ORCHARD PARK — For 17 weeks, Bills Stadium sat virtually empty, an eerie sight and feeling for one of the best fan bases in all of sports.
Because of New York State COVID-19 guidelines, the fourth-oldest stadium in the entire National Football League, one that holds 72,000 diehard fans, was not allowed visitors. Through eight regular season home games, only players, coaches, select team personnel and some media were granted permission to One Bills Drive.
What made matters worse for the ‘Bills Mafia’ is that the team that 2020 has produced is the best since the glory days of the early 1990s. The Bills won their first AFC East title since 1995, ending the two-decade run for the New England Patriots, while the team sports a 13-3 record heading into the postseason, good enough for the No. 2 seed in the AFC behind only defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City. On December 30, though, as somewhat of a late Christmas present, Bills fans got what they had been hoping for since early September.
The day before New Years Eve, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that fans will be allowed into Bills Stadium for the postseason games — which could be at least as many as two with a win this week against Indianapolis — albeit in a limited capacity.
“I feel the mood,” Cuomo said in a press conference last week. “It’s been a long time. They’ve captured an atmosphere and mood that’s been infectious. But we have to take this seriously.”
On Saturday, 6,700 Buffalo fans will be permitted into the seats, and a number of local fans made the cut, but it was certainly quite the process from the start.
Three of those local fans leading the way are Chad Bernard, Dan Dickens and Mike Anderson, longtime Bills supporters and longtime season-ticket holders — all Bills fans in their own unique ways.
The process of dispersing tickets for this weekend’s game came both from seniority — how long you have been a season-ticket holder — and if you kept your money for season tickets in your account throughout this season, those fans would be given first rights to tickets.
Dickens — who is the head boys basketball coach and softball coach at Cal-Mum — has been a season-ticket holder since 1994 when he bought them for just $210 and he was able to secure a pair of tickets on New Year’s Day, after the allotment of four-person ‘pods’ were sold out. Dickens’ seats will be just across the aisle from his normal seats and this, by far, won’t be his first time at a Bills playoff game.
“My first playoff game was the comeback game (against the Houston Oilers), during the 1992 season (93 playoffs),” Dickens said. “The following season I went to half the games but also the divisional title game against Oakland (won 29-23 by the Bills) and the AFC Championship (when the Bills beat Kansas City to go to their fourth straight Super Bowl),” Dickens said. “My first season of season tickets the Bills beat the Dolphins 37-22. The next season Buffalo hosted Jacksonville and I did not go since I had a conflict and just figured we would be having more home playoff games in the upcoming seasons ... boy was I wrong.”
Anderson, who is the head softball coach at Oakfield-Alabama, also grabbed his tickets on New Year’s morning.
“When I logged on and bought the tickets it was like being a kid waking up on Christmas morning,” Anderson said.
Technically only a season-ticket holder for four years, Anderson’s seniority came from his father being a long-time holder, first getting season tickets in 1990. Anderson was born in 1992.
“Growing up and going to Bills games with Dad was always a highlight of Sundays during football season,” Anderson said. “As I got older Dad slowly scaled back on how many times he went each year. I continued to go game after game.”
After Anderson went to college in 2010, his father decided to stop attending the games, but the tickets were kept in his name with Anderson paying the bill and continuing to attend.
In 2016 the season tickets were officially transferred to his name, allowing him to maintain his seniority, which now is at three decades.
Anderson has never attended a playoff game at Bills Stadium, but he knows this Saturday will be special.
“I missed or don’t remember a lot of the good years with Kelly. But I’ve always heard stories from my family and friends about what the stadium is like during playoff games,” Anderson said. “What makes going this year so special is that I actually get to experience a playoff type of atmosphere. I understand that this year will be different based on the number of fans that they are allowing in, but now instead of listening to stories and imagining myself there, now I actually physically get to be there and experience it for myself.”
Dickens echoes the fact that Saturday is going to be a special day.
