Rhapsody in Grey
When I was playing in Buffalo, it was tough. Because they were, they had a great team, plus the fans. I mean that’s what they live for in Buffalo. Because truly, they don’t want to live there.”
Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame Quarterback
Countless books have been written about the proud history of various sports franchises, their legendary coaches, championship seasons, benevolent owners, dedicated fan-base and of course their superstars. Accounts of how hard work, talent and fate came together for one glorious season.
Each year after the Super Bowl or World Series the winning coach, manager, quarterback or MVP sees fit to publish a book sharing with us their story of sweet success and vindication. How hard they worked. How good they were. How the angel of destiny placed her hand on the shoulder of our champion and guided him to victory. Their fans will now be able to read and remember. For generations the stories will be told and re-told, the tale growing and exaggerated through the years. The heroes getting bigger, the victories more compelling, grandfathers telling their grandsons about the one great season of joy. Some fans get to relive the great dynasty, telling the children of how their team was built into a victory producing machine. Week after week they were unstoppable in their quest, gobbling championship after championship in their march toward domination and greatness. The world watching in awe and envy as their team repeatedly raised the championship trophy over their collective heads, index fingers outstretched reaching for the sky exclaiming the obvious…We are number #1!
And for the rest of us it is sickening to watch, listen to and read.
For those of us wearing a cap or sweatshirt with the Cubs, Lions, Bengals, Vikings, Eagles or Browns logo, these books are just a sad reminder of yet another season of bitter disappointment, heartbreak, slouched in our $75 end zone seat with a cup of warm beer in our hand saying, “Maybe next year,” fully knowing that next year will end like this year.
We swallow the last of our $9 beer, grab our seat cushion, roll-up our blanket and make our way through the snow and sleet to our SUV. We lift the tailgate and slide the cooler out of the back glancing at the logo on the lid as we throw open the top. We slide our hand into the cooler and grab the last two beers, pass one to our brother and under our breath utter, “They really sucked this year.” They sucked more this year than previous years (despite their record) because the hurt is fresh, raw, the wound is open.
You think to yourself, This was supposed to be the year. There was such hope and promise at the beginning of the season. Scanning the schedule there appeared to be so many opponents our team could beat. With a break here or there so many wins could be ours for the taking. The scouting reports described these talented players. So skilled in college or better yet had played championship football for other teams. Their leadership and experience would infect our locker room and some of that championship pedigree will rub off on our young players. There was so much potential on this roster. Players bursting off the page, ready to have their breakout campaign.
But, they don’t play the games on paper. Now sitting on the hood of our snow-covered SUV, the door open, KISS Alive blaring Black Diamond, we nurse the last of our Heinekens, watching other cold, wet, miserable fans, slogging through the snow muttering, “They suck.” You drain the last of your Heineken and a chill runs down your shoulders and into your back. You dump the ice that is left in the cooler and for a moment you contemplate heaving your empty ice chest into the air at the football Gods. Instead, you slide it back into the SUV, slam the gate shut, now coming face to face with the helmet sticker on the back window. You touch the sticker like a mother kisses the forehead of a sick child. As you fish around your pocket for the car keys you say to the four guys mulling around the charcoal grill trying to stay warm, “I can’t believe how bad the suck.” All four agree and sing in unison, “No shit.” You get into your vehicle and join the traffic jam realizing that winter has now started.
For those of us in places like Buffalo, Detroit or Cleveland it is our football team that keeps the cold winter away. Regardless how early the snow comes or how quick fall turns into winter, the cold doesn’t hit your bones until your team goes down in defeat. When your team is winning you actually root for bad weather. Your wintery thoughts gleefully drift: Let’s see how those candy-asses from San Diego, Miami, Tampa or Oakland hold up when their sun-tanned faces start getting pelted by the sleet and snow that is Buffalo or Cleveland. You watch the weather report almost hoping for a nor’easter to blow through just after the charter plane from Atlanta carrying the Falcons lands and comes to rest at the Buffalo international airport. The local news covering their arrival as the players slip and slide walking from the plane to their charter bus. You watch the news having just finished shoveling your own driveway and now a smile comes across your face and you think, those boys from the south don’t have a chance tomorrow.
