Nobody Smashes Tables Like the Buffalo Bills: A Short Ethnography of Some Bills Fans

“Do you know who I am?” A man in a white jersey emblazoned with a stitched number seven asks me. Of course I knew who it was. Standing there in the middle of a Target in front of the tampons was the Buffalo Bills starting quarterback from 1998–2000.

Back, pictured from left: Hall-of-Fame nerf thrower, bus flipper, young Thurman Thomas, and confused author. In front: very small, lone Steelers fan of the family.

“You’re Doug Flutie!” I wrapped my arms around his neck to give him the tightest squeeze possible. I then woke up to the strange taste of corn flakes in my mouth (See: Flutie Flakes)and to the startling realization that I was no longer eight years old and that one of my childhood fantasies had not come true. I looked to my phone and saw the news that the Buffalo Bills would be playing the Baltimore Ravens that coming Sunday at 8:15pm Eastern. The Bills had just fended off the Colts in the wild card round in their first playoff win since 1995. Fragments of my childhood growing up in a family deeply entrenched in the drama that is the Buffalo Bills fandom have been stampeding over me like a herd of bison since the beginning of the 2020 regular football season.

I was born in the midst of the Jim-Kelly heyday of the Buffalo Bills football franchise. The story of my birth, as eulogized by my mother, always incorporates the part where I made my way into existence just in time for all 6.9 greased-up pounds of me to be placed on her chest so she could get to work nursing and bonding and, most importantly, watching the Bills defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 28–20.

She waxes lyrically about the K-Gun offense of the early 90s — that in those days, they had it all under Marv Levy. When you ask her who her all time favorite Bill is, she answers with, “Andre Reed,” and a girlish twinkle flashes in her eye. Her preference is more than understandable considering Reed’s hand in arguably the greatest comeback in NFL history, where the Bills recovered from a 32-point deficit in the 2nd quarter of a wild card playoff game to defeat the Houston Oilers. The details of this near-biblical reversal of bad fortune — a first string quarter back out of commission, being up against Hall-of-Famer Warren Moon, winning by a field-goal kick in overtime, and all on the Bills home field, Rich Stadium at the time — the producers at ESPN couldn’t dream of concocting.

All of her fanatical Bills worship has been passed down by my grandfather. I once saw him fling a work boot across the living room like a hand grenade because of a bad call against the Bills. With pride, he recounts the time he helped flip over a Miami Dolphins bus at a home game. “We got a bunch of us together and just walked over there and did it,” he explains with a minimum of description and an effortless candor, elevating the story to a piece of lore to be passed on to successive generations. My grandmother has been a loyal fan right next to him, albeit not alongside him flipping busses. Her preferred method of exaltation comes in the form of doling out heaping portions of unsolicited shit talk.

“That Tom Brady has his head so far up his own ass it’s a wonder he can throw the god damn ball, I just hope the Jets beat him,” she said once over breakfast. “And he’s got absolutely nothing nice to say about Buffalo.”

For the longest time, nothing made my mother reach for the emergency pack of Virginia Slims in the glove compartment of her Cadillac faster than mention of Scott Norwood’s wide right at Super bowl XXV. Bringing up any of the four Super Bowls altogether was enough to send her to her crushed velvet easy chair to practice her best impression of an Edvard Munch painting, assuming a far-off expression directly into the void for the remainder of an afternoon. When you ask her or her father if they ever watched ESPN 30 for 30, “The Four Falls of Buffalo,” they answer, “I don’t need to. I lived it.”

The sadness eventually calcified into hot rage, for my mother at least. My sisters and I got into the practice of leaving out a nerf football next to her chair the night before game day. It’s like the Christmas-time tradition of leaving out cookies for Santa, but instead of a lump of coal or no presents, our worst outcome was one of us potentially being sent head first into the television after a failed extra point by Dan Carpenter. Her dog even developed a Pavlovian response where upon hearing the opening notes to CBS’s First on the Field theme, he would trot up to her room and hide underneath the bed until the game was finished.

My older sister arguably had it worse than my mom and grandparents in those years. She has always been plagued by a near-photographic memory which acts as a seemingly endless and reliable repository for stats. This means that her football knowledge was unmatched by most of her peers, but this also came with the lurid memories of the upsets and later, the taunting. She didn’t do herself any favors by making herself a visible target, either. We grew up in a town that abuts the PA-New York state border. Our hometown falls on the Pennsylvania side, making it a hotbed for Steelers fans — although we were much closer to the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan region than Pittsburgh. Caitlin, the unapologetic fan she has always been, adorned herself in enough cobalt and crimson garb to cover a buffalo five times over. There was a reversible starter jacket two sizes too big, and puffy fabric lunchbox, a Flutie Jersey, various sweatshirts, a hat and glove set, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to wear most — if not all — of this regalia at once. She’d start the day running into school like a young Thurman Thomas, with her super low ponytail and Bills lunch box flapping in the wind, only to return home reduced to tears because some little ankle-biting Steelers fanboy taunted her for how “bad” of a team she followed, that she must have been stupid for electing to root for a team with a track record like ours.

