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Gold Star family with opposing views finds unity after Bills protest during anthem

Bill Wilson was prepared to leave New Era Field and never return.

Kim Wilson, his wife, braced herself and then punched Bill in his left shoulder, a reminder to watch his temper if something unsavory unfolded before them. She, too, was ready to walk away from their Buffalo Bills season tickets.

In the opposite corner of the stadium, Wes Wilson wished to see the exact scene that likely would drive his parents away.

Wes would have loved to see every Bills player kneel during the national anthem.

"That would make me proud of Buffalo," Wes said before the game while tailgating with his family and friends, many of whom grew up — and at least one who served in the Army — with his late brother, Staff Sgt. William R. Wilson III.

Billy Wilson was killed on an Afghanistan tour in March 2012, one month after coming home to Getzville for his 27th birthday.

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Wilson's parents and two brothers saw his casket covered with the American flag, an emblem of patriotism, heroism, the ultimate national sacrifice.

Yet even inside the same family, with parents and brothers devastated by the same soldier's death, opinions can diverge over what the flag and the national anthem mean.

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When dawn broke Sunday morning, Billy Wilson's grave was surrounded by little American flags at Elmlawn Cemetery while we wondered what would happen when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played in NFL stadiums for the first time since President Trump made incendiary remarks at a rally Friday night in Alabama.

Orchard Park was one of nine U.S. locations where Sunday's early games would take place, with the Bills defeating the Denver Broncos, 26-16.

Trump had declared owners should fire "son of a bitch" players who disrespect the national anthem. The movement began last year with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick genuflecting on the sideline to raise awareness about racial oppression.

"We've lost a lot of soldiers, not just Billy," his father said. "We've met a lot of Gold Star parents who lost great soldiers. We need to stay united.

"It's not a black-white thing; it's an American thing. We're all one."

Demonstrations largely had petered out around the NFL, but Trump's comments provoked a striking reaction. Over 200 players participated in some form of demonstration Sunday; six did so a week earlier.

Bills players convened a meeting Saturday night to discuss how they should respond. Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott also attended.

Trump's comments caused a firestorm throughout the sports world. The controversy intensified Saturday, when Trump rescinded the Golden State Warriors' invitation to visit the White House, a tradition awarded to league champions.

Sunday morning, the Jacksonville Jaguars played the Baltimore Ravens in London after more than a dozen players knelt for "The Star-Spangled Banner" and then stood for "God Save the Queen."

The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans stayed in the locker room for their national anthem, an approach Wes later would describe as "schmucky."

The Pittsburgh Steelers handled the anthem similarly aside from left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. He stood just outside the tunnel with his hand over his heart.

A photo taken Sunday of the grave of Billy Wilson at the Elmlawn Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda (Tim Graham/Buffalo News)

The Wilsons were on alert at New Era Field, although they desired different occurrences.

"People say kneeling is disrespecting the military, but I don't see it that distinctly," Wes said. "It's hard to separate the feelings we have for our flag from what other people have.

"I can see that people are kneeling not to disrespect the flag, but my dad does not see that difference whatsoever. The flag just doesn't have to mean that to me."

Wes never considered sitting for Sunday's anthem, although he did broach the possibility to his mother last year when Kaepernick made his first 2016 start here against the Bills.

Wes said he decided that if he wouldn't protest last year, then he didn't need to revisit his stance Sunday.

But he was willing to defend any backlash other fans might face for demonstrating.

"I'll be there to stand up for someone who wants to kneel or protest," said Wes, 27, the same age when Billy died. Wes is a carpenter. Images of Billy's dog tags are tattooed on his chest.

"I'm going to be looking out for hecklers. I'm going to be looking out for people who want to get physical."

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At 12:56 p.m., the New Era Field public-address announcer asked everyone to stand and remove their hats for the national anthem.

Rather than remain on the sideline as usual, the Bills walked together out onto the field.

"I was nervous, just not knowing what they were going to do," Kim Wilson said. "It used to be that's just the way you start a football game.

"Now it's such an issue, and it shouldn't be."

Bill was ready to condemn anyone around him who didn't stand for the anthem. He has been known to bark at people for not removing their hats or putting their hands over their hearts.

The truck driver's blood pressure was up even more Sunday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Field Operations presented the flag for country music artist Abby Anderson's vocals.

At least 12 Bills knelt. Most who didn't take a knee were locked arm-in-arm, with running back LeSean McCoy stretching theatrically.

"I said, 'If they all take a knee, I'm never buying season tickets ever again,' " said Kim, who works for M&T Bank. "But they walked out there and they made a statement they were standing together for America.

"I thought, 'Thank you.' I liked that they were united in that way."

The Broncos remained on their sideline. Over half their roster lowered to a knee until the 158th Fighter Wing from South Burlington, Vt., roared overhead to punctuate the moment.

Bill Wilson, despite the edginess of his words before the game, mellowed as the shadows grew longer over his tailgating patch.

"I was expecting more of a different approach," Bill said in his Tyrod Taylor jersey. "I thought there would be more kneeling, a more negative attitude toward the American flag.

"What really impressed me was Denver stayed on their sideline, but all the Bills walked out onto the field. Most of them stood there. But we stood together as a team.

"I was able to handle it and have no problem."

He leaned against his white Dodge Ram 2500 pickup, the one that tows the travel trailer he purchased for extra lodging because so many of Billy's Army brothers still visit Getzville to pay their respects. Tacked to the refrigerator inside is a photo autographed by Jim Kelly, with the inscription: "Your son Billy was a hero."

Bill and Kim Wilson. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Perhaps the Bills struck the perfect chord with their approach because Wes was pleased also.

"I thought that was awesome," Wes said of the Bills' demonstration. "I like to see unity in something that they're standing up for.

"It's serious. There's actually something to this. It's affecting a lot of people's lives, and it's obviously gone from being about police brutality and grown to something else.

"Now it's opposition to a president that's trying to force his views into issues that have nothing to do with him."

Except for McCoy rolling around on the turf and stretching. Bill, Kim and Wes were in unison in their distaste of McCoy's display.

What would Billy have thought of Sunday's commotion?

Most notably, he would have been thrilled with the kneeldown Taylor took in the Bills' victory formation at the end of the game.

"Every time he came home," Wes said, "the Bills were the first thing we would catch up on."

Billy professed his love for the Bills so often during his three Middle East tours that when he died Wes estimated 75 percent of the 200 or so letters the Wilsons received from Billy's Army buddies were signed "Go Bills!"

"He would not be happy to see people protesting," Kim Wilson said. "He might be tolerant of the protests because he and Wes are a lot alike. I don't think that Billy would get angry because he tries to look at all the different angles.

"It's America, and we have freedoms. You can't tell other people how to think. Just be proud and stand up for what you believe, and they can do what they believe."

Watch: LeSean McCoy on anthem protests, Trump 'acting like a jerk'

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