Bills fans and their Mafia invaded Jacksonville and it was glorious

Eric Adelson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They brought their homemade Bills Andy Dalton jerseys. They brought their Canadian beer. They brought their ‘90s-era Zubaz pants as a callback to the glory days. They brought their salt-scarred vans, which battled a Bomb Cyclone to get to their team’s first playoff game since 2000. They brought their folding tables, most of which did not live to see gametime.

And they brought noise. Lots and lots of noise in what ultimately turned into a losing effort for the Bills in a 10-3 wild-card defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In some respects, Duval County became a southern suburb of Orchard Park, New York. (AP)

The fabled “Bills Mafia,” hordes of Western New York die-hards who waited forever for this day, flooded this Florida town on Saturday and immediately went to the fan party at (where else?) Wing-It. How crazy was it? The cops arrived before 7 p.m., there were empty beer bottles along storefront windowsills by 8 and there was caution tape up by 9. Asked if this was a typical Saturday night scene in a strip mall, one Jacksonville police officer said, “Uh. No.” Brian Moorman, the beloved former Bills punter, could not even find a parking spot.

“I had no idea what it was going to be like when we pulled up,” Moorman said between greeting fans with hugs and handshakes. “We had to park a half-mile away. We walk in and it’s just nuts. A lot of frustration and partying everyone wants to do.”

It’s been a memorable week. Dalton’s clutch touchdown pass put the Bills into the playoffs, setting off a flurry of celebration and charitable giving to his foundation. (Moorman said there was even a bump in donations to his PUNT Foundation for children with life-threatening illnesses.) The Bills Mafia was a steady hashtag on social media, and families made plans to drive down no matter what the cost or inconvenience. Steve Allinger, 61, traveled from New York to North Carolina to pick up his son, Michael, and continued south to Duval County. The father has tons of playoff memories. The son has zero.

There has been debate and discussion this past week about how many Bills fans would show up. A few thousand? Ten thousand? More?

“I think Jacksonville will be surprised how well Buffalo Bills travel,” said Moorman, who lives here now selling real estate. “I’ve been talking to friends in the area, giving them a hard time, telling them, ‘You have no idea how many people are going to show up.’”

The designated Bills tailgate lot on Sunday was Lot X, which was across a main road and under a bridge. Fans arrived before it opened and sang “Shout” with the “Let’s Go Buff-a-lo-!” refrain interspersed throughout.

Yes, there were some table dives. One fan climbed to the top of an RV and plummeted into an elbow drop. A fan named Bruce Freidenberg allowed himself to be choke-slammed through a table after his long drive from the 716 area code. He bragged he was “only pulled over two times” on the way. “I feel like a legend!” he exclaimed.

Anyone from Western New York understands the sentiment. For nearly a generation, Bills fans have had to watch everyone else celebrate playoff appearances and division titles and more. It hasn’t helped that their New England rivals have put together one of the greatest dynasties in sports history in the time the Bills have rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt. (“Do you like Tom Brady?” was asked of this reporter more than once before granting an interview.) The frustration Moorman mentioned wasn’t just clear in the size of the crowd and the volume of the shouts, but also in the number of Bills jerseys of players from failed campaigns: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller and Moorman himself. (There was even a Jack Kemp jersey.) The seasons have crumbled like so many folding tables.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are considered the best traveling fan bases, but Bills fans scoff at this suggestion. Their journey on snowy interstates and through sub-zero temperatures into the sunshine was a metaphor of sorts: winter, for at least one weekend, was over.

Jags fans turned out very nicely for their first home playoff game since 2000, but their tailgate was muted compared to the chaos under the bridge. EverBank Field was mottled with blue throughout the raucous afternoon. The whole weekend surprised even Moorman, who wore no Bills gear and was recognized anyway, as if he was Jim Kelly.

“I thought we were just going to come and celebrate the Bills getting into the playoffs,” he said with a laugh.

Clearly it’s so much more than that.

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