I was more of a qualitative viewer growing up and instead enjoyed taking a bird’s eye view through the lens of my family’s devout fandom. When our hometown paper ran a story about JP Losman, I thought, “This one is visually appealing,” and cut out the feature photo and hid it away for special occasions. I did my best to memorize names, faces, and butt contours, but I was painfully ill-equipped to discern the jersey numbers or to follow the plays and formations. However, throughout the early and mid 2000s — the playoff drought — my eyes glazed over a little more than they usually did in games. These were the years of the dark blue jerseys. We’d get some hopeful new rookie and my mother would glob onto that and say, “this is going to be our year.” And it would not, in fact, be our year. What impressed me about her, and most (if not all) Bills fans, is the return to the next season, like the year prior hadn’t happened, fully renewed and ready to practice her nerf spiral into the TV set. My sister, in response to our mom’s and grandpa’s more overt emotional displays, took a measured and tempered approach, saying some variant of, “it’s okay. It’s a rebuilding year.”

I was curious about this idea of building back up, about the nuances and underpinnings of what it takes to potentially reconstruct something as great as the dynasty of the early 90s. I decided one day as a young adult, “I’m going to really get this football thing. Like technically,” and called my sister, the armchair offensive coordinator she has always been. We would call or FaceTime during every game, with her at the ready to answer any and all of my questions. I pored over YouTube videos depicting defensive formations and started to have dreams about the 4–3 versus the 3–4. My brother-in-law, an ex-college linebacker, liked to blitz quiz me. His most common test item being: “Who’s the greatest Bills player of all time,” and the only appropriate response being, “Bruce Smith. Defensive end. 200 career sacks.” For the past ten years or so, I have felt like her apprentice, working my way to a journeyman card in gridiron football mastery. But despite the hours of conversation and deluging my sister with questions every game, my football knowledge has remained incredibly pedestrian yet strangely ethnographic.

When Bills Mafia entered the cultural zeitgeist, I found an accessible side project to facilitate my knowledge, a way to readily deconstruct other’s commentary and response to games. With acceptance into a Bills Mafia Facebook fan page, I could associate game events with what was more salient to me: things like folks setting themselves on fire or getting caught having sex in a parking lot — the kind of stuff I am into. Perusal through the private Facebook group will turn up anything from a fairly routine, “What’s everyone making for the game tomorrow?” Or, “Role call: where is everyone from?” To a video of Nick Wright dismissing our starting quarterback, the corresponding comments to which usually point out Wright’s striking resemblance to a muppet.

The narrative arc of this team began an upward and steady trajectory since Sean McDermott’s signing on as head coach in 2017. Since then, there’s been an unshakable feeling that we have been gaining some sort of traction and real continuity as a team for the first time in a very long time. This was obvious, even to a viewer like me who still struggles with play calls. McDermott’s first five minutes on a televised game marked a stark departure from the unfortunate years under Rex Ryan— Gary Busey. McDermott’s stoicism, marked by his perpetually folded arms and sweat suits that scream: “I’m a regular at the local boxing gym,” seemed to be the perfect combination of measured patience and salt of the earth our franchise needed and typically thrives on.

It only made sense that the starting quarterback helping lead the Bills on this steady comeback, Josh Allen, would have an underdog story on par with that of a slightly fictionalized Jamaican bobsled team. My favorite bit of Allen’s personal drama being that he had to spam more than 1,000 coaches to ask for an opportunity to play at a Division I school. It wasn’t long after this that he was leading the Bills to ten wins in his second season, and later, in his third season, breaking franchise records like folding banquet tables. As much as Allen has helped us become a playoff-worthy team, it’s performances from players like wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, as well as the ostensible shared brain on the field between Micah Hyde and the sorely underrated Jordan Poyer, which have facilitated playoff wins.

Getting to watch the excitement on my folks’ faces as well as the outpouring from the Bills Mafia fan page have brought me unbridled joy in the 2020–2021 season, amidst a global pandemic where I’m relegated to my apartment almost every hour of every day. With this standout season and team, however, also brings gut-churning anxiety. The thought of losing at this point is enough to make me want to strip naked and dance around a fire in my back yard, shouting protection chants to goddess Jim Kelly to imbue us with whatever is necessary to go all the way.

