He got his start at age 9, at the Old Rockpile, War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, where he attended the Bills’ first-ever regular-season home game, on Sept. 18, 1960. Back then, he sat in the end zone, near his cowbell-wielding mother, Geraldine, among the crowd of 15,229.
Over the Bills’ first 54 seasons, through snowstorms and subzero temperatures, through painful 1-13 and 2-14 seasons, through his own honeymoon and the birth of his children, Jimmy Nydahl missed only two Bills home games, one because of a serious back injury in 2008, and the other as a teenager when his family couldn’t afford the price of American Football League championship game tickets.
He attended more than 425 home games – plus four Super Bowls and some road games – over those 54 seasons, dating from age 9 into his early 60s.
James W. Nydahl’s lifelong passion for the Buffalo Bills ended when he died in his sleep Saturday in his Town of Tonawanda home. He was 64, and had battled chronic severe back problems and other medical issues.
In the last few years, friends have touted Nydahl as the most loyal Bills fan since the team’s inception in 1960.
“I have never met anyone that comes even close to Jimmy Nydahl in terms of passion, loyalty and the dedication he has displayed as a Bills fan,” Sammy Violante, a close friend who attended games with him, said in a 2009 Buffalo News article. “He lives, breathes and sleeps the Buffalo Bills’ red, white and blue.”
Another good friend, Mike Billoni, put it another way. “Jimmy turned the Bills experience, his passion, into a family tradition,” Billoni said. “And he did that for most of his life.”
Nydahl, who was born July 24, 1951, went to great lengths not to miss games, according to a list of streak-preserving “highlights” compiled by Billoni.
The most extreme might have been his wife, Elaine, staying in the hospital an extra day after the birth of their son, Andrew, in September 1989. The reason: The Bills were playing Sunday night in Miami, and Jimmy Nydahl didn’t want any distractions.
He also planned his four major back and neck surgeries around the Bills schedule; came back early from his honeymoon to attend a game; and flipped over a car while driving to Pittsburgh but still made the Bills-Steelers playoff game in January 1993.
Nydahl was modest and low-key about his Bills passion and his streak, trying to deflect the claim about his being possibly the most loyal Bills fan of all.
“I’d like to think I’m a great fan, but a lot of other people have seen a lot of games,” he said in the 2009 article. “I’d love to go to a game and sit with the other people who are die-hard Bills fans and sit with them to the end.”
Nydahl then was asked what drove his need to be at the stadium on game day.
“It’s just being part of the excitement,” he said. “It’s like going to a concert. You have to be there. The bright lights, the noises on the field, the great players. Who’d want to miss those games?”
It also became a huge family tradition. For decades, he, his wife, their son, Andrew, and Violante went to the games in Ralph Wilson Stadium together, sitting in Section 111 and later Section 134, and never leaving until the end. Nydahl and his family have had season tickets since 1963; before that, he’d pay $1 for a ticket to sit in the end zone at the Rockpile.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Elaine Nydahl joked Monday about her husband’s passion. “I married into it.”
For her husband, attending Bills games was almost like a religion, even in the down years. “I always go there with hope,” Nydahl once said. “I guess it’s like going to church on Sunday. You still have faith.”
A lifelong Town of Tonawanda resident, Nydahl graduated from Kenmore West High School in 1969 and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from SUNY Fredonia in 1973. He worked in sales for several companies before becoming a welfare examiner for the Erie County Social Services Department, from the early 1980s until his chronic bad back forced him to retire in 1994.
In addition to his wife of 35 years, the former Elaine M. Sinicki, he is survived by a daughter, Hanna; a son, Andrew; his mother, Geraldine; two sisters, Deborah Tuttle and Cynthia; and two brothers, Jack and Martin.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Paul’s Catholic Church, 33 Victoria Blvd., Kenmore.
Mourners no doubt will talk about how Nydahl wore his Bills passion on more than his sleeve, as he sported a tattoo of the team’s charging buffalo on his right calf. And he got that tattoo at age 56.
“When I wear shorts,” he once said, “you know where my heart is.”