On Sunday you have visions of Falcons or Dolphins or Chargers tip-toeing across the jet way. You bundle up and pack your cooler in the SUV. Before heading out, you check the Weather Channel one more time. You smile as the Doppler radar tells you (and today's warm weather, opponent) that it will be a high of 29, a wind-chill of 14 and flurries through the afternoon. You say to no one in particular, “Perfect.” You slip on your second pair of wool socks, lace up your thermal boots and head out to the stadium as happy as a college co-ed heading to the beach during Spring Break.
It’s not until that last loss or the game that eliminates you from the playoffs yet again that you realize you indeed live in Buffalo or Cleveland and that there are 4 or 5 more months of winter. You realize that you live in a rhapsody of grey. Day after day of grey, damp, snow covered everything. It’s only after your team’s dream dies for yet another year that you rediscover just how hard and cold living here really is. You love the place, but loving the place and its people doesn’t make it any easier. Day after day, shoveling, driving, the snow and wind slapping you in the face. Watching the Super Bowl that is being played in some wonderful destination, watching somebody else’s team run out of the tunnel in Arizona or San Diego or the Dome in New Orleans. Yeah sure they play the Super bowl every once in a while in some cold weather place with a covered stadium. But most of the time it is some sun-drenched destination that you can only dream about.
The season is over, winter is here, the dream has died once again and to add injury to insult you won’t see the sun until April or May. You go to work the next Monday thinking, It never ends!
Why this book? Why a book about losses? Why not wait for the splendid day when your team wins it all? We are a society comprised of winners. Didn’t George Patton famously say “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser." Didn’t Lombardi say, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-time thing. You don’t win once in a while”
Don’t we celebrate winning? Isn’t it the champions that we want to remember? It warms our hearts to celebrate in victory. Our most precious lessons in life are those where we worked hard and prospered in victory. OK that is a nice and charming thought but nothing grounded in reality for most of us when it comes to our teams. Let me say again, this is a book for fans. As fans we have nothing to do with the outcomes of the contest. Just because our team loses does not mean we, the fan, are losers. I as a matter of fact consider myself a winner. Most of what I have done in my adult life would squarely put me in the winner category. I have served my country, my church and my family with distinction and on some days I have performed at a championship level. And while I have had many titles (Colonel, Deacon, Father, Husband among others) I am also a fan. It is a part of who I am. Like the hobbyist who says he’s a hunter a golfer or a fisherman, I am a fan. A part of my psyche is devoted to the Buffalo Bills
Therefore, being a fan is something I have given a lot of thought to and has caused me to ask many hypothetical questions. Why am I so emotionally tied to the Buffalo Bills? Why can they break my heart? And break it so easily and often? Why do I keep coming back and paying good hard earned money to watch this team (in most cases) lose and then feel bad about it? Isn’t the textbook definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome? Am I insane? Should I seek help? Is my wife right when she says "I don’t understand why you do this to yourself. Asking, almost begging me, “Are you having fun? Is this enjoyable?”
The answer is: I don’t know. I do however know that there are millions out there just like me and somebody needs to ask why? And try to provide some answers.
This book is for the rest of us. Most of us are not Yankees or Steeler fans. Most of us don’t have the Raiders history to be proud of. Most of us are still waiting for the championship parade done the main street of our hometown. Most of us were brainwashed as kids and there really is nothing we can do about it. It's something that can’t be changed. This book is for the countless out there waiting for that day to arrive. When everyone acknowledges our hometown and by extension us as number 1. We are the best. We are not the mistake by the lake. We are not the rust belt. We are good, we don’t make the national news only when Mother Nature dumps seven feet of snow on our heads. We are known for something other than industries since left, snowstorms, grey, wet, gloom. We are good at something besides suffering. We are waiting for that one glorious moment that we can give those at the beach the middle finger and exclaim, We are the champions!!
