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Early kickoff alters rituals for Bills fans on game day

Priests expect the pews to be a little fuller than usual for Catholic Masses late Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning at churches such as St. Bernadette’s in Orchard Park.

Buffalo Bills fans who like knocking down a few cold ones at Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill on Transit Road in Amherst during televised road games will be drinking hot coffee and orange juice instead this Sunday, at least until late in the third quarter.

And in Los Angeles, the Labatt Blue and Genesee Cream Ale will be flowing at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. Sunday.

The game-day routine for hundreds of thousands of Bills fans will be shattered Sunday, with the Bills in London’s Wembley Stadium to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that kicks off at 9:30 a.m. Buffalo time. That’s a full 3½ hours earlier than the usual 1 p.m. start.

Call it “Breakfast at Wembley.”

Churchgoers, Sunday morning touch football players, tailgaters, parents and kids heading to Sunday morning hockey practice, sports bar enthusiasts, lawn-rakers and other Bills fans who plan their autumn Sundays around a 1 p.m. kickoff will have to be a bit more flexible this weekend.

Nobody’s exactly sure how the 9:30 a.m. game will affect Sunday morning church services or the sports bar business, since this will be the first time the Bills have participated in the National Football League’s current International Series in London. This is believed to be the Bills’ earliest regular-season start ever, Buffalo time, although the team did play exhibition games in London and Berlin in the early 1990s.

“Hopefully, the Bills game will not affect church attendance too much,” Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz said. “However, those who attend church, it would be good if they could whisper a prayer, because the Bills are in need right now.”

Ouch. What would she be saying if the Bills’ record, Wnow 3-3, was below .500?

Bars alcohol-free until noon

Offering a prayer is one thing, but Sister Mary Johnice, who runs the Response to Love Center on Buffalo’s East Side, insisted that churchgoers shouldn’t be doing any texting or scoreboard watching on their cellphones in church.

The Rev. Paul D. Seil, pastor at St. Bernadette’s, less than two miles from Ralph Wilson Stadium, cited all the Masses offered late Saturday afternoon, early Sunday morning and late Sunday afternoon.

“There’s always an excuse if you don’t want to go, but people can find another Mass,” he said.

“You can definitely bring your spiritual life into conformity with the fact that you’re a Bills fan. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can do both.”

While most local churches seem intent on following their normal weekend schedules, sports bars have to adjust.

“We’re calling it ‘Breakfast With the Bills,’ ” Paul Santora, owner of Santora’s Pizza Pub & Grill, said of the $15.95 breakfast package being offered at his Transit Road location.

Those doors will open at 9 a.m., half an hour before kickoff and a full three hours before establishments in New York State can serve alcohol on Sundays, according to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law. Sunday’s game will be well into the second half when the beer taps can be turned on at noon.

Local bar and restaurant owners unsuccessfully tried to get an extension of alcohol-selling hours on Sunday, as reflected by the State Liquor Authority’s addressing the issue on the top of its home page. Ellie Grenauer, president of the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, got about a dozen similar calls, and she guessed that the SLA must have been “inundated” with requests to extend the hours.

“Unfortunately, there’s no discretion under the law concerning sales before noon on Sunday,” SLA spokesman William J. Crowley confirmed.

Santora’s has two locations, and the Transit Road site usually draws anywhere from 200 to 400 people to watch a Bills game on 70 television screens, including a 110-inch projection screen.

“I’m hoping Buffalo fans will come out in droves, regardless of the time,” Santora said. “It’s something different to do on a Sunday morning.”

How about the mood of the crowd?

“That is something we’ve been chatting about the last two weeks,” Santora said. “I’m assuming it will be a more mellow crowd, but it will depend on how the Bills play.”

Many of the hundreds, even thousands, of Western New Yorkers attending Sunday’s game in London might be a bit puzzled by the starting time.

London is now five hours ahead of Buffalo, but the difference will be only four hours as of early Sunday morning, when London goes off Daylight Saving Time. So kickoff will be at 1:30 p.m. London time, not 2:30 p.m.

That still translates into 9:30 a.m. Buffalo time.

Crack of dawn in Far West

The greatest adjustment, of course, will be for Bills fans living on the West Coast, where the game will kick off at 6:30 a.m.

That’s an early start, but at least the designated Bills Backers bars in some locales won’t have the alcohol restrictions that exist here.

Busby’s, home of a large Bills Backers club in Santa Monica, Calif., will stream the game live, as it has done for Bills preseason games in the last couple of years. So the chicken wings will be piping hot, and the cold Labatt Blue and Genesee Cream Ale will be available starting at 6 a.m. Sunday.

Liquor laws in California allow establishments with bar licenses to begin selling alcohol at 6 a.m., explained Kurt Graves, president of the Los Angeles Bills Backers of Santa Monica. He expects about 200 to 300 fans for the London game, since most of the group’s 700 total members are Western New York transplants.

These are serious fans. Graves’ crew even talked about holding a tailgate party before the game, but opted not to, out of concern for neighbors who might not appreciate 50 or so Bills fans drinking outside their homes at 5 a.m. But the true fans will be there before dawn.

“Our hard-core fans, our solid group of 150 to 200 each week, they don’t like to miss the kickoff,” Graves said.

That’s all, of course, part of the thinking behind the NFL’s International Series. Football fans here conceivably could watch the Bills-Jaguars game in the morning, two games in the afternoon and one at night. On the East Coast, that means a football day stretching from 9:30 a.m. to about 11:30 p.m.

“We look at it as a positive,” said Scott Berchtold, Bills senior vice president of communications. “We see it as an opportunity for the Bills and the league to expand our brand outside the United States.”

While the Bills-Jaguars game will be shown locally on WIVB-TV, Channel 4, it will not be televised nationally.

But it will be the first time an NFL game will be streamed live, on Yahoo.

“It’s the first opportunity for people all around the world to watch our game,” Berchtold said. “Going down the road, this is kind of a watershed moment.”

Sister Mary Johnice wants to see a big win by the Bills, but she also wants something in return for Bills fans’ prayers and good wishes toward the team.

“They should pay it back, with a visit to our Response to Love Center,” she said of the players. “I want to see them here, so now I’ve got to get down on my knees to pray.”


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