Two years ago I wrote something I called “Winning that Sack Race.” It was a post about being a Bills fan that got a little help from a Deadspin post written a year earlier. I really, really liked how it turned out.
Ever since I wrote that post I think about it as football season gets closer and closer. It’s no accident this happens: I think those few hundred words tap into something that’s at the heart of being a fan. There is something universal about rooting, about freely giving up control and hoping against all odds that ties us together as human beings.
So when I think about that first kickoff on that first Sunday, I think about that post a lot. This year, however, I also think about my friend Greg.
Greg is, by all accounts, a Buffalo sports fan. He was the kid who stood in line at Tops to buy 13 tickets to the first Sabres game after the Lockout so we could all go together. He was the one who got up at 6 a.m. and hung around Canisius for a few hours while I went to class, just so we could get downtown early for a Sabres game that night.
I’ve seen the Chris Neil Game, meaningless Thrashers games and Game One of this year’s Bruins series with Greg. We’ve watched dozens and dozens of Sabres games together, at HSBC Arena or at a bar or at the Adam’s Mark while our classmates danced their prom night away. If there is one thing we have in common, it’s hockey.
Yet somehow with hockey a month away, I’m thinking about Greg. I’m thinking about Greg because football season is here. What’s funny about that is I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Bills game with Greg. We’ve watched playoff football at my house and all kinds of hockey, but I’ve never sat down with him on a Sunday afternoon to take in a game. He was working or had other plans, or I was working after the game and didn’t want to leave midway through. Something always seemed to get in the way and besides, what was the hurry?
Still, that didn’t mean we never talked about it. No matter what we were doing, the topic would always drift back to football. Greg is no football mastermind, but he knows what he’s talking about. We would talk about the draft or our endless stream of quarterbacks, with Greg almost always settling on optimism.
Somehow he would always talk about who said what on the radio, or what someone wrote in the newspaper and how they just don’t understand. I would always agree with him on that because really, how could they understand? Greg was a real fan, someone always willing to hang out for a game when it was on. You can’t fake that.
So when Greg decided to join the Navy I was more than a little surprised. Greg wanted to get things straighted out and make a good decision and I understood that. In fact, my concerns were completely selfish: what about hockey season? What about the Bills?
That playoff game against the Bruins was technically his last hurrah, and a few weeks later he was off to boot camp. I saw him as much as I could before he left while trying to graduate college myself. The very last night he was in town I wrote one of my first freelance stories for the Gazette, got into a car accident and saw Pearl Jam live. It was by far one of the weirdest days of my life.
Greg is doing just fine, and he’s somewhere in Florida taking care of business. I’ve talked to him online a few times and we inevitably talk about sports, but it’s just not the same. He knows the Bills and Sabres seasons will go by mostly without him, and he had to autodraft his fantasy football team this year because of responsibilities on base.
It’s weird and I miss hanging out with him. All of my friends do, really. Most of all, I will miss being able to experience the start of football season with him. Say what you will about us Bills fans, but Greg gets it.
When I re-read that post I love so much, I think about Greg this year. I go back to a story he would tell about the Bills’ last home Monday Night Game against Cleveland. He was in the upper deck near the end zone where Rian Lindell would miss that kick against Cleveland.
He won’t always tell it, but after a drink or two and some talk about the Bills, he will tell you about those few seconds when he thought the kick went through the uprights. Maybe it was the angle, or maybe he had a few too many, but for a few brief seconds he couldn’t understand why everyone was so bummed out.
When he tells that story of brief joy I think of this. While he was celebrating something that was not, I was lying prone on a bench on the other side of the stadium. Reeling. It took a few seconds, but eventually Greg and I felt the same thing.
Greg will be on the other side of the country this fall, and I doubt he will see much Bills football where he’s going. Still, I know we will be feeling the same thing on Sunday afternoons. He might not see a Bills game at all this year, but he gets what this ‘being a fan’ thing is all about.
He’ll just have a different angle than I do.