Buffalo, NY and Phoenix, AZ. Two cities that, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. Southwest vs Northeast. Subzero Winter Temps vs 120+ degree summer days. Lake Effect Snow vs Haboobs. Niagara Falls vs Sonoran Desert. Wings vs Burritos. Northern Border vs Southern Border. Population of 1.3M vs 5M. The list goes on. Two cities, 2,200 miles apart, but yet connected by an avid fan base called Bills Mafia.
I’ve lived in Arizona for over 25 years and finally, this year, I discovered Bills Fest – an off-season tailgate held at Lake Pleasant in the northwest valley. The annual event, hosted by the Wild West Bill Backers, draws Bills fan from across the valley and state – and the southwest, with fans coming from as far away as Albuquerque, NM and Durango, CO.
To give you an idea on how popular the Bills are in AZ, the Wild West Backers Facebook Group boasts over 1,500 members – and that’s just one of several Bills Backers groups in AZ.
And really… How many other fan bases are tailgating on a random weekend in April? And for 4 days!
The heartiest of revelers start on Thursday, setting up camp (literally and figuratively) in their RVs and/or tents in preparation for the 4-day, 3-night event. For those that arrived early, they were treated to a Friday performance by local Blues guitar legend, Carvin Jones.
Others, like me, pop in throughout the weekend, or for the main event on Saturday. Regardless of your style, the common bond is a love of all things Buffalo Bills.
My buddy Greg (a Buffalo-area native) and I decided to join for Saturday’s main event – to sort of “dip our toes in the water” not knowing what to expect. Worst case, a day at the lake was worth the trip alone.
One of the events scheduled was a fund-raising Cornhole Tournament being run by former Bills LB, Mark Maddox. Mark runs the Help One Foundation that provides support to area youth. After being drafted in the 9th round out of Northern Michigan, Mark enjoyed a 9-year career, including stints with the Bills from 92-97, helping to earn 3 AFC Championships in 92, 93, and 94. He ended his run playing with the Cardinals from 1998-2000 and ultimately earned a spot in Northern Michigan’s Hall of Fame! Not bad for a 9th rounder. Congrats Mark!
Pop Quiz: Name the two former NMU players that went on to become NFL Coaches and are also in the NMU Hall of Fame.
Another former player that supported Mark at the tournament was Jeff Wright, a nose tackle for the Bills from 88-94. When he was drafted in the 8th round out of Central Missouri State, Wright was projected to take the place of legendary Bills NT, Fred Smerlas. It didn’t take long for him to step up. After making appearances in all but one game each of his first two years, Wright took over the starting job for the next 5 years of his career -all with the Bills – and is one of only 22 players that can claim they played in four straight Super Bowls. He’s by far the best player to ever come out of Central Missouri State.
I can honestly say, the Bills found two gems in the late rounds from two relatively unknown schools. Back then, GM Bill Polian was the master of finding talent in unknown places. I’m sure the combination of talent and chip-on-your-shoulder from coming from a smaller school is what allowed these two guys to last so long in the NFL. The NFL is riddled with big-name school busts – guys who come in as primadonnas with egos bigger than their game. Not these guys. These two were as humble and friendly as your neighbor next door – putting up with endless streams of fans like me talking football, asking for autographs and taking photos with anyone who would ask. Class acts.
We started the day at the Cornhole Tourney, set up in one of the camping spots. There were 8 teams competing in a double-elimination event – with the proceeds going to charity.
As it turned out, Greg and I pulled off the hard-fought victory and scored some awesome, personalized jerseys compliments of Mark Maddox!
Second place wasn’t too shabby either. Daniel and Ken came away with an autographed Andre Reed jersey and a Bills mini-helment.
After the event, we made our way to the main event area. There, they had a ramada set up with plenty of food. Your $20 entry fee covered Sahlen’s hot dogs (a Buffalo staple) and plenty of side dishes. If you opted to bring a side to share, your entry was reduced to $15.
The entertainment for the afternoon (which continued into the evening) was provided by Jason “Gordo” Gordon and Friends. Gordo calls himself a 1-man, 10-piece band, but he had plenty of help today. Several additional musicians joined him with instruments including keyboard, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, flute, bongos and more. The unique collection of instruments allowed them to play a wide range of songs you normally don’t hear, like Marshall Tucker’s Heard it in a Love Song and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer – songs that highlight the instruments.
Of course, no Bills tailgate would be complete without Bowling Ball shots! Don’t worry, these were “COVID-Friendly” shots served up in disposable plastic shot glasses that were wedged into the finger hole of the ball – a ball that was sanitized between every shot. Thankfully, this wasn’t the traditional Wiśniówka Polish cherry liqueur that’s normally served at the Red Pinto Tailgate. Here you had your choice of Jim Beam or Honey Jack.
We missed the Annual Horseshoe Tournament, but we’ll have to make sure we get there for it next year. Apparently, it’s been going on for 17 years and has become a a Bills Fest tradition.
Overall, my very unofficial guestimate on attendance was about 150-200 on Saturday. They were spread out between the main gathering and the two-dozen or so campsites surrounding the area. The weather was warm, but there was plenty of shade along with water and other liquid refreshments.
In case you haven’t heard, Bills fans are definitely something special. From their passionate love of the Bills (win or lose), to their fervor for tailgating, to their maniacal theatrics (life table smashing) and their recent acknowledgement for being among the heaviest gameday drinkers, the Bills fans have spent decades earning the reputation of one of the heartiest and most fiercely loyal fan bases, if not the most. Sure, many fan bases can claim similar “qualities”, but throw in the philanthropic efforts that have been highly publicized and you get a fan base that is unlike any other.
Earlier this year, the Buffalo Bills cut a deal with the creators of the term “Bills Mafia”. A wise move. Mafia means family. And there’s no other football fan base that I’d rather call family.
To the team that pulled this event together, specifically, John McCartney and the group of the Wild West Bills Backers, THANK YOU for a great event. You are represent everything good about Bills Mafia. Keep up the great work. I’m looking forward to returning next year.
Now, is it September 12th yet?
Pop Quiz Answer: Steve Mariucci and Jerry Glanville