It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
In the 1980s, the city of Buffalo was a blue collar town a couple of decades past its time. There were still factories and manufacturing jobs, but there was also a lot of that telltale sign of decay that gives the Rust Belt its name.
Buffalo was also very much a hockey town. Every kid played. Even if it wasn’t on ice, you played in the street. Every garage had a garbage can full of hockey sticks in it.
Our street was like that, with pickup games of street hockey almost every single day. The goals were built of PVC with pieces of net strung over them. Every time a car came down the street, the first kid to notice it would yell, “Car!” and whoever was nearest to the goals would pick them up and haul them to the side while the car passed through.
Our street was also unique, because we had two NHL players who lived on it. Mike Ramsey played for the Sabres throughout the ‘80s. His roommate was Lindy Ruff, who also played for the Sabres for most of that decade.
Having professional hockey players as neighbors as a kid was an amazing experience. Of course you never saw them much during the hockey season in the winter, but they were around quite a bit in the summer. Going into their garage was the equivalent of walking into a candy store. They had an incredible collection of hockey sticks, and they graciously made sure that every kid got to take home at least one. They also had a rocking chair made out of hockey sticks, which only ever happens when you’re a pro. Or at least that’s how it felt.
Aside from their graciousness with the neighborhood kids, they mostly kept to themselves. Their training regimen included skating up and down the streets on hot summer days. They didn’t have rollerblades, because rollerblades didn’t exist yet. What they had were hockey skates with the blades removed and in-line wheels mounted on the bottom. Short shorts were in fashion in those days, and you’ve never seen a set of quadriceps until you’ve seen an NHL player fly down the street on a hot summer day on what looked like hockey skates. Talk about Quadzilla.
But then, in 1986, our neighborhood got even cooler. A few blocks away from the house where the hockey players lived, a guy named Jim Kelly moved in just in time to start his NFL career playing for the Bills.
Wait, so NHL players in one house, an NFL quarterback in another? So this was some kind of fancy, upscale neighborhood, right? The kind where pro athletes live? Let me guess, there was a rock star or two on the next block?
Not at all. It was just your average middle-class neighborhood. The kind of place where regular people lived. That was what was so amazing about it. Do today’s professional athletes live in regular neighborhoods and mingle with the kids on their block? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine.
What was it like living down the street from Jim Kelly? It was very cool, though interactions were limited, to say the least. Of course we went trick or treating at his house, and he was more than gracious and accommodating. He didn’t let us inside, but there were several other players either hanging out or living there with him. He had a bowl of candy the size of a bathtub, not that any of us cared about that. We were just in awe to have a player you watched on television standing there in front of you.
What was it like being a Buffalo Bills fan during that era? It was one of the best NFL teams of all time, but also the most star-crossed. If you’re not up on your history, the Bills are the only team to go to the Super Bowl four years in a row, from 1991-1994. Needless to say, they lost every single one.
How do you go to the Super Bowl and lose, four years in a row? Some of us will be asking ourselves that question for the rest of our lives. The most frustrating part is that during the regular season, we were easily the best team in the NFL. Our offense was incredible. Our defense was incredible. There are too many great players to name, but here are a few: Jim Kelly. Thurman Thomas. Bruce Smith. Andre Reed.
Every year looked like they were going to have a chance to rewrite history. And then history just got worse and worse.
There were probably lots of fans who would have preferred to just have a bad team to root for, rather than one that got your hopes up each year, only to have them crushed in the worst possible way.
Arguably, the Buffalo Bills have been bad ever since that era. They’ve made the playoffs a few times in the past thirty years but always as a wildcard team. With the exception of 1995, they’ve always lost that first playoff game.
Are there any lessons to be drawn from being a Bills fan? Not really. Sports is like life. It can be incredibly exhilarating, but also incredibly heartbreaking. You have to just try and not let the bad experiences affect your ability to appreciate the good ones. I guess it’s also perhaps fitting that it was Buffalo that had to have such highs and lows. The people of Buffalo are used to six feet of snow in winter and sticky summers full of mosquitoes. A lesser place and a lesser people would have crumbled under such challenges.