ORCHARD PARK – Let’s start with the fact that my grandmother Evelyn Elliott is 107 years old. Add to this that she gave up driving only five years ago, can Skype from her iPad and rode out November’s blizzard stranded in the modest house where she has lived since 1932.
Yet these are minor points of family lore when you consider how she spends her Sunday afternoons. The woman is a football fanatic.
There is no visiting Grandma during a Buffalo Bills game unless you plan to sit in reverent silence — except if they score, at which point you will hear a faint centenarian whoop. And definitely don’t bother her with talk of brain injuries or domestic abuse scandals or cheerleaders who are not being paid.
“I’m just about the game,” she says with the kind of steely resolve one gets after surviving two world wars and the Great Depression, among other calamities.
If football is Grandma’s second religion (she has been known to miss church on big game days), then the Bills are her alternate parish, yielding an extended collection of great-grandchildren to be both heralded and scolded.
No one runs faster than defensive back Aaron Williams, but if he misses an interception, she purses her lips. Others may be wowed by a new draft pick, but to Grandma, he is “still a rookie” who must carry his weight. Touchdowns are great and all, but if you want to impress her, pull off a Hail Mary pass.
As one of six grandchildren reared within this prove-your-worth dynamic, I have long searched for a way to understand the inner workings of this woman’s mind. It finally struck me that football might be the route. So we headed to Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday for the Bills’ final home game of the season.
“What are you thinking right now?” I asked her on the drive over.
“You ask too many questions,” she replied.
We soon hit a traffic jam near the stadium, passing a tailgate party like the one Grandma had recently attended with her nurse, Sue. (Grandma mostly uses a wheelchair after two broken hips in recent years, but this has never kept her from a good party.)
In the Buffalo tailgating tradition, fans gather around their cars in parking lots and drink a lot of Labatt Blue beer while feasting on the food that represents the opponent. If the Bills are up against the Miami Dolphins, it’s fish.
On this day, the Bills were playing the Green Bay Packers, so cheese platters were in abundance.
As Grandma looked toward the stadium, her face turned serious. The Packers had never won a road game against Buffalo, but this time they were bringing their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Just the word “quarterback” causes Bills fans to stiffen a little. Early in the season, the team made a switch at that position, replacing E.J. Manuel with Kyle Orton, but he, too, had been less than dazzling.
If Grandma was sure of one thing, it was this: Whatever the Bills lacked on the field that day, they would more than make up for in the stands.
Bills fans are unabashedly fanatical. The team is a version of its underdog town, which has taken the same boom-and-bust path of other small postindustrial cities struggling to survive in the new economy. Through all of the highs and lows, Buffalo has found in the Bills an unwavering and noble cause to rally around.
It makes no difference that the Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. Most of their home games still sell out, as did Buffalo’s coldest home game on record, against the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994, with a wind chill of minus 32 degrees. When the recent blizzard forced the team to decamp to Detroit to face the New York Jets, Bills fans followed suit, pouring into that stadium as well.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that these same die-hard fans waged a campaign this year to ban Bon Jovi’s music because of rumors that the band’s frontman, Jon Bon Jovi, was interested in buying the team and moving it to Canada. (Instead, the Bills were sold for $1.4 billion to Terry and Kim Pegula, who have vowed to keep them in Buffalo.)
After parking our car, we were escorted into an elevator that led to an entrance ramp to the field.
“I have never met anybody who’s 107 years old,” the elevator operator said.
“Me neither,” Grandma replied.
As we descended the ramp into the open field, I caught the first flicker of emotion on Grandma’s face. She had not been to the stadium since she was in her 90s (an age that for most people is a bookend; for Grandma, it was just the start of another chapter).
Year after year, Grandma’s television was her only portal into this field. When she traded up to a 60-inch flat screen, she felt closer. But there is nothing like being there, before that wide expanse of green.
“I think I’m gonna cry,” she said.
Just then, owner Terry Pegula strode up, his hand extended.
It did not occur to Grandma that the Bills were seeing a possible publicity bonanza in this article. She stared at him and said, with a hint of warning, “Thanks for keeping the Bills in Buffalo.”
Half an hour later, we had taken our seats in a heated box, and the game began.
The Bills fell behind early, 3-0. But late in the first quarter, Marcus Thigpen returned a Green Bay punt 75 yards for a touchdown, the kind of play that might happen once a year for any team.
“Touchdown!” Grandma yelped inaudibly as the stadium erupted.
“You don’t see all that when you’re watchin’ at home,” she said. “That was a great play.”
I kept trying to discern what it was about the game that captivated Grandma’s mind. I knew she paid close attention to strategy.
“What do you think happens in the huddle?” I tried.
“They decide what to do,” she sniffed (in the tone of “Are you an idiot or what?”).
I have interviewed militant jihadis, prosecutors, drug dealers and counterterrorism specialists at the CIA. None of them prepared me for the challenge of extracting personal information from my grandmother.
Ask her about church or baking, and she is loquacious. Try to psychoanalyze her, and you get a cocked brow. (This might explain why she is especially fond of the Bills’ defensive line.)
