Bills-Column-ImageBrad Beatson taught Thurman Thomas everything he knows.

The Buffalo Bills are for sale. Los Angeles, Toronto, and London are clamoring for an NFL team, and the league commissioner has repeatedly expressed his desire for international expansion. So that brings to mind the question: Why in the world does Buffalo deserve an NFL franchise?

The Bills have held training camp in my hometown of Pittsford, NY, since 2000. For one month, the entire town is Bills-focused and it’s almost impossible to avoid the excitement—even though they haven’t made the playoffs since the ’99-2000 season. When the team signed Drew Bledsoe in 2002, the town closed Main St. and threw a parade. At our one local bar, Thirsty’s, the players drop by after practice to get a beer. It turns the spotlight on our town and boosts pride in an otherwise forgotten region.

That region, Western New York, has suffered loss after loss since the turn of the century. Local titan, Xerox, staved off bankruptcy, whereas Eastman Kodak wasn’t as lucky. The city of Rochester has lead the nation in per-capita murders, high school dropout rate, and childhood poverty—but decided to invest $32 million dollars into a fast ferry, hoping that it would increase tourism to-and-from Toronto. It failed, and led to millions more in debt.

IN-THE-CREASE

In sports, the Buffalo Sabres got beat in triple OT, on an illegal, in-the-crease goal by Brett Hull, to win the 1999 Stanley Cup. Six months later, the Bills would be knocked out of the playoffs by Frank Wychek’s Music City Miracle. Although it’s starting to seem like Y2K actually happened, a high point came when Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara, and Hakim Warrick led the Syracuse Orangemen to the NCAA title, winning in 2003. But for the most part, national coverage of Western New York sports is limited to whenever ESPN lets Chris Berman speak about his beloved Bills. This preseason, though, has been a little different, because the Bills are for sale.

Three bids to buy the team were placed this past Tuesday. The first came from current Buffalo Sabres owner and multi-billionaire, Terrence Pegula; the second, from Donald Trump; and the third, from a Toronto-based group that includes Jon Bon Jovi. All three have said that they would keep the team in Buffalo, but no one believes a group that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors, and the Canadian telecom company, Rogers, will keep the team in the States. Trump thinks it is highly unlikely that the NFL will accept him into their elite club, and since 75% of current NFL team owners must approve the sale, that narrows the selection down to Pegula and Bon Jovi’s Group.

This has turned Buffalo into a Bon Jovi-Free Zone. Bars and restaurants have stopped playing his music, and radio DJs have gone as far as to dub themselves over “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

As ridiculous as that song may be, the threat of a move is very real. For the past six seasons, the Bills have played one home game a year at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, going 1-5 during the stretch. They won’t play there in 2014, but have four years left on a contract to play one game a year, north of the border. These games have served as somewhat of a litmus test for the market, and the results have been positive for the Bills’ business and international fandom.

Toronto was once the butt of the joke, a place where players couldn’t wait to get out of town, but now marquee free agents like the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry are signing contract extensions. It’s the fastest growing city in Canada and a North American destination—whereas Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse have seen their youth population flee for the past decade, myself included.

plazaDuring my senior year of high school, I transitioned from goody-goody to party animal. I felt like I had to make up for lost time, so instead of heading to my parents’ alma-mater, nearby SUNY Geneseo, I went to the College of Charleston in South Carolina. After spending a semester on the beach, failing calculus, and getting an underage drinking ticket, I was told by my folks that I’d have to continue my studies further north. So I transferred to West Virginia University, the #1 party school in the nation.

After school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for work, but I knew I wanted to be in a major city. I moved to Washington D.C. for a little over a year, then went back to Rochester for 6 months, before ending up in New York City for the past 2.5 years. I don’t visit home often, usually twice a year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The trips include the usual stops that satisfy my hometown nostalgia: I head to Wegman’s grocery store; I get a buffalo chicken slice at Pontillo’s; and I’ll down a garbage plate from Nick Tahoe’s.

it-tastes-so-goooodAfter that, I’ve had enough. I can’t stand it for more than a few days.

Until now, I thought it was because there’s nothing to do at home. That’s how its been labeled for as long as I can remember, and it’s the stock answer given by almost anyone who leaves their hometown. But that’s simply not true, because I love my hometown and there’s plenty to do. The real, true reason is that a trip home always reminds me of loss. I remember my parents divorce. I remember my friends and family members who lost their jobs. I drive around alone to see the places that are still around from my childhood.

It’s become so easy to forget about where I’m from because I’m focused on what I want to do today, and where I see myself in the future. Sometimes I’ll get a text from my grandmother saying it would be nice if she heard from me every once and awhile, and I interpret it as her trying to guilt me. Could I be any more selfish? My entire family is from Western New York. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents. My extended family lives there too. I talk to them as much as I talk to my friends from home, which is hardly ever.

I treat them this way because I don’t think I have enough time. That’s a lie, it’s not that I don’t have enough time for a quick phone call, but I think I don’t have enough time to maintain the relationships while focusing on my day-to-day life in NYC. And again, time is just an excuse, I really don’t want to maintain the relationships at all. So I forget about it all: The history; all the times they’ve been there for me in the past. Because it’s much easier to run away than it is to fight. I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long to realize how downright shitty I’ve been. And I’d really hate to see Buffalo get treated the same way by the NFL.

ralph-2Without Ralph Wilson, the NFL wouldn’t be the colossus it is today. He is the founder of the Buffalo Bills, and helped start the American Football league that would merge with the NFL in 1970. In those early years of the AFL, he floated money to the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots to save them, and the league, from bankruptcy. Throughout his tenure he placed the interests of teams ahead of the league. He voted against the Browns relocation to Baltimore, and lead the charge to change the previous collective bargaining agreement that was settled during the 2011 lockout.

Wilson was directly involved with Bills management until he passed on March 25 of this year, after dedicating 54 years of his life to the city of Buffalo. Reports stated that the plan was to pass the organization on to a group led by Hall of Fame Bills QB, Jim Kelly, to ensure the team would stay in Western New York. That was until recently, when Kelly was diagnosed with oral cancer. Now, the fate of the franchise is in the hands of Morgan Stanley.

Commissioner Goodell has stated that in order to remain in Buffalo, the Bills need a new stadium with more luxury boxes. The lease at their current stadium ends in 2022, giving the next franchise owner plenty of time to survey, develop, and build a new facility. That shouldn’t be a problem for possible owner Terrence Pegula, who is finishing a $172 million dollar real estate project in Buffalo that will open this fall. If the next owner of the Buffalo Bills were to move the team from Ralph Wilson Stadium before 2020, they would have to pay a $400 million penalty. So, at the very least, the Bills are likely to stay put for the next six years. And their front office is playing to win right now.

That is 2014 1st round pick Sammy Watkins making every Bills fan in the world think he was worth next years 1st and 4th round selections. He’ll join 2nd year starters, QB EJ Manuel and WR Robert Woods, along with RB’s Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, on what should be a high powered offense. On defense, the Bills lost Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL in the offseason, but still have one of the better overall units in the league, led by DE Mario Williams and DT Kyle Williams. On paper, they look like the most promising Bills team in years, and should give 2nd year head coach Doug Marrone a lot to work with.

Tonight, at 8 p.m. on NBC, they open their season against the New York Giants in the Hall of Fame Game, following yesterday’s induction of legendary Bills’ WR Andre Reed. It’s my favorite time of year because there’s nothing I can do but hope for the best, and think that maybe, just maybe this is their year. Go Bills.

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