When MaryLou DeMarco moved to Brandon, Fla. ,16 years ago, she searched the city for a suitable spot to circle the wagons.
“I was going to different pubs and watching the Buffalo Bills games by myself and it just wasn’t the same thing,” said DeMarco, a South Buffalo native and the niece of former Buffalo mayor Steven Pankow.
Sitting at the bar one day at O’Brien’s Irish Pub, an establishment managed by Buffalonian Ron VanHall, DeMarco asked owner Bernie O’Brien if she could start hosting Bills watch parties there. “OK, honey,” he responded without turning around.
DeMarco and her friend Stacey Kelley put a classified ad in the Tampa Tribune looking for fellow Bills fans. A writer at the newspaper thought that two women starting a football fan club was worth a full story. At DeMarco’s insistence, he included her phone number in the article.
“I got so many phone calls,” DeMarco said. “Just tons and tons of phone calls.”
About 60 fans showed up for the first Buffalo Bills Backers of Brandon chapter meeting. Annual membership has since swelled to more than 350 people and can top 400 by the time all the snowbirds migrate south, according to club treasurer Sue Smith of Clarence.
“There are a lot of Buffalo people in the area,” said her husband Tim Smith, a Williamsville native and the club’s president. “There are guys who come from 30 miles away, some from Sarasota, some from Wesley Chapel, some from St. Pete, where they have a couple other Bills bars. But we are a well-oiled machine.”
The oldest member, Dick LoCicero, 85, owned season tickets for the Bills’ inaugural season in 1960.
Hockey Hall of Famer and former Sabre Dave Andreychuk even joined the club during the years he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
One of the club's vice presidents is Chris Haase of Tonawanda. The other, Dave Cantlay, grew up in Liverpool, England, and became a Bills fan during the Super Bowl era.
“I used to play semi-pro rugby in Britain,” Cantlay said. “I started watching football with the Bears-Patriots Super Bowl, but it was too slow. When I saw Jim Kelly and the hurry-up offense, I became a Bills fan.”
Cantlay knew more about the Bills than he did about Buffalo.
“At first he thought Buffalo was out west where the buffalo roam,” DeMarco said. “He was surprised to learn it was in New York.”
After Cantlay moved to Florida, a co-worker from Tonawanda directed him to O’Brien’s in 2002. He met DeMarco there and the couple got married a decade later.
“Everyone thinks that I’m a Bills fan because of being married to my wife and doing what you’re told,” he said. “But I’ve been a Bills fan from long before.”
In the early years, DeMarco worked with VanHall to perfect the wings at O’Brien’s. “Since we’ve been meeting there the club has won best chicken wings in the area several years in a row,” Sue Smith said.
The club holds annual themed tailgate parties featuring Sahlen’s hot dogs, beef on weck, and fish fry when the Bills are playing the Dolphins. For the tailgates, Tim Smith converted a bread delivery truck into “Big Blue,” painting it in Bills colors and equipping it to pour Labatt Blue.
DeMarco set out to make philanthropy a pillar of the club from the start. Over the years, the Buffalo Bills Backers of Brandon have raised close to $50,000 for charity.
Two years ago, they donated $1,100 to Jim Kelly’s Hunter’s Hope Foundation and gave the Hall of Fame quarterback a special quilt with personal messages from club members to comfort him during cancer treatments. Last year, the club donated two special mobility chairs to Ainsley’s Angels, an organization that helps children who can’t run on their own participate in races.
This year’s cause is Out of Zion, a free creative arts program for children with cancer and other special needs. It was created to memorialize the son of Dr. Kosj Yamoah, a radiation oncology specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center, where DeMarco is a medical dosimetrist and a member of the radiation oncology team.
Chapter: Buffalo Bills Backers of Brandon
Membership: Close to 400
Gathering place: O’Brien’s Irish Pub, 701 W. Lumsden Rd., Brandon, Fla.
Tradition: Monthly themed tailgate parties with “Big Blue” beer truck
Jonah Bronstein is a BNblitz.com contributor. If your Bills Backers chapter has a unique story, reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.