Russell Salvatore knows what he’s doing on Dec. 31. He will be dressed in a dark suit, crisp shirt and cuff links, greeting guests at his Lancaster restaurant. For him, that’s the New Year's norm.
“I’ve never had a New Year’s Eve off in the last 65 years,” said Salvatore, the 84-year-old owner of Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More.
Here’s another Salvatore norm: Every year, when the Buffalo Bills play the Miami Dolphins in South Florida, Salvatore holds a grand party the night before in a nearby Fort Lauderdale restaurant.
But not this year.
When the 2017 National Football League schedule was released this week, it was announced that the Bills-Miami game will be on Dec. 31. As soon as Salvatore heard the date, he realized his annual party would be "impossible" to schedule.
"It’s not so much that I couldn’t take off," he said. "I don’t think you would find anybody leaving home for the holidays because of a football game. Family is still more important.”
A seething Salvatore submitted a letter to the editor to The Buffalo News calling out the league, and by extension the Bills. When contacted by The News, Bills Vice President of Communications Derek Boyko didn't comment directly on Salvatore's letter, but said in an email, "Have Russ call me."
Boyko, who recently joined the Bills from the Philadelphia Eagles, offered to discuss the NFL's schedule-making process with Salvatore.
"Feel free to pass along my cell," Boyko wrote.
Shortly afterward, a News reporter visited Salvatore at his restaurant, where he was greeting a lobby full of nattily dressed guests. He was working alongside a hostess and his grandson Robert, who, with Salvatore's longtime manager Mark Jerge, will own and operate the restaurant and adjoining hotel after Salvatore's passing. Told of Boyko's offer to talk, Salvatore seemed pleased. He grinned as he folded a slip of paper with Boyko's number and said, "I'll call him tomorrow."
The Bills are Salvatore's team. He's been a season-ticket holder since 1968, and has bought out remaining seats at New Era Field to lift television blackouts. All of which drives his frustration with the schedule. The Miami game date is his primary concern, but Salvatore is also displeased that the team has three home games in cold-weather December, and that the Bills play New England and Miami four times that month.
“Since the schedule was announced Thursday night, my phone has been ringing off the hook, wondering, What now?” Salvatore wrote in his letter to The News. “I had calls from Florida wondering if there was anything I could do.”
Referring to the many Bills fans who travel to Florida for the game every year, Salvatore also wrote, “The ‘New Year’s Eve Blunder’ will cost the city of Miami a lot of money, disappoint thousands, and for me personally, it has taken the heart right out of me."
Salvatore is wealthy and generous. A well-known philanthropist in the Buffalo area, he’s aiming to donate the vast majority of his fortune before he dies. He’s a man who makes grand gestures, from putting his name on buildings that he funds to developing a park in front of his Lancaster restaurant that has sculpted memorials to fallen heroes and the mausoleum where he will spend eternity.
He thrives, too, on large celebrations: a gala on his April birthday each year and the Miami party every football season.
Salvatore estimates his annual bar tab for the party, which in recent years has been held at the Blue Martini restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, is $50,000 to $60,000.
“I didn’t care,” Salvatore said. “They could drink anything they wanted for four hours and I’d get a bar tab at the end of the night. It depends how fast they’d drink.”
The football parties date to the late ‘80s, when the Jim Kelly-era Bills started making the playoffs every year. One night in Florida on trip to a Bills game, Salvatore was at a party with about 70 people. The restaurant manager soon said there was no more room, but Salvatore called him aside and said, “Do me a favor. Get some more bartenders, some more waitresses. … Everybody drinks on me for the whole night.’ It was so much fun.”
Salvatore turned the party into an annual event. For years, the bash drew in excess of 1,000 people to a restaurant called Shooters. After a fire there, he switched to the Blue Martini, which in recent years has drawn a crowd of 300 to 500.
“I never charged for anything,” he said. “The more the merrier. What makes a party? People.”
Two weeks ago, Salvatore was in Fort Lauderdale, where a hotel manager offered to put together a “real good break” for Buffalo fans.
“Let me know when the schedule comes out,” the manager told Salvatore.
When the NFL schedule was released earlier this week, though, “it broke my heart,” Salvatore said.
He added that friends are urging him to look ahead to 2018.
“Everybody is saying, ‘Well Russ, have it next year,’” he said. “I’m 84. It’s pretty tough to be around when you get that old. If I’m around next year, I will absolutely do it.”
Here's the full text of Salvatore's letter, edited for style:
I’m sorry Buffalo, blame the NFL!
For close to 30 years I have looked forward to hosting Bills fans in Miami for a party the night before the away game against the Dolphins. That game has to be, by at least 50 times, the most traveled to away game every year by us Bills fans. It didn’t matter how the team was doing, this game was immediately circled by so many of us as an opportunity to enjoy a game, sunny Florida and gave us a chance to reunite, if only for a weekend, with old friends. I saw so many of the same people every year, hugging and celebrating, it really has become tradition, a fall Buffalo reunion for so many.
Since the schedule was announced Thursday night, my phone has been ringing of the hook, wondering, 'What now?' I had calls from Florida wondering if there was anything I could do.
Out of 17 possible weeks of a football schedule, for this match-up to possibly happen, the NFL really shot themselves, and the Bills, in the foot by scheduling this highly anticipated game on New Year’s Eve. Forget the numbskull logic of playing the Dolphins and Patriots four out of the last five weeks. The "New Year's Eve Blunder" will cost the city of Miami a lot of money, disappoint thousands, and for me personally, it has taken the heart right out of me.
I’m not privy to the analytics of laying out a 32-team schedule, but really someone was asleep at the wheel on this one. This game could have been replaced by any other on the schedule and both teams, the NFL and the FANS would have made out.
So attention One Bills Drive, please consider the fans a little more in the future, I think you must have some input on the schedule, and now a great opportunity of fan camaraderie and team support will be on hold for a whole year.
Season ticket holder since 1968