This is what we travel for.
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota- “Way more people showed up than what we planned for,” the organizer of the Minneapolis Bills Backers said with a big smile on his face.
The bars that he had organized a pub crawl to were overflowing. It was difficult to get a drink. It was difficult to find a place to stand. It was 7 pm.
It was the Saturday night before the Bills would play the Vikings, and thousands upon thousands of Western New Yorkers — people from the span of geography that extends from Rochester to the Pennsylvania border along Interstate 90, from Hornell to Jamestown along Interstate 86. This is a region that saw its population virtually cut in half in the 80s and 90s when the factories shut down … but apparently still has enough of a population to fill opposing cities on the eve of game days.
This is Western New York, although the southeastern countries that are in red I would say had more of a cultural affiliation with downstate than with us.
When my ex-brother-in-law arrived he walked right by me. That’s him, right? Perhaps I blended into the sea of red and blue. I was at Lyon’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis (“Lyons and cougars and beers, oh my” — that place) right next to Embassy Suites, who was hosting a party for Bills fans who came in for the game. There was hardly anywhere to move, the place was full of people from places like Victor and Hamburg and Lackawanna and Lockport and Albion.
I watched my ex-brother-in- law walk quickly through the crowd. He was a part of my family for over a decade. I guess I have to consider him one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Divorce has nothing on that.
I eventually chased him down and we squeezed up to the bar and tried to order a couple of Labatt Blue as kind of a joke. If you were to parody someone from WNY they’d be wearing a Thurman Thomas jersey and sipping a Labatt’s … well, either that or Genny Cream Ale — Rochester’s finest.
However, in Baltimore, where there are genuine Buffalo bars, and they had stock piles of our beers of choice. But even there we drank them dry and they had to ship in reinforcements of Labatts at frequent intervals throughout the night. In Minneapolis they offered us Molson Canadian instead. Our second choice. Fair enough.
I started talking to the guy at the bar next to me. He was from Niagara Falls and was on his third season, meaning that he’d gone to every game, home and away, for the past two years.
“He’s my inspiration,” he said as he pointed to the bearded fellow who walked by.
Kenny Johnson, aka Pinto Ron, is the undisputed ring leader of Bills fans at home and away. He’s been at nearly 400 Bills games in a row and singlehandedly galvanized thousands of Western New Yorkers to follow him. He made “doing a season” a thing, and now masses of people are out there traveling with the team throughout the course of the entire season.
Find out more about Ken and his bowling ball in this NFL Films segment:
Ken stopped by and we chatted for a moment. He told us about the party across the hall at the Embassy Suites. For some reason was accommodating masses of Bills fans with an open bar. We were supposed to show a key card for the free drinks, but a Bills jersey was apparently enough.
We drank a couple beers there and hung out with Ken and some of the guys who also always travel to the games. One of them was James Lofton‘s nephew.
Then we went over to another bar. Rory was hanging out with some dudes. When I walked over he mentioned that they were from Albion — the small town that we grew up in — and mentioned one of the guy’s names.
Yeah, I was standing in Minneapolis drinking next to my hometown’s DARE cop. The guy would come into our school and tell us not to do drugs. He said my name didn’t ring a bell … which was probably not a bad thing.
At the next bar I was able to really meet Captain Buffalo for the first time. I would give the guy high fives and say go Bills to him at various points throughout the years but we never really had much of a chance to talk.
Each NFL team has these superfans who often dress in costumes and take on personas which serve to rally people together. They generally go to all the games and often get put on TV and on the jumbotrons. They are the team’s characters. The Bills have the Chefs, Elvis, Ken, Pancho Billa, and Captain Buffalo.
Captain Buffalo approached me from behind and joked, “From the back you’re wearing your leather jacket and hat and you look too cool for this shit, but then from the front I see the jersey and it’s like boom, you’re one of us.”
Yeah, that about sums it up.
I asked him how he went from being a normal dude to being a … well, a character.
“It all started with Captain Defense in Baltimore,” he began. Captain Defense is one of the Raven’s superfans who dresses up like a cross between Gwar and an S&M enthusiast. “He told me that he got the idea when a kid walked up to him and called him Captain Defense. He liked the sound of that and that’s what he became. I told him that all I’ve ever been called was Captain Buffalo by some drunk guys.”
Something about that clicked, and Captain Buffalo was what he became.
Unlike most of the fans that surround the Bills, Captain Buffalo is actually not from Western New York. I believe he said he was from somewhere downstate but when to university in WNY, where something about the Bills and their fans resonated with him. He now dresses up in a big bison hat and all kinds of other decorations and travels to all of the games. What’s also interesting is that he goes to these games with his kids — which, being a father of two, I thought was interesting.
I wondered then why I never brought my kids to the games with me …
I talked Rory into going into the cabaret next door. He confused cabaret with burlesque. I will end this story here, least I will have to talk about the funny drugged out guy we followed around town watching him reach his hand into the windows of busses bopping people on the head, Sneaky Pete’s, and another place that was bound by law to only serve water and juice. I will end this here.
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