ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The sun has been up for more than an hour, but you wouldn’t know it standing outside. The air is cold, a kind of cold that gets to your bones, and with gray clouds covering the sky, there is no sun to offer any relief. Despite it all, the Sunday faithful have arrived at Highmark Stadium.
Daniel Frederick, a lifelong Buffalo resident known among Bills fans as Buffalo Freddy, stands in front of a tailgate he organized at a place the locals call the Mafia House, a nod to the devoted fan base, Bills Mafia. He is wearing Zubaz overalls in red, white and blue — the pattern made classic by the beloved 1990’s era Buffalo Bills.
Signs with the No. 3, Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s jersey, hang all over the Mafia House yard and along the stretch of road leading to the stadium. Tailgaters are grilling and greeting each other in the only way possible: “Go Bills.”
There are glimpses of normalcy on this football Sunday, but it has been a long and difficult year in the Buffalo region — the unimaginable horrors of a mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Market that killed 10 people and injured three more, a massive snowstorm that killed at least 39, a New Year’s Eve house fire that left five children dead.
Buffalonians, in need of a fresh start to the new year, turned to the “Monday Night Football” game for a little relief, only to see Hamlin collapse on the field, his heart having stopped in a frightening first-quarter scene in Cincinnati.
“There’s been a lot of dreariness,” Frederick says. “There are people who literally died and passed away from the blizzard. People just didn’t have holidays. So now [Hamlin’s injury] happens. … There was nobody who had any sort of happiness or pleasure. You’re just sitting there numb to it all.”
Hamlin, 24, was rushed to a Cincinnati hospital, where he stayed for nearly a week. Fans waited anxiously for any good news about Hamlin, who remained intubated and in critical condition. When he showed signs of consciousness later in the week, Bills Mafia let out a collective sigh of relief.
On Friday, before the Bills returned to the field against the New England Patriots, Hamlin was able to finally talk with his teammates via FaceTime from the hospital, putting his hands together in the sign of a heart.
Buffalo’s relationship with its football team is seemingly unlike any other in the league. Lifelong residents call it intimate and familial. Players aren’t referred to by their first and last names, they’re simply known as Josh, Stefon or Damar. And through all the recent tragedies, the Bills have provided fans with comfort, love and relief from the heartaches of the past year.
THEY CAME TO the Tops supermarket to pay their respects, four days after the May 14 shooting. The gunman, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, had targeted this predominantly Black neighborhood. In the days after, the Bills joined with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the National Lacrosse League’s Bandits to create a T-shirt campaign called “Choose Love” and raised more than $1 million to benefit the victims’ families and the East Side community where the killings happened. Bills coach Sean McDermott, quarterback Josh Allen, receiver Stefon Diggs and Hamlin were among the players who visited a memorial at the market.
“We’re die-hard sports fans in Buffalo,” said Garnell Whitfield, whose 86-year-old mother Ruth Whitfield was killed at the store. “To have persons from the sports world … reaching out and being empathetic and you know showing their humanity is a big deal. It’s very moving, It’s unselfish of them, it’s loving, it’s caring.”
Whitfield said Bills players past and present reached out privately to him to offer comfort, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas.
“My mother was an avid Bills fan, ride or die. She had a Bills cap in the car, a Bills cap up in my dad’s room, Bills flags everywhere,” Whitfield said with a slight chuckle. “But she always believed, and always thought, and always said, Bruce Smith was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
“She loved Bruce. I told him on the phone when I talked to him about how my mom felt about him and we both choked up about it.”
The east side of Buffalo is known as a food desert, with the Tops market being the only major grocery store to serve the neighborhood. In the aftermath of the shooting, it wasn’t just members of the team who showed up, Bills Mafia came, too. The fans organized a food drive to provide groceries to the area residents and additional fundraisers to help families of the victims.
“We are the city of good neighbors,” said Del Reid, co-founder of Bills Mafia. “We’re Western New York. We’re the region of good neighbors. We’re the fan base of good neighbors. Whether you’re living in east Buffalo or the south towns or the northern suburbs, we all love the Bills. We’re all one community.”
IT’S A SPIRIT you can feel all year long. Months later, in the thick of the deadly winter storm, Bills Mafia showed up again, organizing on social media under the hashtag #SnowplowMafia to help parts of east Buffalo neighbors who were trapped in homes, some without proper heat. A few weeks earlier, fans helped dig out Bills players so they could get to a game that was moved to Detroit.
