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'You gotta be in it to win it': Mega Millions, Powerball fever hits WNY

The odds of winning are staggeringly low, but that isn't stopping Western New Yorkers from plunking down cash in hopes of landing the record-setting Mega Millions jackpot.

The jackpot now tops a world record $1.6 billion for a lifetime payout, and hordes of the hopeful are turning out across the country to buy up at least one $2 ticket, and in many cases lots more.

They're lining up at supermarket counters, gas stations and convenience stores, or using one of the ubiquitous state lottery machines for the privilege of dropping a couple of bucks for a chance to capture even a piece of the treasure trove.

"It's the amount of money," said Joe O'Shei, a retired Buffalo police captain who lives in Wheatfield.

He bought tickets at the Tops Market at Maple and Transit roads in Amherst on Sunday for himself and his brother.

"We could all use a billion," O'Shei said.

O'Shei normally doesn't buy lottery tickets, but he made an exception this time – just as he did the last time there was a jackpot over $1 billion, for Powerball. "I like the odds. I always like the big odds," he said. "I feel like my luck's due."

They know their chances are slim, but they're trying anyway. "You gotta be in it to win it. One ticket, that’s all," said Carl Montante, a retired salesman in Williamsville, and a cousin of the Uniland Development co-founder and CEO by the same name. "When it gets up to where it is, you gotta buy a ticket."

In many cases, they're participating more for the fun of it, and because they just can't resist when the dollars are that high.

"When it gets really big, that’s when I buy. And also on the full moon, I also buy," said Annette Chelminiak, of Williamsville, who picked hers up at Tops Market on Transit Road in East Amherst.

Lottery fever has hit America once again, as both the Mega Millions and Powerball multistate games have racked up enormous jackpots after weeks without a winner. That's driving even the rarest of players to snap up a ticket – even though the odds are 1 in 302 million.

Western New Yorkers also have local incentive: The $1 billion drawing on Friday didn’t win anybody the jackpot, but someone came just one number short on a ticket sold at the Tops Market on Military Road in the town of Niagara Falls, and according to the New York State Lottery, won a cool $1 million.

"You never know when something crazy will happen," said Robert Raczka, of Buffalo, who works in maintenance at St. John Kanty Catholic Church on Broadway and bought his tickets at a convenience store across the street. He said "gambling's not my thing," but he still buys lottery tickets occasionally. "Crazy is the new normal, so that’s what I’m going for."

The last Mega Millions jackpot was July 24, when 11 co-workers in California shared $543 million. Since then, 34.4 million winning tickets have been sold, but there's been no jackpot winner in 25 drawings.

Many lottery ticket buyers are hedging their bets, buying tickets not only for the record-breaking Mega Millions, but the upcoming $640 million Powerball jackpot, as well. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Mega Millions now carries an estimated annuity value of $1.6 billion, with a cash payout option of nearly $905 million. That's the most for any lottery ever, eclipsing the previous record of $1.586 billion set by Powerball in January 2016, when winners in California, Florida and Tennessee shared the prize.

“Mega Millions has already entered historic territory, but it’s truly astounding to think that now the jackpot has reached an all-time world record,” said Gordon Medenica, the lead director of the Mega Millions Group and director of Maryland Lottery and Gaming. “It’s hard to overstate how exciting this is – but now it’s really getting fun.”

The previous Mega Millions record was $656 million, shared by winners in Kansas, Illinois and Maryland on March 30, 2012. Mega Millions is available in 44 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

If that's not enough, meanwhile, Powerball itself is rising into the stratosphere again, hitting $620 million, with a cash payout of $354.3 million.

So together, the two jackpots now top a jaw-dropping $2.2 billion. That's enough to get anyone's attention.

"This is exciting," said Patricia Papafagos, of Williamsville, who buys only when the jackpot is big. "Everyone has a chance. If you’re not in it, well ... "

At the Tops in Amherst, customer service clerk Michael Montgomery said the activity has been chaotic, and at one point caused the automated machines to get bogged down, as people spent as much as $100 on tickets.

"It was really bad. I'm talking about lines of people, for a good hour, and I was by myself," Montgomery said. "Now it’s slowing down. Everyone’s lost faith and spent all their money for the month."

Brenda Hammond, of Clarence, who was visiting Tops with her granddaughter, buys every week. She said she was caught between the excitement of potentially winning – and the fear of what that would bring. "I'd probably pass out. I would just be numb, totally numb. It’s a scary thing," Hammond said. "I'm nervous, and yet I want it, too. Who doesn't?"

Her husband "has been dreaming of winning these things for years and years, and he's extremely excited now," Hammond said. "He already knows where he's investing it, what house he's going to buy, and what he's going to do."

Richard Tenbrink, of Clarence, said he plays frequently, but hasn't won anything more than $100 on a scratch-off ticket. Still, "a dollar a dream," he said. "You hope you win it."
If he did, the 23-year dentist said he'd retire and "buy a home down South."

O'Shei said he would take care of his children and stepchildren, and give to charities, including the Catholic Church. "They’ve been going through some tough spots," he said. "I’d like to see get out and get back on their feet a little bit."

Papafagos would help her family and her church, and "do good with it."

Even store employees have been bitten by the bug. Matt Mendola, the assistant manager at the Sunoco Express Mart on Maple Road in Amherst, doesn't usually buy Mega Millions tickets. He did so on Sunday when he wasn't working, although he can't imagine winning.

"What would I do? Donate some of it," he said. "Start my own charity, buy some businesses, help my family, try not to waste it."

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