When the 2018 NFL schedule was released, I quickly dialed into a potential trip for the upcoming season – Buffalo at Indianapolis with Penn State at Indiana the day before. These types of weekends were the inspiration for The Wandering Spectator – an opportunity to see two of my favorite teams in action, on the same weekend and in the same general area outside of my hometown.
I previously wrote about the Penn State vs Indiana game so this post will be about Day 2 of this trip.
The Buffalo Bills are an interesting team, to say the least. My love of them dates back to the OJ Simpson days and I’ve already documented how I became a Bill fan. Over the years, I’ve seen them play numerous times at home and on the road. Their run of four straight Super Bowl appearances is unmatched and unlikely to ever be topped. Lately, though, they’ve become one of the laughing stocks of the league – having only broken their string of 17 seasons without a playoff appearance just last year.
Through those years, however, their fan base has only grown more passionate, more hardened, more fanatical. Every Bills fan knows that when they finally break through and win the ultimate trophy, the city of Buffalo and fans now scattered around the world will party like there’s no tomorrow.
The most recent times I’ve been able to catch them on the road have been in Los Angeles and New Orleans. Still, nothing tops a trip Back to Buffalo! To me, their fan base most closely resembles that of a college fan base.
On this trip, we met up with both of the local Bills Backers groups for some pregame festivities. It was a bit odd since there seems to be some infighting between the groups. Because of that, they didn’t work together to plan one massive tailgating. Instead, they had two separate groups tailgating about 300 yards from each other. Each group had their passionate portion of the Bills Mafia but only one group had the iconic figures of the Mafia – Pinto Ron, Poncho Billa, and Captain Buffalo.
Pinto Ron, whose real name is Ken Johnson, has become one of the most recognized NFL fans in the country. Nearly every media outlet has interviewed him in an effort to convey his story of passion and wonder. He’s been to nearly 400 consecutive Bills game, home and away – dating back to the early 90s. And it doesn’t stop there. For home games, he hosts a tailgate with his 1980 Red Pinto serving as the actual grill for the day’s menu.
Obviously, the Red Pinto is lucky to make it in and out of the Hammer Lot in Orchard Park so you won’t find it here in Indy, but what you will find is the eclectic mix of tailgating treats.
Who wouldn’t love Habanero Meatballs served in a simmering bedpan? They were a little messy, so they offered up a roll of toilet paper to clean up. Hey, don’t knock it. They were pretty tasty, although I couldn’t get my wife, a nurse, to try any food served from a bedpan.
How about bacon frying on the blade of a hand saw that was sitting atop a pan placed on an ironing board?
No Bills event would be complete without wings, right? Nothing fancy here, just that the blue cheese (never ranch dressing) was served up in a painters tray. Then there was the suitcase laying on the ground full of ice with a veggie tray perched on top. See, they even support vegans.
And of course, you have to wash it all down with a bowling ball shot. The drink of choice is Wiśniówka, a polish cherry liqueur that supposedly pretty harsh. You’re supposed to seal your lips around the bowling ball finger holes, drink the shot, then slam the bowling ball to the ground taking care not to have the holes make contact with the ground and finish the ritual by blowing the vuvuzela. No thanks!
If that’s not your thing, then maybe a shot with some of your friends – off of a ski! The hardest part is getting everyone around the same height.
Thankfully, Pinto Ron does not partake in his signature “ketchup ceremony” in away games. If you’re interested, just google it, but be warned, it’s pretty disgusting. Nor did I witness any of the Mafia’s signature table smashing.
Bills fans are some of the hardiest in the game. They show up, home or away, win or lose, rain, sleet, snow or sun, like today! One day they will be rewarded for their dedication. I’ve been to plenty of NFL games and I have yet to witness a group of fans that travel as well the Bills Mafia.
