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Dispatch from Missoula: 'Buffalo, it’s like a magnet that draws you back'

MISSOULA, Montana — Mike Size puts the West into Western New York.

Grew up in West Seneca. Rowed for West Side. Lives now in the American West.

Mike counts himself among the Great Buffalo Diaspora, made up of locals who left home to find work elsewhere. He graduated from St. Joe's 25 years ago, got his communication degree at the University at Buffalo and since has worked, well, all over.

“When I left, in 1998, I just didn’t feel there was opportunity for me in Buffalo,” he says. “All the guys I rowed with at UB, the guys ahead of me and the guys behind me, seven years of rowing, I can think of only one guy who stayed in Buffalo. Now they tell me they almost all stay. It’s a different time.”

Mike’s first stop, right out of UB, was Dothan, Alabama, the self-styled Peanut Capital of the World. Next up was Phoenix, with two months of training in Seattle — Southwest by way of Northwest. He was working in finance and seeing the country, one city at a time.

Portland came next, and then San Francisco. He’d followed Horace Greeley’s famous admonition — Go West, young man — but by this time Mike and his wife, Shannon, had their first child and he was working 80 hours a week. They decided they wanted to be closer to family, and farther from working around the clock.

Red's Bar in Missoula, Mont., has a guitar hanging from the rafters from “Bills Elvis.” (Contributed photo)

Shannon had a sister who lived in Missoula, a serene, scenic city in Western (of course) Montana. They moved there 14 years ago and are living happily ever after, with two daughters and a two-hour drive to Butte, where Shannon grew up.

“Butte is a recovering copper city, like Buffalo is a recovering steel city,” Mike says. “Butte is a big Irish-Catholic town, and St. Patrick’s Day is the biggest day of the year. I feel like Shannon and I grew up with the same values. Butte is the Buffalo of Montana.”

They visit the real Buffalo every summer, unless a family wedding dictates some other season.

“Buffalo, it’s like a magnet that draws you back,” Mike says. “My daughters, they love it, because to them Buffalo means cousins and parties, Bisons games and Niagara Falls.”

Mike’s father is a retired cop, his mother a retired teacher. He says they worked hard to send their four sons to St. Joe’s and their daughter to Park School.

“My parents, their work ethic was just amazing,” Mike says. “That’s how I picture everyone in Buffalo. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s how I picture them — good people who work hard for their families.”

Dylan McFarland's Bills jersey in Red’s Bar in Missoula, Mont. (Contributed photo)

Shannon loves all the family visits to Buffalo, too.

“We got a Buffalo trivia game for Christmas,” she says. “Mike has told me so much about Buffalo for so many years that I win it sometimes.”

Their daughters, CC and Peyton, are 15 and 12. CC recently graduated from middle school with a 4.0 GPA. Mike bragged about it on Facebook and his first reply came from Robert T. Scott, past president of St. Joe’s.

“Mr. Scott said, ‘Just like her father,’ ” Mike says. “That’s being kind; I couldn’t have kept up with her. But that’s Mr. Scott; he knows how to make his alumni feel valued.”

Mike always found Bills Backers bars in the big cities where he’s lived. And there’s one in small-town Missoula, too.

Red’s Bar downtown has a signed guitar in the rafters from John R. Lang, the fan famous as “Bills Elvis.” And the bar has a framed Bills jersey of Dylan McFarland, the former University of Montana offensive lineman who played briefly for the Bills some 15 years ago.

Mike’s basement is full of Buffalo memorabilia, too. There’s a drawing of the West Side Rowing Club’s Fontana Boathouse. There’s a glorious waterside view of the Buffalo skyline. And there’s a blanket hanging on the wall made of T-shirts from regattas and various rowing teams — UB, St. Joe’s, Nardin, Canisius, West Side.

The blanket is made from the front sides of the T-shirts, so there’s no way to look at the labels to see what size they are. What size is the right size for Mike Size?

Make it an XXBL — as in extra-extra Buffalove.

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