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Traveling fans have motors that don’t quit

DETROIT – Michelle Ledford has been a Bills and Sabres season-ticket holder for many years. Some would consider that an affliction. Ledford sees it as a badge of honor. She wears it proudly, like her Mario Williams jersey.

“People are always blasting me,” Ledford said Monday afternoon in the Motor Lobby of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel. “They ask me why? How are you so patient with everything?

“I don’t have kids,” she said. “But I ask people, ‘if you have a kid and he stinks in sports for a couple years, do you stop attending the games? No. I’m going to attend those sporting events continually, no matter what. I’m going to support my hometown.”

So there was never any doubt that Ledford was going to be at the Bills-Jets game Monday night at Ford Field. She had attended the Bills-Lions game here in early October and had a terrific weekend, meeting other Buffalo fans in the bars and watching her Bills beat the Lions.

Ledford lives in Williamsville, so she was spared the brunt of last week’s massive snowstorm. Her uncle and fellow Bills lover, John Huntzinger, was a different matter. Huntzinger lives in Elma, which was one of the towns that got pounded by the storm.

“I had about 7 feet of snow in my driveway,” Huntzinger said. “I was getting a little fearful, because I was coming here, you know, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”

During the week, Ledford called her uncle and said, “We’re going to Detroit.” So Huntzinger hunkered down in his house and began making homemade Bills caps with snowflakes on the bill to hand out to other fans.

On Saturday, Huntzinger finally got out of his house. On Monday morning, he was on the road to Detroit with Ledford and another friend, Anne Marie Paul. A group of other young friends traveled here in another car.

“And here we are,” Huntzinger announced as his group prepared to head toward Ford Field to line up for the game. “I made it.”

Huntzinger, who is retired, was in classic Buffalo form. He was wearing shorts, same as Ledford. He had a cup of beer in his hand, a Sammy Watkins jersey on his back. He had earmuffs with white polka dots. Hanging from his waist was a red towel, which he called his “Bills loin cloth.”

He was carrying a rolled up banner. Huntzinger unrolled the banner and asked a couple of the younger members of the entourage to help him hold it aloft.

The front of the sign read, “Open The Roof. Let It Snow. Go Buffalo!” On the back, it simply said, “Open The Roof.”

That was the message they wanted to convey to the world, that bad weather cannot hold back hardy Buffalo folks in the end. It’s something to rise above, generally while wearing shorts and carrying beer in a plastic cup.

“We’re going over to get in line now,” Huntzinger said. “We want to get the prime seats behind the Bills bench. We want to get there early. We have two hours of drinking ahead of us.”

It was just after 3 p.m. The gates didn’t open until 5:30. But by 3:30, the lines for the gates outside Ford Field were already about 10-12 deep with eager NFL fans, most of them adorned in red-and-blue Bills regalia.

A brutal wind was whipping off the Detroit River. It was about 40 degrees, but the wind made it seem about 20. At one point, a trash can came blowing between the rows and crashed into a certain sports columnist.

But you know Bills fans. Some of the fans were wearing shorts and T-shirts. They probably wished the roof could be opened for the Bills-Jets game, too.

“This is Buffalo weather,” said Chauncey Carter, who lives downtown in the city. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been here since 1 o’clock. I love the Bills. I don’t have a choice. I think a win would lift up the city and give people a distraction from what’s happening at home.”

Carter, a Bills season-ticket holder, was first in one of the lines. Two lines over, Jeremiah Ranzie was standing at the front of a line, holding a stuffed bear. Ranzie’s face was painted red, white and blue. He was clad in a blue Buffalo cap and, of course, old zubaz pants.

Ranzie said he’s a Bills season-ticket holder. That’s no rare distinction, except he lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You know, in New York City.

“It’s the only New York team,” he said. “You got to be proud of them.”

Ranzie proudly displayed his Bills season-ticket card, which would grant him entrance to the game. He said he had been in line since 1:30. Suddenly, a chant of “Hey Ay Ay Ay, Let’s Go Buffalo” went up in the crowd.

“The Bills fans are taking over Detroit,” a fan from Niagara Falls shouted from an adjacent line.

“I was in Detroit in October when the Bills played,” Ranzie said. “It’s like a 12-hour ride from Brooklyn. We said we can’t miss it. It’s a Monday night game. We’re going to make it loud in there. You’re going to hear us.”

There was no mistaking the Bills fans when 5:30 arrived. They came streaming into the dome on the home side of the field and hustled down to get the prime seats behind the Bills bench.

Looking down from the press box, you could see a panorama of Bills jerseys: Several 22s, 94s and 28s, 99, 51, 28, 14, 13, 12, an old 78 Bruce Smith jersey, even a Bryce Paup 95.

At 6 p.m., they booed when the Jets came out onto the field. They erupted in cheers with the Bills came out. It seemed a lot more natural than the crowds you got in Toronto for those “home games.” I doubt most of the people who drove five hours to Detroit bothered to attend the games in Canada.

Word was, there were six buses filled with Bills fans on the way to Detroit when those other die-hards stood in line at 3:30 p.m. You didn’t have to ask why. If the Bills couldn’t be home, then home would have to come to them.

“This is a great game,” Ledford said. “We’ve got to get a win for the city. But we’re Bills fans through and through, no matter the record.”


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