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The Pain of Losing
Bills Nation Dealing with More Loss
by Tony Bogyo
March 26, 2014

When I tell people that I keep bees – at their summer peak I may have over 120,000 in my backyard – some of the first questions I usually get are about being stung. “How often do you get stung?” “Does it hurt when you get stung?” “How many times have you been stung?”

The simple answers to these questions are that I do get stung multiple times every season (almost always due to something, in hindsight, I should have been able to avoid), it does still hurt, and in the 7+ years I’ve had bees I’ve been stung more times than I can remember.

What people don’t understand is that being stung by a bee, while painful and certainly less preferable than not being stung, is something I’ve learned to live with – it’s the price I pay for getting to work with a fascinating colony of creatures, observe their complex society, get a bit closer to nature, help out the environment and the neighborhood gardens and get some of the best honey you’ll ever taste.

In a way, my beekeeping hobby is like being a Bills fan. There are the stings – the terrible games we’ve lost in the last 14 years, the calls that have worked against us, the opponents who have looked amazing against us, the good players who have rejected us and taken their careers to other teams. These things hurt – there’s no getting around that – but over the years we’ve grown accustomed to the pain. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s not going to kill us. It’s the price we pay for being one of the proudest fan bases in any sport anywhere in the world and one day we might just taste the sweetness of a championship.

The news these past two days goes far past a bee sting. Dropping a game to Miami is nowhere near as painful as it is to hear of Jim Kelly’s grim return of cancer or the passing of Ralph Wilson, the man who built and embodied football in Buffalo. No, the latest news represents serious loss to Bills nation – like a punch to the gut that doubles you over and leaves you gasping for air for what seems to be an eternity.

I don’t want to speak of Jim Kelly in the past tense – everyone knows how much fight is in Kelly and if anyone stands a chance of turning the tables on cancer it’s certain a linebacker-turned-quarterback from East Brady, PA. Nonetheless, the news is not good – a second bout with cancer described as aggressive and spreading. It hurts to hear that about anyone, especially a man of 54. It hurts more when that young man was a childhood hero – a Sunday gladiator who suited up for the good guys and brought victory home far more than not. It hurts even more when you understand the hardships Jim Kelly has endured with strength, good humor and positivity. And to top it all off, Jim Kelly, the man, not the football player, has done tremendous work off the field – tirelessly pushing for newborn screenings and being the biggest booster of the Bills and Buffalo anyone has ever seen. If there’s one guy you keep rooting for, it’s Jim Kelly.

The passing of Ralph Wilson is no less painful. At 95 years of age and in frail health, it shouldn’t be shocking that Wilson passed, and yet it is. We all knew this day would come, but hearing the news that today was that day hit hard. Something that has always been with the Bills – the guiding hand of Ralph Wilson, is now suddenly gone. Although Wilson relinquished his titles and duties with the Bills last year there is a certain strange and vulnerable feeling to this new post-Wilson era. Few fans probably agreed with all of Wilson’s moves over the years, but there’s no denying he had a certain genius for strategic planning, management and selfless dedication to the long term good of things that history usually proved he was right. Wilson loaned money to keep the Raiders and Patriots afloat in the struggling AFL, and to his credit not a single team in that league ever folded. He was instrumental in revenue sharing, something that has led to great long term stability for the NFL – can you even imagine what today’s NFL landscape would have with enormous differences between big market “have” teams and small market “have not” teams?

It’s hard to imagine where Buffalo would be today without Ralph Wilson and Jim Kelly. Wilson brought football to Buffalo – he gave us a team to cheer for every week, through good and bad. The decline of steel in the 1970s took a tremendous toll on Buffalo, but at least we still had the guys in red, white a blue to keep us going. Throughout all his years in Buffalo Wilson had opportunities to find greater riches by moving the team and he never took that option – it was clear that he had a commitment to the region that stood above other interests. Jim Kelly brought winning to Buffalo – his gunslinger attitude on the field was infectious, and when the Bills of the early 90s were putting up 13-win seasons it was easy to walk with a certain swagger as a fan, even if you were wearing Zubaz. No longer was Buffalo a snowy wasteland of rusted steel mills – it was home to winners and it felt fantastic.

The funny thing about Wilson and Kelly is that near man wanted to come to Buffalo – each ended up here against their desires. Wilson wanted to build his franchise in Miami but instead had to settle for Buffalo in order to get his team. Kelly famously refused to play for the Bills when drafted in 1983, sought refuge the USFL and only reluctantly returned to Buffalo when that league folded. Wilson didn’t have many ties to Buffalo – he was a Detroit man through and though having built his business empire in Michigan. Kelly played college football in Miami and despised the thought of playing in the cold and snow – he had no love for Buffalo with its cold weather and outdoor stadium.

A funny thing about Buffalo is that it grows on you. You don’t think you’re going to like it for any number of reasons, but once you live there awhile you realize how wrong you were. When you come to Buffalo and see what a great community it really is, how down to earth and friendly most people are, how easy it is to feel a sense of community, the things to do and see, you probably end of loving the place. I grew up a product of this – neither of my parents particularly wanted to come to Buffalo but they did because my father was accepted into a graduate program at UB and my mother found work as a teacher – fast forward some years and we never had any thoughts of leaving Buffalo (full disclosure – I haven’t lived in WNY since high school, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t dream about what it would be like to move back and raise my family in a place like that – it would be hard to pass up the opportunity if it ever presented itself).

Buffalo charmed Wilson and Kelly. Wilson never relocated to Buffalo, but he kept strong ties to the community and gave generously to community charities. Kelly eventually went all-in on Buffalo – he never left. A retired quarterback who had earned enough to have a nice house located just about anywhere decided to build his castle in Buffalo. What’s more, he’s become a huge cheerleader for Buffalo, convincing others to come (Mario Williams) or stay. If the Buffalo Council on Travel and Tourism ever needed a guy to tout the virtues of Buffalo, Jim Kelly was their man.

Not long ago many Bills fans embraced the crazy idea that upon the passing of Ralph Wilson Jim Kelly would step in and buy the Bills. I never put any stock into that pipe dream because Kelly scarcely has the funds needed to buy an NFL team. I did think that he could have a hand in convincing someone or some group to buy the Bills and keep them in Buffalo – it’s something Kelly wants as much as the rest of the fans. Now that Wilson has passed, Kelly likely won’t be available to play the role he and the fans had hoped for – he’s got his own fight on which to focus. So as we absorb this one-two punch of bad news we feel more vulnerable than ever. It hurts, and it sucks.

Wilson, in his foresight, took measures to try and keep the Bills in Buffalo, and they likely will for the next several years. The existing lease includes a severe $400 million penalty for relocating prior to 2020 – an amount that could represent 50% of the purchase price of the team. Any buyer would, in all likelihood, spend a few years in Buffalo before contemplating a move to a new location. Those years could allow Buffalo to work its magic on the new ownership – as we’ve seen, once you’re in Buffalo it’s hard to leave. This delay – the effective prohibition of an immediate sale and relocation – might be Wilson’s final brilliant strategic move and his final gift to the fans of Buffalo – with any luck Jim Kelly will be watching from the sidelines on game days.

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