Before I go much farther, let me say that this story is not for everyone. Some of you cannot claim fan hardship no matter how bad your team plays or how inglorious their history might be. There are some places that are so pristine, so beautiful, so blessed with natural beauty and wonderment that your sports teams just don’t matter. If you were lucky enough to be from a place called Tampa or San Diego, Los Angeles or Phoenix. If your family for generations has called Miami or San Francisco home then save me the tears if your team as not won lately or at all. If you look out over the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico and the breezes never blow colder than 70 degrees then you have no right to complain if your team sucks. Once they lose, take a ride out to the beach and get over it. If you are a stone’s throw from Lake Tahoe or the California Napa Valley or claim Hollywood as a suburb then you are not authorized to complain if your team can’t win it all. Your town already won it all.
If you have Broadway, the Yankees, and are the center of the financial world then please save your belly-aching when your team has an occasional down year. If your town’s the center of Silicon Valley or is the destination of the stars then please save the bitching, pissing and moaning because your team finishes under .500 from time to time. You do not have my sympathy. Hardship is Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Little to do, little to see, nothing attracts people from around the country and world to our fair cities. Sure, we make the best of it fully knowing there is little to work with and nothing we can do will convince outsiders that it is a great place to live.
Our team is the only window into our great city. Our team is the only thing that gives us the opportunity to say, “Look at us.” It’s only the sportscaster or color commentator who will announce to the world that Buffalo really is a nice place. It’s not so bad, as a matter of fact the people are great, the food is good and there is a reason to be here besides family and a house that’s paid for. Our team puts us on a level playing field and when they're playing good and winning it allows us to pump our chest for a few hours on Sunday. Yeah, you might have South Beach or the La Hoya coves but on Sunday we kicked your ass all the way back to your sunshine and white sand beaches. You’re not tough enough to be us and live where we live, and we proved it once again on Sunday.
Watching Buffalo Bills football is something I have done since 1977. I went to my first game at the old War Memorial Rock Pile in downtown Buffalo in 1972 and I remember the Bills getting clobbered by Joe Namath and the New York Jets. However, being a seven year old, I was much more interested in the hot dog, popcorn and coke sitting in my lap then anything that was happening on the field.
During the next five years I got hooked on the Bills the same way countless others get hooked on a team. My father and grandfather were fans and I was a member of a community. I was born in Buffalo, lived there until I was five when my parents moved to Rochester where I remained until I went back to Niagara Falls for college and lived until I was 31 years old. Western New York is where I am from. It is where my family's cart broke down. It is where my ancestors were forced to build a life. What do I mean by “forced”? If you read my other books then you know I have some unique theories. They are not commonly held beliefs but come in handy when I choose to make a crazy point. Here's another one.
During the great expansion west I believe that everybody was headed to San Diego. Have you seen Southern California? It is gorgeous. It’s perfect, 75 degrees and sunny every single day. There is nothing not to love about San Diego. When the first guys got out there they sent word back to Plymouth Rock and Boston saying, “You’ve got to see this place. Get your ass out here now!”
Everybody loaded up the cart and starting heading west. Some broke down in Buffalo, some made it to Cleveland, a whole bunch of people made it as far as Chicago, still some made it to Kansas City and a whole host made it to San Diego and when San Diego was full they started Los Angeles. Everybody else had to make due in the Ohio Valley and mid-west. I know the history books don’t capture it quite this way but that’s how it went down. How else do you explain Cincinnati, or Milwaukee? Nobody said let’s leave Boston where it is cold, wet and snowy and get our asses to St Paul were it is colder, wetter and has even more snow. Please, the cart broke down and dad said, “Screw it, we are building a log cabin here and we’ll call it Wichita.” So the Pfeiffer’s settled in Buffalo and became laborers in the heavy industries that also called Buffalo home. They smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, drank Genesee Cream Ale beer and since 1959 watched the Buffalo Bills like it was their second job.
Quickly Buffalo could name my family along with everybody else in Western New York as rabid Bills fans. Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, and Tom Sestak all became heroes. Christ the first QB in Buffalo, Jack Kemp, was so revered by Western New Yorkers he was elected to Congress nine times. It did not matter if you actually liked the game of football, if you called Buffalo home, then the Bills were your team. This soon spread to Niagara Falls, Rochester and most of southern Ontario, Canada.
