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Erik Brady: For Headman Social Club, it's been Bills, buses and beer for decades

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Members of the Headman Social Club at M&T Bank Stadium (left ro right): Vic Rutecki, Billy Schwab, Kevin O'Brien, Bob Measer, Gene Keller, Leo Lyons, Dave Eyeington, Don Clayback, Jimmy Celestino

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BALTIMORE – Billy Schwab was born to lead. After all, Francis X. Schwab, his great-uncle, was mayor of Buffalo 100 years ago.

Billy is president of the Headman Social Club, a small Buffalo Bills booster club of friends made across a lifetime of going to games together. On these outings, club members are known to drink beer. This would have pleased the late mayor, who was president of the Buffalo Brewing Company when he got busted during Prohibition. Buffalo voters then elected him to two terms, in spite of this transgression.

Or maybe because of it.

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The Headman Social Club is named for Billy’s longtime nickname. How he came to be called Headman, no one seems to know for certain. Suffice to say that the club is a loose affiliation of old pals who have been going to Bills games together since 1977. They began as college kids busing to home games, and now they are retirees flying to away games.

“The core group of us met as freshmen at St. Joe’s when we were 13,” says John Hurley, who recently retired as president of Canisius College. “We’re 53 years and counting with Billy as our leader.”

The club’s most recent jaunt was to Baltimore last weekend:

Saturday: Billy, 65, boards a flight bound for Baltimore. Thurman Thomas is in the row behind him, and Thomas confides he’s nervous about the game. Billy meets up with nine compatriots at the hotel near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. They go to 4 p.m. Mass at St. Mary’s by the Sea. The pastor sees their Bills gear and welcomes them, but predicts the Ravens will send them home unhappy. They go out for crab cakes on Federal Hill.

Sunday: Billy and the boys take a morning stroll through downtown streets packed with Bills fans. Club members are on their way to a Bills bash in a rowhouse close to M&T Bank Stadium. Mark Smith, who lives there, is the brother of Steve Smith, a charter member of the club. Labatt Blue and Southern Tier IPA are served. Billy performs his traditional cheer of “Go Bills” – contorting his body to spell out each of the letters – to the raucous jubilation of partygoers. They make their way to the stadium and watch as the Bills take their only lead of the game as the clock hits 0:00.

“Never in doubt,” club member Jimmy Celestino says.

Monday: By day, the 10 revelers take a tour of the harbor. By night, they watch the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles. One Orioles fan sees their Bills gear and confides that she is from East Aurora. She is happy the Bills won, she tells them, but has to be careful what she says around Ravens fans.

Tuesday: Leo Lyons flies back to Seattle, Smith to Albany, Gene Keller and Celestino to Florida – and the rest to Buffalo. When his plane lands, Billy pauses to remember that Francis X. Schwab laid the cornerstone for the administration building of what was then known as Buffalo Municipal Airport. Then he learns that his bags missed the flight.

The Headman Social Club is so named, Billy says, because he is the club’s headman. But that leads to a chicken-or-egg stumper: How could the club have been named for him if he wasn’t already known as Headman? He thinks maybe the name came when he organized a couple of boat trips for his friends on the Miss Buffalo. Club member Vic Rutecki thinks the name came when Billy wore an old-man mask for Halloween 50 years ago. (Billy says he actually wore that mask to the senior prom.) Now, of course, he is an old man — from senior year to senior citizen in the blink of an eye. Ah, but when he and his pals hit the road to see their beloved Bills, they are young again.

Among card-carrying club members reclaiming their youth in Baltimore were Bob Measer, Kevin O’Brien, Don Clayback and Dave Eyeington. And yes, they really do carry membership cards, which are emblazoned with a red Bills helmet and a yellow school bus. For years, rented buses is how club members got to games. At first, the buses left from the Cheektowaga home of Billy’s parents, and later from the Amherst home of Billy and his wife, Maureen — who owns card No. 1.

Soon enough, Billy and Maureen had kids of their own: Colleen, Megan, and Kevin. The kids would sell bags of peanuts to club members as they boarded the bus. On the drive to Orchard Park, there would be door prizes and adult beverages and high spirits all around.

This went on for decades, but over time, they no longer had enough active members to fill a bus, though a core group kept going to the games on their own. About 10 years ago, Smith came up with the idea to take the club on the road. The first year, they went to Chicago for Bills-Bears. Last year, they traveled to Tampa for Bills-Bucs. Baltimore was the club’s eighth road trip. (Two more got scotched by Covid-19.)

Their favorite trip so far, in 2017, was to Green Bay, even though the Bills lost 22-0. A little history is in order to explain why: Smith is a retired elementary-school teacher in Albany. One of his former students, Charles Guthrie, was athletics director at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay at the time of the trip. (He is AD at the University of Akron now.) Years earlier, Guthrie was an intern at Colgate University under athletics director Mark Murphy, who hails from Clarence. Murphy is now president of the Packers – and, as a favor to Guthrie, Murphy called Smith’s cellphone a bit before that Bills-Packers game.

“He asked, ‘What suite are you in?’ ” Smith recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, we aren’t in a suite. We’re in the last row of the stadium.’ ”

And then, to the amazement of the club members, Murphy showed up at the top of Section 741 to offer a pregame hello to his fellow Western New Yorkers.

“Here is this 6-4 guy, with bad knees, climbing up the steps in his suitcoat,” Smith says. “The Green Bay fans couldn’t believe it. We were in all our Bills gear, and Mark Murphy was coming up to see us.”

The words to “God Bless America” are on the back of the club’s cards. Members belt it out at the end of the third quarter of every game they attend. In Green Bay, they had to wait for Packers fans to finish singing “Beer Barrel Polka,” a tradition at Lambeau Field. And then members of the Headman Social Club sang their hearts out.

Some weeks later, Murphy sent Smith a copy of a letter that he had received from a Packers season-ticker holder. After the polka played, the letter said, “The group of Buffalo Bills fans you had greeted earlier in the day stood and began to sing ‘God Bless America.’ Many other fans in our section rose and joined them. … In these days of divisiveness and turmoil, it was a nice ‘feel good’ moment provided by some classy people. Please pass on to your friends my respect and admiration.”

Murphy is president of the Packers. Hurley is a past president of Canisius. Francis X. Schwab was president of the Buffalo Brewing Company. Billy is president of the Headman Social Club – and someday his son, Kevin, will take over. Remember, leadership runs in the family.

As it happens, the club was born in what was far from a banner year for the Bills. The 1977 Bills were twice shut out at home, failed to win consecutive games, and finished a forlorn 3-11. Why keep going back after such a season?

“We’re Bills fans,” Rutecki says. “Whaddaya gonna do?”

Keep coming, of course.

For 45 years.

And counting.

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Erik Brady has more than 50 years in newspapers as a paperboy for The Buffalo Evening News, a sports columnist for The Courier-Express and sports reporter for USA Today, where he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.

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