Growing up, it wasn’t called the Mafia. It functioned the same as it does today and included the same types of people but no one spoke of it in these terms. It was just something you did. Something you were. Something you were born into. It was the family business and, when I was growing up in the 90s, business was good.
It wasn’t until the organization was mired in a decade-long decline that people really started calling it the Mafia. Times had changed. The leadership at the top was bad. The product that was being pushed out was bad. It was a tough time to be part of this crew but yet, so many people still were.
The group was still special. It was full of people who were fully committed to the organization. There were diehards, lifers, and a host of colorful characters who were known only by nicknames; Donny Darts, Pinto Ron, and the now-deceased Pancho Billa.
Like many things that came out of the first decade of the 2000s, the origins of the Mafia name started on social media. The group was already known for raucous behavior and destroying property, even sometimes lighting it on fire, but it wasn’t until a well-known member of the group screwed up and subsequently blamed God that the name was coined. #BillsMafia.
Growing Up a Bills Fan
Growing up in Western New York (Rochester to be specific) you realize that your region is nationally known for basically two things; snow and the Buffalo Bills. When I first became a sports fan, sometime in the late 80s, being a Bills fan was good.
In ’88 they won the AFC East and lost to that year’s AFC Super Bowl representative, the Cincinnati Bengals. In ’89 they only finished 9–7 but won the division again. They lost to the Cleveland Browns in a heartbreaking shootout when Clay Matthews intercepted Bills’ quarterback Jim Kelly on the goal line to clinch a 34–30 win.
Then came the 90s. In ’90 the Bills destroyed the Bo Jackson-less LA Raiders 51–3 and made the Super Bowl. In ’91, they rolled the Chiefs, squeaked by the Broncos, and made another Super Bowl. A year later, backup quarterback Frank Reich led the Bills to the greatest comeback in NFL history over the Houston Oilers on their way to Super Bowl number three. In ’93, the Bills took out the Raiders once again in the “Just Freeze Baby” game for a historic fourth consecutive trip to the Big Game.
The problem was the Bills of the 90s could never figure out how to win that final game. Scott Norwood went wide right against the Giants in ’90. They went down 24–0 to the Redskins in ’91 and never caught up. Then, they were crushed by the Dallas Cowboys the next two years by an aggregate score of 82–30.
That was ok though. Western New York had one of the best teams in football throughout the early 90s. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith all were Hall-of-Famers (and center Kent Hull should be). The Bills might not be in the Super Bowl every year after that run but they would always be a top team… right?
The Post K-Gun Era
The Bills missed the playoffs in ’94 but were back in ’95 and ’96. Then Jim Kelly retired. The K-Gun offense he and the Bills coaching staff created played a big hand in the evolution of the NFL into a pass-first league. This meant that going forward, it would be almost impossible to be a good NFL team without a very good NFL quarterback.
The starting quarterbacks in Buffalo for the next 20 years went like this:
- Todd Collins
- Alex Van Pelt
- Doug Flutie
- Rob Johnson
- Drew Bledsoe
- J. P. Losman
- Kelly Holcomb
- Trent Edwards
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Brian Brohm
- EJ Manuel
- Thad Lewis
- Jeff Tuel
- Kyle Orton
- Tyrod Taylor
- Matt Cassel
- Nathan Peterman
There isn’t a very good quarterback in the bunch although Flutie and Bledsoe got the closest. These two decades also included a number of head coaches who tried to fill the legendary Marv Levy’s headset. That list is just as sad.
- Wade Phillips
- Gregg Williams
- Mike Mularkey
- Dick Jauron
- Perry Fewell
- Chan Gailey
- Doug Marrone
- Rex Ryan
- Anthony Lynn
The Bills didn’t have a truly competent head coach or quarterback for two decades. Yet, the Bills fans remained as loyal and as passionate as ever. They cheered, they supported, they sang the Bills’ version of “Shout” after every (increasingly less frequent) touchdown, and they tailgated. Man, did they tailgate. It was under these conditions that the Bills Mafia was born.
A New Era
A few years into the era of the Bills Mafia, things started to happen. The beloved original Bills owner, Ralph Wilson, passed away in 2014 and the franchise was bought by Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Sabers hockey team. They kept the team in Western New York when other, more famous bidders (looking at you Bon Jovi and Trump) wanted to buy the team and move it.
At first, it was more of the same ol’ Bills but in 2017, the Pegula’s hired a sharp young GM from the Carolina Panthers named Brandon Beane and the Panthers’ Defensive Coordinator, Sean McDermott, as the Bills head coach. That year the Bills snapped an 18-year playoff drought and in this duo’s first draft together in 2018, they selected a big-armed, athletic quarterback from the unheralded football program at the University of Wyoming named Josh Allen.
It is now 2021 and during the weird, pandemic-filled, 2020 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills have become one of the best teams in football. Allen is an MVP candidate and, as the playoffs are starting, the Bills have the third-best odds to reach that fifth Super Bowl that has long-eluded the franchise.
The Reasons Bills Mafia is Important to Me
Somewhere between Kelly retiring and the first #BillsMafia tweet, I moved away from Upstate New York for good and relocated down to the New York City area. I quickly learned what people outside of the area thought about the place I grew up. Most conversations about my background went like this:
“Where you from?”
“Cool, what borough?”
No, Upstate New York. Rochester.
“Oh! Ok. It snows a lot up there, huh?”
“Are you a Bills fan?”
“Ooh, sorry about that.”
That’s what people know nationally about Western New York; snow and the Buffalo Bills. In the last few years though, those “ooh, sorry” sentiments have been replaced by more positive feedback. People like the plucky Bills, the rifle-armed QB, and of course, the Bills Mafia.
The Reasons Bills Mafia Needs to be Important to My Kids
My wife grew up in the suburbs north of NYC and is a rabid Yankees fan. I don’t really like the Bronx Bombers but I don’t have strong allegiances to a baseball team so I let her have that one. When it comes to football though, she and her dad, who my kids spend a lot of time with, are Raiders fans. That is where I had to put my foot down.
Raising my kids as Bills fans is important to me. It is why they have a Bills poster and a Bills pennant hanging in their room. It is why we have Bills ornaments on the Christmas tree and a Bills flag we hang outside for big games. It is why, when we hosted Thanksgiving 2019 for my family and the Bills played, all their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my side of the family (even my wife) dressed up for the holiday in our finest Bills gear.
Now that I no longer live in Bills Country, the team and the Bills Mafia fans have come to represent so much of what I liked about the people of Western New York and the whole experience of growing up there. These fans are plucky and fun and loyal and hard-working and they rarely turn down a bottle of Labatt Blue when it’s offered by a friend.
These are traits and values I want my kids to understand and embody even if I hope they never end up on YouTube jumping “threw” a flaming table.
I no longer live amongst the Bills Mafia and I’m not raising my kids around them either. The people down here are Giants fans who walk around with a smug superiority or Jets fans who have their own football pain and shame but carry it much differently than the Bills Mafia. These are fine people, but they’re not my people.
This is exactly the reason I need my kids to join the Bills Mafia though. It is the best way I know to give my kids some of the experience I had growing up even though we live 300+ miles away from where I used to call home. I’ve already passed on my genes, some of my traits (both good and bad) and I will continue to pass down my family’s traditions. If I can pass down my membership in the Bills Mafia though, I will really feel like I did my best to instill what is important to me in my children.
Go Bills. #BillsMafia