There is arguably no franchise more closely associated with finishing in second place than the Buffalo Bills. Four straight Super Bowl appearances and four consecutive losses on the world’s biggest stage will do that. However, on any given Sunday, you won’t find fans crying into their beers while they tailgate in the parking lot outside Ralph Wilson Stadium. No, those diehards, oftentimes referred to as Bills Backers, are a special breed. They brush off the crushing defeats the same way they brave the Western New York cold. No matter the odds stacked against them, they march forward.
The Bills entered the world of professional football as an AFL franchise in 1960. In their first three seasons of competitive play, the club upped its win total by one each year. This incremental success continued with the arrival of quarterback Jack Kemp, who came to town during the ‘62 campaign. Already a Pro Bowl passer but still years away from becoming a United States congressman, Kemp led Buffalo to an AFL championship in ‘64. The following year, he’d take home Associated Press Player of the Year honors while guiding the Bills to a second title. In ‘66, the club advanced to the finals yet again but lost the contest, and as a result, they fell short of battling in the first-ever Super Bowl.
Over the course of the next five seasons, the team slid backwards and accumulated a mere 13 victories during the span. Fans were cautiously optimistic, though, when the club selected running back Orenthal James Simpson with the top pick in the ‘69 draft. The Heisman Trophy winner didn’t break out of the gates right away, but it wasn’t long before Backers were exclaiming, “The Juice is loose!” In ‘72, he ran for 1,251 yards and six scores, and then smashed those numbers the following year when he galloped for 2,003 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Despite Simpson’s all-pro performances, the Bills only booked one trip to the playoffs in the ‘70s.
Buffalo experienced a renaissance of sorts soon after Marv Levy assumed head coaching duties in ‘86. Under Levy’s watch, the Bills captured the AFC East banner six times, and of course, marched to four straight Super Bowls. Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wideout Andre Reed were a strong nucleus, but their combined powers just weren’t enough to secure the Lombardi Trophy.
At Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is named in tribute to the franchise’s original owner, you’ll see throngs of fans decked out in #12 jerseys, but it’s not a Twelfth Man thing like in Seattle. In Buffalo, it’s to honor Hall of Fame passer Jim Kelly, whose number was retired by the club in 2001. The idea is roughly the same, though. Supporting the Bills isn’t just about pledging allegiance to a football team; it’s about being a part of a family. A rowdy, excitable family who doesn’t give up or back down, no matter what.