexive response to "Buffalo" is either a crack about snow or a question about why you live there. In the eyes of much of America, we are a frozen tundra, a forgotten outpost, a place to hurry through without stopping. If, indeed, they think of us at all.

I am exaggerating, but only a little.

We are, however, one of just 31 cities with an NFL team (New York having two). It is one of the few ways that Buffalo ascends to the national stage. Every football Sunday, the rest of the country has to say our name. Bills players learn early that they carry on their backs either the curse or the blessing of civic pride. Far more than in a booming metropolis, the team's impact on the community goes beyond wins and losses.

The Bills' abysmal showing the past decade has only made things worse. It seemingly confirmed our perceived unworthiness, cemented our status as a national punch line, added yet another reason for communal defensiveness.

Which is why Sunday's victory over perennial bully New England bordered on a religious experience. Beating the long-indomitable Patriots was less a victory than an exorcism, an epiphany so long in coming that many of us could not conceptualize it until the final gun.

As the team lined up for the game-deciding field goal, someone sitting near me in the nosebleed section captured the shared hopes and trepidations of that moment, calling out: "Join hands."

We did -- friends and strangers, men and women, more than a dozen of us. It was a show of faith and an accumulation of positive energy; an attempt to ward off the demons behind all of the things that could -- and, in the past, inevitably would -- go wrong. However delusional, we hoped that the force of our collective will might help to guide the ball through the uprights.

At a bar the other night, I was talking about the game with a twentysomething guy and his girlfriend. He told a variation of the same story: Watching the game with friends at his house, they spontaneously clasped hands before the crucial kick. I can only imagine how many times the scene was repeated across Western New York.

Around here, it is about more than the game. When the Bills are winning, it feels like a declaration of civic self-worth, a Yes We Can testimonial, an affirmation that this place is better than the rest of America thinks it is.

It helps the Bills-as-us zeitgeist that the team is largely a collection of castoffs; players who were, at some point, overlooked or undervalued. Which, of course, reflects the way the outside world regards Buffalo. We know it as a place of hidden charms and underappreciated amenities, with a small-town sense of community and a lower-stress quality of life -- at least for those with a decent job -- than you find in a big, shiny metropolis. Riding atop that wave is a populace unified by, among other things, a shared sense of persecution.

I hope that the winning -- and the feeling of communal affirmation it brings -- lasts for a while. With an ailing 92-year-old owner who has no succession plan in place, and Los Angeles among the big-city markets salivating for a team, the Bills may not be carrying our flag much longer. But, at least for the moment, there is magic in the air. Everybody, join hands.


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