By Tim Schmitt
SEATTLE, Wash. — The groan was unmistakable, one you’d recognize at Dwyer’s Pub in NT, Danny Sheehan’s in Lockport or while sipping cabernet at Wine on Third in the Falls.
But as Jay Feely was rotating his own personal highlight reel by kicking a 61-yard field goal that smacked Bills’ fans in their collective jaw and tying Sunday’s game in the waning moments, I was sitting among two dozen downtrodden members of the Seattle Bills Backers group in the trendy neighborhood of South Lake Union.
Most of the screens at Jillian’s, where the group meets every Sunday for a dose of weekly torture, were tuned to the Seahawks and Patriots, and fittingly so since it was probably the day’s best game. But then there was my posse, a group I’d never met yet felt I shared so much with.
Among the Doug Flutie, Jeff Posey and Jack Kemp jerseys was Lockport native Andy Matteliano, co-president of the club, and the obvious mouthpiece for the bunch. When the offense first took the field, Matteliano got a group snicker by yelling “C’mon Fitz ... just be average!” He later bemoaned the use of Brad Smith, asked why the team neglects to run even though it bites off big chunks nearly each time it does, and joked about the defense finally playing up to its preseason accolades.
In other words, even though Matteliano left Western New York when he was in elementary school, he sounded just like whoever you sat through Sunday’s roller-coaster ride with.
Since I left the B-Lo about a month ago — my sights on a return move to Arizona, but taking my time and soaking up the marvel of this country along the way — the Bills have been the thing that connects me to home. After working for the Tonawanda News and Niagara Gazette for nearly a decade, attending Bills games in a professional capacity, I can swap painful stories with the best of ‘em. Still, I find time to tune in on Sundays, listen to the John Murphy Show via podcast, and flip through stories on all the local websites. The Bills dominate my conversations with family members, and I swapped plenty of texts with buddies who were at the game on Sunday.
You can try to run, but you can’t hide.
What’s made matters worse was that after years of sitting in the press box, worrying about the next day’s story, I prematurely bought season tickets this year and thought I’d be enjoying the fun first-hand. Instead, I pushed my trip back as far as possible, until after the home opener, then shoved off the next day.
Along my travels I found a Kenmore West and UB graduate wearing a Canisius College sweatshirt at a soccer game in Kalispell, Mont., and a Tonawanda native at the summit of a hike in the Cascade Mountains. Both shook their heads when I brought up home, stunned the Bills were off to such a slow start after finally spending a few bucks in the off-season.
I saw the same look on Sunday, when Feely drilled the 61-yarder. Doom. Gloom. A sorry-eyed look of despair we Buffalonians seem to be the only ones to understand to this depth.
A few minutes later, the Cardinals charged deep into Buffalo territory, and it was certain we’d be on the short end of the stick. It’s not like we didn’t expect it. The skinny guy in the Flutie jersey asked aloud why he’d been born a Bills fan. Matteliano essentially called for a clear-cut firing squad for the coaching staff. Hats were thrown and arms flailed in disgust.
I wasn’t home, but it sure felt like it.
That’s when the unthinkable happened — Feely pulled his second kick, boinking it off the upright. Jarius Byrd stepped in front a bad pass a few minutes later, and the Bills finished the day tied for first place in the AFC East. There were high-fives, hugs, and what’s probably unrealistic talk of the playoffs.
As the group streamed out, the sentiment was universal: Man, that was painful. See you next week.
Hey, maybe we never finally get that brass ring. Maybe we end up the Los Angeles Pistoleros. But if there’s a game, we’ll keep watching. All of us. Hoping the Jay Feelys of the world miss those kicks and we’ll have reason to smile on Monday.
You can take the kid out of Buffalo, but you can’t take the anguish ... er, I mean Buffalo ... out of the kid.
I’m not sure we’d have it any other way.
Tim Schmitt is the former sports editor of the Niagara Gazette and he’s currently writing a blog about his cross-country travels at www.mlcroadtrip.wordpress.com