I think I really started watching the Bills as a way to connect with my dad. At first, it certainly was not out of a love for the game. I played backyard football with my buddy Tommy and later he convinced to play actual tackle football. I quickly realized that I was an absolutely terrible player and only a marginal athlete. I enjoyed playing baseball much more than football but Buffalo didn’t have an MLB team and my dad did not follow baseball and did not claim any particular team. His passion was football, and his team was (and is) the Bills.
My dad and I have never been close and are not so today. But I love my dad and like most sons I looked up to him growing up. Also, like most kids, I wanted my dad to like me. I think most kids try to find a connection with their father. Try to do, say or be something that will impress or earn the respect of their old man.
Plus most sons just want to spend time with their dad. I see it with my son. He asks questions about politics, world events, and yes, Bills football. He engages me in those topics I think in large part because he knows that these are my interests and he is looking for a connection with his dad. Each time he does, I stop what I am doing and encourage this conversation.
My hope is that these small connections will last a lifetime, and be one of the bricks that build an enduring relationship. Our best conversations today are about the Buffalo Bills. Unfortunately with Dave and I, most of our lives have been defined with arguments, fights and disagreements, and as adults we have almost nothing in common…Except our last name and the Buffalo Bills. The Bills continue to be the only tie that binds.
My dad loves the Bills and when I was a kid he loved that I loved the Bills. I mean he lives and dies with his team. He subscribes to all the magazines, newspapers and websites that cover the Bills. More than anything he is at his happiest when the Bills are winning.
My fondest childhood memories are sitting at the kitchen table on Sunday mornings in the fall. My father reading the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Sports section over my shoulder. Both reading intently the injury report, what the spread of the game was going to be. We would read columnist Bob Matthews views on the upcoming game and review the schedule of games to see who our hated rivals were playing that day. He had a cup of coffee and I had a cup of hot chocolate. He was always in a good mood and regardless if it was how many yards OJ Simpson was going to run for, or how good the Bills defense would play, we had something to talk and not argue about.
We would talk the entire morning away getting more excited as one o’clock approached. If we were going to the game, Sunday mornings were even better and more exciting. We got up early, loaded up my dad’s Malibu station wagon and headed west down the New York State Thruway, we would head down Route 400 to Route 20 and as four lanes merged into two lanes I could feel the excitement in the car.
We would go under the railroad bridge and as we bore to the right, Rich Stadium would come into view. I remember the anticipation as the stadium; the Mecca grew larger as we were driving. My dad was always real good about getting there early. We would eat a couple sub sandwiches and toss the football around, and then about an hour before kickoff we would go through the gates. Sometimes we would bring along my friend Tommy or my grandfather would meet us at the Depew exit and follow us to the parking lot. It was those rare occasions when three generations of Pfeiffer's were happy and content in each other's company.
Once in the stadium, we went down to the field and watched the players warm up. I was always so excited to see my heroes in person. Growing up I always loved comics and my heroes on those pages were Batman and Superman who really were nothing but imagination among the pages. KISS was my favorite rock band but, I didn’t see them in concert until I was 35. Gene Simmons in the 70s was never photographed without his trademark Demon make-up. So he too was an abstract, only to be partially believed. Certainly never to be seen in person if you were a kid living in the tiny suburban town of Fairport, New York.
But as I stood along the walls of the tunnel I could watch OJ Simpson, Joe Ferguson, Ken Jones, Ben Williams or Fred Smerlas walk out of the tunnel. Occasionally sticking my hand out and once having Lou Piccone slap my hand as he jogged out onto the field. They were real and they were right in front of me. My dad would be standing next to me smiling the whole time because he was watching his heroes as well.
More than any memory from my childhood the most vivid and the best were those Sundays talking with my dad about the Bills or heading out to the stadium to watch our team. As a kid I had not yet learned to live and die with this team. I just knew that this was something very important to my father. As I got older I realized that what was going on in my house was also going on in most households.