To be fair, Grandma is the product of a no-nonsense upbringing, which she can still recount in shimmering detail. Her father was a baker named Emil Wahl who had come to America from Stuttgart, Germany, settling in East Buffalo, where he met and married Emma Nitzschke, the daughter of German immigrants.
By the time my grandmother was born in 1907, the second youngest of eight children, her father owned a bakery on Metcalfe Street, delivering bread from a horse and buggy for 5 cents a loaf. The family lived above the bakery in an apartment with no indoor plumbing and later moved to a 24-acre farm on Walden Avenue, where the Wahls began raising pigs for a living.
On weekdays, Grandma would walk nearly a mile along a dirt road, often chased by geese, to reach a two-room schoolhouse (“Four grades in one room, four in the other.”). When she was 14, she and her sisters decided to try a vocational school instead. She learned to type but soon quit “because every time the tuition would come up, we’d have to almost break my father’s arm to get the money,” she said.
“So I got sick of that.”
At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Grandma, 15 by then, found a job in the alterations section of a men’s department store, earning $1 a day, six days a week. She spent her scant free time mastering the Charleston, taking sun at Lake Erie, and serving ice cream and cake at the annual peach festival, where in 1926 she first laid eyes on a handsome Southerner named Charles Elliott.
A former Marine from Jackson, Tennessee, he had served in World War I before attending Cornell and was now working at Westinghouse Electric as an electrical engineer. Perhaps most impressive, he drove a car — a Jordan with side curtains — and offered to pick my grandmother up for their third date at 5 a.m.
This gave her pause, until he explained his reasoning.
He wanted to take her to a football game at Cornell, and they would have a long drive ahead.
Grandma saw her first football game almost 90 years ago, on that day trip to Cornell. She acknowledges paying little attention to the sport; she was far more taken with the gentleman who had taken her there.
By the time Charlie and Evie, as they were known, married four years later, the Depression had hit, and football took a back seat to weightier matters.
Grandma considered herself lucky that her husband had kept his job at a time when neighbors were begging for food. But to avoid being laid off, he was working only every other week. “Married women didn’t work” back then, she recalled, but to help her husband make up for the lost income, she took part in raising chickens in the backyard of the house they had built, and sold the eggs door to door.
With the arrival of three sons (my father, Robert, coming last), Grandma spent the next few decades shuttling among her housework, the two church choirs she led, and the cooking and baking classes she taught. Like many women of her time, she knew she had untapped potential. She jumped at the chance, in the 1950s, to run her brother Clarence’s store, Wahl’s Candies (which is still in business). But it was a short-lived affair.
Grandma mostly tended to her children and husband, who had been a Bills devotee from the team’s 1960 inception. Three decades later, he would quietly watch the Sunday game while she tuned it out, fixing dinner instead.
In 1991, Grandpa fell gravely ill right before my cousin Camille’s wedding in Geneva. So Grandma went to Europe by herself, and there, of all places, she discovered the Bills.
It was the start of a magical era for the team, which was heading to the Super Bowl with a shining quarterback named Jim Kelly.
Being a proud woman, Grandma was irked that so many Europeans seemed to know more about her own team — and this American sport — than she did. She returned home ready to learn the game and watched that first Bills Super Bowl with her husband at her side.
The Bills lost. Grandpa died nine months later.
His absence left an aching void to fill every Sunday. Watching the game became Grandma’s new ritual.
With Kelly at the helm, the Bills became the only team to make it to four consecutive Super Bowls. Although they lost all four, they gained a kind of sacred devotion from my grandmother.
She was now a Bills fan.
With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter last Sunday, the Packers kicked a field goal of their own, cutting Buffalo’s lead to 19-13. Could the Bills hold on?
“Another touchdown, they’d have ’em,” Grandma said as her team prepared to go back on offense.
But they didn’t seem to hear her. The Bills moved the ball past midfield but could not advance any farther and punted with two minutes to go, giving Rodgers and the Packers the opening they needed. A last-second touchdown, and Green Bay could win, 20-19.
But on the very next play, Rodgers was sacked on his own 3-yard line and fumbled the ball into the end zone, leading to a safety for the Bills (another rare play for Grandma to witness).
That sealed the Bills’ victory and kept their playoff chances alive.
“Oh, boy!” Grandma squealed. “Oh, boy!”
Her face lit up as the crowd went wild. It was something to no longer be watching alone, to be just one fan among many.
“I think you are good luck, Grandma,” I said.
“I think so,” she said, beaming.
Later that evening, we were back at Grandma’s, sitting around the same mahogany Duncan Phyfe table where four generations of Elliotts had gathered for meals.
Grandma quietly savored her slice of pepperoni pizza with the same focus with which she watches the games. We reminisced about the day’s highlights. How she got to meet Jim Kelly. How she reminded Terry Pegula to keep her team in her town.
Then there was that moment, right before the game, when running back Fred Jackson walked up to greet her.
We wondered aloud if Grandma might have taken a liking to the handsome Jackson, who is still running strong at the ripe age of 33.
She paused, breaking into a smile.
“He’s too old for me.”