Who Says You Can’t Go Home: Andre Reed, Jon Bon Jovi and Broken Hearts in Buffalo
“Ugh, can you change the station? It’s Bon Jovi.”
So began my pilgrimage to see the induction of Andre Reed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Flanked by my Bills’ game cohort of friends and fellow fans, I was ready to spend the weekend reliving the glory days when the Buffalo Bills reached four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994. More than 20 years after the last of four straight Super Bowl defeats, the heartache, the post-game tears, the awkward endings to four straight Super Bowl parties (where guests were convinced that the host was perhaps the jinx), most Buffalo Bills fans would be thrilled to lose a fifth Super Bowl. The past 20 years have been difficult — after the last Super Bowl run, the team started to peter out, with the staggered retirements and trades of the stars of the glory days, culminating in a 14 year absence from the playoffs — the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.
Just as the Bills’ fortunes waned over the past twenty years, the city of Buffalo has seen steady growth. Recent years have brought significant urban revitilization projects to the long-neglected waterfront, and an influx of young people to the trendy downtown lofts springing up in industrial buildings that had been abandoned for decades. The Canalside development has helped Buffalo reclaim its one-time meal ticket — the Erie Canal, and the emergence of food trucks and numerous articles about Buffalo’s revitalization showed that Buffalo was, indeed looking good (and maybe even talking proud).
But, for many sports-loving Buffalonians, the true crowning achievement of Buffalo’s comeback would be a Super Bowl win, or, at least, a playoff appearance to start. But, most agree that Jon Bon Jovi is determined to take away Buffalo’s dearest possession — its Buffalo Bills. Needless to say, Bon Jovi’s alliance with a Toronto-based group of businessmen to bid for the Buffalo Bills has not sat well with the blue collar fans who identified with his songs. For months, Jon Bon Jovi has become a persona non grata in Western New York, with local radio stations banning Bon Jovi songs, and a spike in sales of anti-Bon Jovi shirts.
Walking through the Hall of Fame, it was hard not to wonder whether the Bills would join the list of the numerous other professional football teams Buffalo used to have. Most Bills fans have lived with the spectre of losing the team to a larger city for their entire lives. Some of us are old enough to have parents who lamented the loss of Buffalo’s NBA franchise, the Buffalo Braves, who became the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers in 1978. In a way, Buffalo has lived with the effects of income inequality, and the emergence of an ultra elite that could buy Buffalo’s heart and soul longer than most anti-1% Occupy Wall Street protesters have been alive. Bon Jovi’s emergence as yet another ultrarich bigwig who could buy the very heart of many Buffalonians made him yet another looter in a city that is still fighting to recover from the loss of the steel industry jobs that employed so many. As Bon Jovi has sung many times, it’s his life, but it’s hard to imagine Springsteen doing this to a city like Buffalo.
Seeing the Bills’ stars reunited for Andre Reed’s long awaited induction was bittersweet. Many Bills fans like me, took advantage of the opportunity to relive the 90s glory days one last time — given the Bills’ performance since then, this would be the last Hall of Fame induction involving one of our guys for a long time. As a result, at least 75% of the crowd were Bills fans, resplendent in the jerseys of the team’s former stars, as well as more obscure players both from the team’s heyday and current prospects. One particularly loyal fan wore O.J. Simpson’s number 32 jersey. Indeed, the induction ceremony, and the Hall of Fame preseason game on Sunday had the feel of a Bills home game, where even fellow 2014 inductee, Michael Strahan, who played for the New York Giants before becoming a morning TV superstar, did not quite achieve the level of cheers that Andre Reed and Jim Kelly did. Dan Marino, whose introduction met with tepid applause, smiled ruefully, explaining to his fellow Hall of Famers that it was a Buffalo crowd, and “they hate me there.”
While perhaps less exuberantly youthful than before, the core of Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and Coach Marv Levy looked largely unchanged from their glory days 20 years ago. But the climax of the evening for most was seeing quarterback Jim Kelly, whose battle with cancer has inspired prayers from Bills fans far and wide, looking better than he had in recent months, and even tossing a pass to Andre Reed during the ceremony. Kelly’s struggles, and his valiance despite the significant suffering he has endured in his life — the loss of his son Hunter at age 8 to Krabbe disease, and his battles with jaw cancer over the past 18 months — are an avatar for the suffering of the city that adores him. Just as Kelly has been “Kelly Tough” in the face of significant adversity, the citizens of Buffalo have soldiered on over the past 30 years as first their jobs left, and then their children, many of whom were convinced that Buffalo had no future. If Buffalo could come back, it has to be that its toughest adopted son can come back too.
Following the emotions of the night before, it was hard not to approach the preseason game with hopes of a return to greatness. Reed and Kelly were on the Bills’ sideline for the first half, visible in their gold jackets. And the team held its own, leaving the field at halftime tied with the Giants. The fans, too, were decked head-to-toe in Bills gear. There’s one thing you need to know about Buffalo sports fans — they like their paraphernalia. Even though I haven’t lived in Buffalo for more than 15 years, I have at least a dozen Bills shirts, which I deploy at the one game I attend per year. (I like to layer my pride, especially in Buffalo’s (in)famous winters.) Needless to say, the stores at the Hall of Fame sold out of virtually every piece of Buffalo Bills paraphernalia before the game started on Sunday night (even the NFL’s recently developed women’s styles — despite the league’s seemingly lax attitude towards domestic violence).
Unfortunately, the Bills were unable to hold off the Giants, and lost the game 17-13. Post-game dissections of tackling techniques and the relative merits of the Bills’ backup quarterbacks returned fans to the reality of being a fan in 2014 rather than 1994, including the imminent threat of losing the team altogether. Recognizing the vitriol directed his way from Western New York, Jon Bon Jovi attempted to mend fences by issuing an open letter to Bills fans. Attempted is the key here. Already suspicious of Bon Jovi, fans leapt with alacrity to dissect the letter and were largely unconvinced by it. It is true — the open letter falls short of committing to keep the team in Buffalo. Instead, Bon Jovi talks about “identifying the best possible site in the Buffalo area” — which, given Buffalo’s proximity to Canada, could include numerous sites in southern Ontario and even Toronto which is only 90 miles away and within the same TV blackout locality under NFL rules. Thus, while the world’s ultra-elite continue to place their billion-dollar bids, the Bills’ loyal fans can only wait and hope. And continue to hate Jon Bon Jovi.