“The Bills Mafia came to [east] Buffalo, and you had people from the suburbs helping people from the inner city,” said Darius Pridgen, senior pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on the east side of Buffalo. “Nobody asking a question, nobody fighting with one another. So I have seen hope.”
It would be easy to forgive Pridgen for not seeing hope anywhere. His church performed services for two of the Tops shooting victims. The week after Hamlin’s injury, Pridgen presided over the funeral of a victim of the snowstorm. A survivor of the New Year’s Eve house fire previously sang for the True Bethel Church choir. The pastor knows firsthand the trauma the past eight months has caused the community and his congregation.
“We depend on football to laugh and to smile, and after you’ve gone through tragedy after tragedy, you just want to watch something that you can go like, ‘Yes,'” Pridgen said, letting out a long exhale. “Then that moment, that one moment that you had to relax turns into another tragedy, so when you say it out loud again, you realize it’s been a heck of a year.”
Pridgen, wearing a white shirt with the word “LOVE” in bold — except the “E” is a now a “3” in honor of Hamlin — knows exactly where he was the minute he heard about Hamlin. It seems like everyone in Buffalo remembers exactly where they were when it happened.
Pridgen and his wife were driving home from an event, trying to listen to the game on the radio. The pastor’s mother-in-law called just as they walked in the house.
“She’s on the phone hollering,” Pridgen recalled. “And we’re thinking a family member must have passed or something that happened to one of our children. My mother-in-law might not even know who Damar was, but she just felt like tragedy had occurred.”
Pridgen said the Bills are a part of the community’s life.
“There are certain things you do not plan when the Bills are playing,” he said. “I don’t plan a church service when the Bills are playing because you know your congregation and people are going to be at the Bills game.
“It’s more than entertainment for us, it is definitely a part of our fabric.”
THE DEVOTION TO Western New York and the Buffalo Bills lives within former players and their families too. Patti and Thurman Thomas returned to Buffalo several years after his retirement.
She remembers that exact moment of Hamlin’s injury, too. They were at a watch party that Monday night, and Thomas said her husband knew immediately that the situation was bad.
“I kept looking at him and I was like, ‘Thurman, what?'” Thomas said. “He started crying and I knew then. We just got up and had to leave.
“He’s struggled with it, even with good news. He’s just really struggled with this as have some of his teammates,” Patti Thomas said. “I think a lot of it is these older guys from those Super Bowl teams in the ’90s teams love this team. Not that they haven’t cared for the other ones, but they love this team.
“These guys have put so much back into the community and these older guys kind of see them as little brothers or even sons, so it hurt.”
Born and raised in Buffalo, Thomas knows how important the Bills are to the community. She saw it not just as a fan, but as an extended member of the team and in the years after her husband’s retirement.
“They’re the heartbeat of the city, especially when you sometimes feel like you can’t count on other entities,” she said. “You can count on an organization, a football team, to bring you through or to be there.”
Since their return to the Buffalo area, they have created the Thurman Thomas Family Foundation and have raised over $750,000 to help a variety of causes.
“I know Buffalo needs help. I know that they need the leaders that do have platform, that can be out there expressing what is needed in the community to do better,” she said. “We’re going to stay here and we’re going to keep plugging away until we know we’ve sufficiently done our part. We’re not remotely there yet.”
WHILE THE BILLS are in some ways the lifeblood of the community, make no mistake, Bills Mafia knows there are bigger things than football. In the moments after Hamlin collapsed, fans knew what needed to be done.
“Social media was all lit up with Bills fans who are so dialed in to how well the team does, with people saying, ‘Don’t play the game. I don’t care if they play next week. I don’t care if the season’s over, so be it,'” Reid said. “Seeing him collapse like that was jarring, was awful, and then to cut back from commercial and we see all these players down on their knees or covering their face or embracing each other or crying, that’s our family.”
Reid, who owns 26 Shirts, a company that creates and sells football themed T-shirts to benefit various charities throughout the year, said the thing that had been “our great distraction, our great escape,” suddenly couldn’t escape reality.
Bills Mafia came together again, this time to comfort the team it once looked to for help and hope. The community once again showed up for its family, this time inspiring people across the country to donate more than $8.7 million to Hamlin’s Chasing M’s foundation, which started as a simple toy drive for his hometown.
“In that moment all that mattered was supporting this young man and his family, being an encouragement to them,” Reid said. “It’s bigger than football. We’re all brought together by football, but we’re all humans first. …
“If you love Buffalo, Buffalo will love you back.”