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An enigma wrapped in Zubaz: The Palo Alto Bills fan

Erik Brady

SAN FRANCISCO — Preston Burnes is a Bills fan of the rarest sort — a season ticket-holder for another NFL team who has never been to Buffalo.

Wait, what?

You read that right. This guy lives in San Francisco, his city by the bay, and pines for Buffalo, our city by the lake.

“I’m a Bills fan by choice, not by birth,” Burnes says, “and I don’t think there’s that many of us out there.”

Today he will be in Nashville to see the Bills play against the Tennessee Titans in the place where the heist known as Forward Lateral happened just three months shy of 20 years ago. Burnes was in high school then and didn’t yet care a whit for the Bills. He was, naturally enough, a big fan of his hometown 49ers at the time.

Today he is 35 — and he owns both 49ers season tickets and Bills’ Zubaz pants. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. The 49ers are a team that has been to six Super Bowls and won five. And yet he roots for our Bills, who have been to four Super Bowls and — well, you know.

Turns out Burnes didn’t fall in love with the Bills so much as he fell in love with you, by which I mean Bills fans. Oh, he loves the team now, too. But the real attraction, at first, was you.

“In today’s day and age that may sound like I like to watch Bills fans jump through tables or watch Pinto Ron get sprayed with mustard,” Burnes says. “But what I really like is the camaraderie and the fun and the positive energy. Bills fans are just fun to be with.”

And so, on football Sundays, Burnes sells his seat to the 49ers games and goes instead to the Northstar Café, a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood where Bills fans pack the place for 10 a.m. kickoffs.

Lots of folks there will ask the person at the next bar stool where they’re from, whether it be Kenmore or Canada or Canandaigua. They are often surprised to find the guy they’re high-fiving when the Bills score was born in Palo Alto.

Preston Burnes with a reminder of his favorite football team, at Standard Deviant Brewery in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Preston Burnes)

“I generally get a pretty good welcome,” Burnes says. “I think one of the aspects that makes Bills fans unique is this sort of Buffalo-against-the-world mentality. There’s not a lot of people from the outside who sort of understand that — or care — and I think it’s largely pretty appreciated that somebody like me can choose the Bills.”

So how did this anomaly happen? Well, it starts when this West Coast kid arrived at an East Coast college. Burnes found a best friend at Colgate University in Bob Fenity, a fraternity brother from suburban Rochester who is a third-generation Bills fan. Soon Burnes was hanging out with a bunch of Colgate students from Western New York and he found that he liked the way they liked their team.

“That was my first taste of what it is like to be a Bills fan,” Burnes says. “There are 32 teams in the NFL and people come from all over the country to Colgate, but the only fans who were getting together and having a good time were the Bills fans. Everybody else was angry or negative in all the ways NFL fans can be, and it just seemed to me like the Bills fans I knew were into having a good time.”

Burnes retained his loyalty to the 49ers but adopted the Bills as his favorite AFC team. He graduated from Colgate with a degree in political science and moved back home. He earned his MBA at Santa Clara University and began a career as a health-care consultant.

He and some pals bought 49ers season tickets and tailgated happily at Candlestick Park for several years. Then, in 2014, the 49ers moved to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, 50-some miles from San Francisco. Burnes bought a seat license in order to keep his season ticket — and soon regretted it.

He found the drive too far, the stadium too sterile and the fans too corporate. He felt like his 49ers had moved away when they moved to Santa Clara, and he resented team ownership for it. Burnes had an epiphany after only the third or fourth game at the new stadium: The Bills were no longer just his favorite AFC team; now they were his favorite NFL team.

Preston Burnes is the rare person who has both never been to Buffalo and dies a little every time he has to see this photo. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

“I came to the conclusion that if I’m going to be an NFL fan, I want to be a fan of a franchise like the Bills and not one like the 49ers,” Burnes says. “I’m not interested enough in the NFL to sit at home on my couch and watch games all day. I don’t care about fantasy football. I’m looking for a community experience and that’s what I find in Bills’ bars.

“Sports are a reason to get together and have a shared experience. And Bills fans, to my eye in the whole NFL, are the people I want to do that with.”

He still buys his 49ers season tickets but goes to a game only once a season and then only to see his old pals. He’s been unable to resell his seat license so far but hopes to be able to do that at some point so he can cancel his season ticket. That’s when the divorce will be final.

Burnes saw the Bills in person in Los Angeles and Oakland in 2016 and in Baltimore in 2018. Next year he’ll get to see them in Santa Clara with his 49ers season ticket. And one of these years, at long last, he will see his Bills in their native habitat at New Era Field.

Today he is in Nashville and he’s going to the game with his old pal Bob Fenity, who lives these days in Washington. “I think what attracted Preston to Bills’ fans is the loyalty,” Fenity says. “We show up, no matter what.”

And so today these two old buddies will show up at the scene of the crime — the so-called Music City Miracle. As a high school kid, Burnes thought of the Titans’ trickery as an amazing play. Today he knows better. He thinks of it as a dastardly illegal forward lateral.

Of course he does. He’s a Bills fan.

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