One of the more recent additions to the Bills Mafia is Pancho Billa (aka Ezra Castro). He lives in Dallas and grew up the son of a Cowboy fan. Thankfully, his father encouraged him to find a team that he can get behind and he chose the Bills. Pancho is fighting cancer and the Bills selected him to announce their 3rd Round pick in this year’s draft, Harrison Phillips. Since then, Pancho has gained worldwide support from the Bills Mafia (like passing the hat at the tailgate in exchange for Jello shots) and beyond through a Go Fund Me account that has been established to help him with medical bills.
The Bills fans are certainly a giving bunch. After Andy Dalton’s TD pass to beat the Ravens last year, a win that ultimately sent the Bills to their first playoff game in 17 years, the Bills faithful flooded Dalton’s charity with donations. Over 15,000 people from around the globe donated over $415,000 to the charity – mostly in $17 increments, representing the 17-year drought snapped by that touchdown.
After the pregame tailgate and meeting Pancho inside the stadium, it was all downhill from there! We always like to try the local food and drink when traveling to new places. I stopped a Colts fan and asked her what we should sample that would give us a taste of Indy. Her immediate response? Pork Tenderloin sandwich. Meh. To be fair, it’s probably not the best place to use as the basis for evaluation.
Lucas Oil Stadium was fairly empty with a paid attendance of 57k in a 63k venue, but you can see the empty seats in the photos below. On the flip side, this is another benefit of seeing the Bills play a struggling team on the road – plummeting ticket prices. With plenty of seats available, the “get-in” price on StubHub for the upper corners was about $20 all-in. We opted for seats closer to the middle of field for $37.
Sure, they were high up, but I wasn’t willing to spring for lower level midfield seats. Even though plenty were empty, prices were still high at about $150 each. Maybe if the Bills were playing better, but upper levels were just fine for this year’s episode of the Bumbling Bills.
There were a ton of Bills fans at the game, especially in the upper deck where we were, but the team colors made it difficult to see just how many visitors were there. We were waiting for Buffalo to do something good so we could hear the roar, but that moment never came. The game itself was pretty boring with a scoreless first before the Colts parlayed two turnovers into a 24-0 halftime lead.
After the half, the Bills took the opening kick and marched down for a FG – hey at least they weren’t shut out. A couple of possessions later, Andrew Luck fumbled the snap through the endzone for another 2-points for Buffalo. 24-5. Could it be? Is there hope?
Nope. Another sack/fumble after the free kick, led to another short field and TD for the Colts making it 31-5. It was shortly after this we decided to leave – along with just about every other Bills fan – and even a ton of Colts fans. Before we could even get out of the stadium, Derek Anderson threw yet another interception that turned into more points for the Colts. 37-5.
We took the short walk to the famous St. Elmo’s for a drink and some appetizers. Their signature Shrimp Cocktail is a must try dish any time you’re in town. The horseradish sauce is as pungent as they come, and gives you that “why am I eating this” feeling, followed by “wow, that’s good”. They even sponsored a Shrimp Cocktail eating contest at the Hoosier game yesterday with the visiting Penn State fan clearly struggling on the over-spiced prawns while the Hoosier fan easily plowed through his tails. Fixed?
A little over an hour after the game and the parking lots were empty. We couldn’t believe a) how fast the game finished and b)how empty the parking lots were at 5:00pm.
So empty in fact we were able to get an unobstructed picture of the Peyton Manning statue that was just unveiled a year ago.
The next morning we looked for a local breakfast joint. We found the Colonial Cottage along the Dixie Highway in Kentucky, just outside of the Cincinnati airport. We were intrigued by a dish called goetta that was prominent on the menu and included as an option with many of their dishes. We were offered a sample and learned that it’s a German sausage made with oats and apparently is available mostly in and around the Cincinnati area. Even so, we passed after our sample.
I have to say, I’m a little worried about the Queen City’s culinary exports. Between goetta and Skyline Chili’s 5-way dish, which is chili served over pasta and topped with mounds of cheddar cheese, beans and onions, I might have to stick to some of the basics when traveling through there.
Before long, we were back home in Arizona, passing over the Superstition Mountains as we prepared to land in nearby Williams Gateway Airport.
While the Bills may have lost their game, they will never lose their fans.