The aroma hits you as soon as you open the car door. ¶ It is the heavenly scent of a thousand grills. ¶ Bratwurst, hot dogs and hamburgers, charred and smoldering. Cauldrons of deep fat bubbling with salty zucchini fries and – What else? – wings. As you thread through the parking lots surrounding New Era Field, the aroma intensifies. ¶ You have to breathe it to believe it. ¶ Check out any list of the NFL’s top tailgating towns, and Buffalo is No. 1, or close to it. So serious are the crowds that you have to rise and shine early if you want to have any hope of getting through traffic and finding a spot. ¶ “I’m up at 6 a.m. on game day,” said John Burns, of Bath. ¶ He was perched next to a grill, an ancient-looking wooden box full of cooking gear, and a fine-looking bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon. ¶ “Since 1961 – I’m 57 – my father began buying season tickets. We didn’t go hunting in the fall. We went to Bills games,” he said. “My dad passed away this year. Coming to a game brings me closer to him.” ¶ He offered two of us from The News a taste of that fine bourbon. Piously, we declined. It was what, 10 a.m.? ¶ But for some weird reason – it has to have been something in the air – I said yes a few minutes later to a shot of cheap Llords peach schnapps, dyed Buffalo Bills blue. The Llords folks called themselves the Bullpen. They had met at the stadium 28 years ago and had become close friends. ¶ “Welcome to the Bullpen!” they shouted as, together, we toasted the Bills. ¶ What fun this was.
We’ve all seen the videos. Of the Bills fan who jumped into a fire. Of huge shirtless guys hurling each other onto collapsible tables which, well, collapse. Of all kinds of reckless gymnastics.
For better or worse, we saw none of that. Credit can likely go to the Bills team for making tailgating a more savory spectacle than you might expect. Mounted police clip-clopped among the barbecues. Security guards kept watch.
The place was like a rowdy but peaceable kingdom. Frenchmen from Montreal had a retro coffee maker ready for after the game, when they planned to enjoy coffee and cannoli. Another encampment had an industrial-sized grill, plus music and dancing. A Rochester family had Zweigle’s sausages simmering in Sam Adams Oktoberfest.
“I’ve got no compunctions about bringing my 11-year-old grandson,” said Dave Frisk, one of the Zweigle’s group. “It’s a lot calmer here than it used to be.”
Still, it was colorful. Chicken wing hats, beanbag games, Bills flags, Rolling Rock, Flying Bison, thousands of bottles of hot sauce – the scene was Buffalo overload. We even met an RIT student from Oneonta named Logan Berra.
Loganberry, get it?
“I’ve heard it,” he said, deadpan. His mother, no surprise, was from Buffalo.
Game time approached. A proud procession of red, white and blue streamed toward the stadium’s front gate. Helicopters hovered. Fireworks shot into the sky. In a fine touch of pageantry, the crowd parted to make room for a stunning powder blue Bentley. Restaurateur Russ Salvatore had arrived.
Surely victory would be ours! And it was. The Bills beat the odds to defeat the Arizona Cardinals.
But thank the Llords, I was counting my blessings before the game began.
What luck that our stadium has acres and acres of room, plus neighbors who open their yards to tailgaters. Were the stadium to move downtown, as some have suggested, we would lose that.
Jim and Jordan Lane, husband-and-wife expats who had trekked in from Pittsburgh, shared my concerns.
“There are two stadiums in Pittsburgh,” Jim Lane said. “They’re downtown, right next to each other. They look good. But they don’t have this atmosphere.”
And the tailgating atmosphere is what brings Western New Yorkers together. Whatever the game’s outcome, we win.
“We’ll always come out. We’ll always be happy. We’ll always be optimistic. We’ll always enjoy our team,” Jordan Lane declared.
“When I see all the red, white and blue – that’s when I know I’m home.”