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The past year has been filled with unspeakable tragedy in Buffalo. Terrible moments have followed one after another in what seems like a conspiracy to rob Western New York of hope, optimism, and all love.
A mass shooting in May at a grocery store left 10 people dead.
An epic blizzard paralyzed the city around Christmas and ultimately left 37 dead in the region, with 29 of those in Buffalo.
And, of course, there was that moment on national television last week when Bills safety Damar Hamlin dropped to the turf in Cincinnati, suffering a cardiac arrest and requiring emergency care to save him from dying in the first quarter of a Bills game.
Despite those body blows that have pummeled Buffalo and its football team, everyone is seeing something of a rally now.
The Bills are winning. And they are supporting and being supported by the entire region and a fan base they call “special.”
Buffalo Bills Fans See Team Like Family
“They’re like family,” said Jason Maldonado, a Bills super fan who travels to games in a wrestling mask and goes by Dia Billo on his Facebook page filled with Bills posts.
Maldonado was among the first of many Bills fans to arrive at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center when Hamlin was brought in by ambulance. He and his son Nathan came for a game and stayed for the vigil that followed.
“It’s about love, man,” Maldonado said. “It about what we feel for the team and its players and how we believe they feel for us.”
Feelings Is Mutual Within Bills Organization
The feelings are indeed mutual. After the mass shooting, Bills players gathered for a charity softball game and donated proceeds to victims’ families.
“I talk about being in synch with your fan base and the fan base being in synch with the team,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I think that’s real here in Buffalo. We lift each other up. That’s what we do.
“We need them like they need us. We feel strongly about that.”
McDermott doesn’t just tell people there’s a connection between his team and fans. He says the connection goes further.
“That intimate connection from the fans to the players and the players to the fans, I think that’s when it gets to a special level,” the coach said. “And I think we have that.”
Buffalo Bills Overcoming This Year Not Typical
This isn’t a story about a team overcoming adversity typical of most NFL seasons, although the Bills have had plenty of that.
Earlier this season they lost injured Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde for the season. Then they lost Pro Bowl pass rusher Von Miller for the season as well. Mitch Morse had a bout with a concussion and quarterback Josh Allen played for weeks with an elbow injury that would have put a lesser man on the sideline.
“We’re resilient, man,” defensive back Taron Johnson said. “There’s been other situations, obviously none to the magnitude of Damar, but those other situations we’ve had to go through and been through have made us stronger.”
But that strength was not achieved alone. The Buffalo Bills have a rabid and loyal fan base that universally calls itself Bills Mafia or #BillsMafia on social media. And those people have given the Bills strength to overcome the obstacles of the 2022 season.
That is the story.
Bills Mafia comes from all over the country under the banner of supporting the Bills at home and on the road. They show up to the airport when the team lands after wins, and after losses. And, in times of crisis, they show up to people’s homes.
There was, for example, that morning in November when the precursor storm to the one in December hit. Everyone knew that one was coming and the NFL moved the club’s home game against the Cleveland Browns to Detroit.
Except Buffalo players traveling that morning had to dig themselves out to get to the team charter flight. Some faced six feet of snow on the ground.
But that was removed for many in the Bills’ traveling party when fans showed up to their houses unannounced to dig them out or give them rides.
Bills Players Recognize Value Of Bills Mafia
Those acts and others like that are eye-opening for Bills players — even new ones.
“Everybody talks about family and football, but ever since I’ve been here it’s been about family,” said running back Nyheim Hines, who was traded to Buffalo just before the November trade deadline. “And Bills Mafia is the best fan base in the NFL.”
It surprised no one when Hamlin felt that the Bills fan base would rally to the cause of praying for him. And supporting the Bills.
“It’s symbolizes the love of Western New York and the people here,” Allen said. “We really appreciate the support they’ve showed not only us but Damar as well…”
Some would say the fans benefit from the relationship with the team team more than the other way around. They get a release the team gives them. They can forget about their job, or joblessness, or any other problem when they’re watching the Bills.
Maybe that’s true. The Bills, perhaps, are an example for the fan base. The team has, after all, won three consecutive AFC East crowns.
“As a team I don’t know if we feel like someone to look up to, but we’re here to give support when we need to and just do our job and hopefully doing that gives [people] an escape in any way,” Morse said.
“I’ve felt this has been the best place for me, Buffalo. And this community has just been remarkable for all of us. But I don’t expect anything different. You don’t want to take them for granted because they’re always so top-notch.
“And this whole season has kind of been a doubling down on that.”