As an adult who lives and dates in Pittsburgh, it seems like the better the Bills do, the more I run into criticism of a similar flavor to the teasing my sister experienced growing up . I was seeing a man who invited me over to his place to watch the Bills-49ers game. I thought he genuinely cared about my viewership, given that I refuse to pay for cable and would have been forced to watch the game on an iPad screen had I rescinded the offer. I mean, wouldn’t anyone with a modicum of empathy and basic cable understand that a Bills fan needs to be proximal to a television set more than anyone else in a season like this, the most successful one in 25 years? However, upon the commencement of halftime when he spared no time pushing up my Josh Allen jersey, I learned the true nature of his intentions. I panicked. I hope he understands that I’m stopping, no matter what stage of coitus we are in as soon as I hear play commence. Shit. Is this unlucky to remove the Jersey during the game? Maybe not. Better to take it off so it isn’t desecrated. Luckily for me — or, perhaps, unluckily, depending on how you look at it — we finished with plenty of time to spare before halftime was over. I sprang up and ran back to the living room, simultaneously yanking up my leggings and pulling my jersey over my head.

As we watched the second half of the game, he decided to offer unsolicited opinions about the hallowed tradition of table smashing amongst the Bills Mafia. This was truly the tipping point for me, when it was clear this one wouldn’t work out. It wasn’t enough that he had already made me miss kickoff so he could be certain his Steelers weren’t going to make a near-impossible comeback against the Washington team.

“This girl posted a video of her smashing someone into a table on her dating profile and that was an easy pass for me,” he said.

“What? Why?” I asked, his comment breaking my concentration from the game.

“I don’t know why people insist on breaking tables either!”

“No, I meant, why was that an easy pass for you? That sounds like someone I want to be friends with.”

“I just don’t understand the point in destroying something for nothing?”

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the same reason why you insist on destroying my libido. But I didn’t say this — though I wish I had. Instead, I tried to capture the essence of the Bills mafia in three sentences or fewer, but I struggled for the actual words. And the more I struggled and sputtered, the further his smug grin widened on his face.

“Explain to me,” he goaded, “exactly why Bills fans feel the need to smash tables.”

It felt like a flat earther was asking me to argue my case for the earth being round, waiting so he could reply, not because he wanted to understand the ethos of the Bills Mafia. Marv Levy’s face appeared to me: “Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement.”

I tried to hang on, but then, the conversation took a very wide right and seemingly out of nowhere he said, “it’s not like you guys have ever been good.”

“Now you’re just being obtuse.” I packed up my things shortly after and left, never to see this person again.

I spent the whole drive home, the next week, the holiday, trying to boil down exactly why a group of fans of a rust-belt-city football franchise willfully hurl themselves into folding tables and brag about it later, many times with video evidence. It was the essence of something much larger that I couldn’t quite put into words. People say, “well it’s because you’re underdogs,” or, “it’s the four Super Bowls,” or “it’s because you’re rubes/sadists/insert disparaging term packaged as good-natured ribbing here.” But to me, and many others, it is much more complicated than that. I have personally felt an unrelenting urge to slam my own body into a table. For example, when Micah Hyde swatted down the Colts pass with seconds to spare, years worth of tension dissipated from my body, and, in that moment, it felt like the only appropriate way to respond would have been by stepping up on my couch, letting my arms go slack, and heaving myself chest first into my coffee table. I still have the coffee table, but the further we get into this season, the more I feel the mystical urge to launch myself headlong into our sacred altar, the holy table.

I see a renewed and unfamiliar wonder in my family’s chirping about the Bills, our Bills. My mother’s television has remained concussion free, and my grandma caught my grandpa sizing up their Buick in the driveway after a game. “I don’t know what he’s doing out there,” she said over the phone, “but he’s walking very slowly around the car like he wants to — Bill! You aren’t flipping the damn car. Hold on. I’ll call you back.” On a FaceTime call in January, I tried to elicit the infamous bus-flipping story from my grandpa by asking, “what’s your favorite Bills game memory?”

“Going to games with my girls!” He said without a moment’s hesitation.

It feels like we’ve all had a hand in it: the qualitative analysts, the quantitative experts, the lifetime bus flippers, table smashers, Flutie-flakes and Josh’s-Jaqs eaters, and Andre-Reed lovers alike. We’ve held on for dear life and will be ready to do so next year and the year after that. Now, when someone asks me, “why do you guys smash yourself into tables?” The best answer I’ve got is, “because where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

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