“It has been such a long time since having a home game and with them having such an outstanding record and close to the season it is going to be a different but special place to be Saturday,” Dickens said. “It has been a change (not being able to attend games this year) but we have also enjoyed being able to see everything that happens on TV. You miss out on some stuff when at the games but the atmosphere at the stadium when it is sold out and it is rocking is awesome.”
Bernard has been a season-ticket holder for 25 years and would always go to the games with his parents — “I fell in love with it and it’s a part of me,” he said.
Not being able to go to the games has been difficult for Bernard, who felt the difference from the first drive of the season.
“I forgot what it looked like watching it on TV,” he said. “I remember opening day when we played the Jets and there was no noise. I envisioned being in our seats and just how raucous and electric the stadium would have been when the opposing offense had its first drive. The quarterback wouldn’t be able to hear, the players wouldn’t be able to hear. Its such a huge advantage for the Bills because our fans are so crazy. I envisioned just how crazy it would have been.”
Unlike Dickens and Anderson, Bernard was at Buffalo’s last home playoff game, a 30-27 loss to Jacksonville in 1996, legendary quarterback Jim Kelly’s last NFL game. To him, the capability of being able to attend on Saturday is certainly something he won’t forget.
“I’m glad we lucked out and were able to get some tickets,” Bernard said. “It’s definitely going to be different. I miss the stadium, I miss the games and we took a lot things for granted. So I’m excited.”
Obviously, things are going to be different at the stadium against the Colts.
The coronavirus pandemic is still in full force, with numbers growing by the day — especially in Western New York — and numerous measures and precautions have been put in place for the limited number of spectators being allowed to attend.
All 6,700 fans are requited to provide a negative COVID-19 test, while tailgating will not be allowed on the grounds at One Bills Drive. Plenty of other protocols will be in place inside the stadium as well. However, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for anyone who will have the privilege to attend.
“Even during the pandemic I feel comfortable to attend the Wild Card game. When it was announced that fans were going to be allowed at the playoff games I immediately began reading the procedures and the FAQ pages that the Bills put out,” Anderson said. “Everyone involved who made the decision for fans to attend games thought everything through. With all the procedures and steps you have to take before, during, and after the game I feel safe to attend the game. The pandemic is still on everyone’s mind, however the Bills have answered any and all questions I’ve ever had and really made me feel confident that it’s safe to attend.”
With the Bills having as good a shot to reach the Super Bowl this season as anyone, Dickens certainly wasn’t going to miss his chance to see yet another playoff game in Orchard Park.
“As long as social distancing and other rules are followed I don’t feel as if I am at any greater risk than if I go shopping at the store, and with the opportunity to go we were not passing it up,” Dickens added.
For Bernard, he will be at the opposite side of the stadium; usually seated by the tunnel in the endzone, his seats for Saturday will be on the other end of the field, under the scoreboard. However, he doesn’t care. This team and this season has a unique feel to it.
“It reminds me a lot of the old days, the glory days,” Bernard said. “Just how explosive they are, up and down the field, just how dominant they are playing. For the whole fan base, its exciting. They’re winning games that in years past they would have lost. They’re closing the deal and its really exciting. I love the coach, I love the GM, I love the guys making the decisions. They are very focused. Trust the process. I didn’t like it in the beginning but it didn’t take long.”
For Dickens, the roster has a decidedly different feel to it than in years past. Whether it be GM Brandon Beane, head coach Sean McDermott, or the veteran leadership or QB leadership from Allen, there is certainly something to get behind with this group of guys.
“They have a great group of players who are high character and easy to root for,” Dickens said. “They interact with the fanbase and play extremely hard and as a team. Buffalo has been dying to have the right leadership and quarterback play and now that we have it you see the difference it makes on the field”
Even with the No. 2 seed and at least two home playoffs games to their name if they topple the Colts, this Bills team still has something to prove. Obviously they are good, but how good are they?
Anderson has sensed this all season and feels that this group is the right one to tackle all the negativity that could surround it.
“With all the doubts from other fan bases and the national media, the Bills don’t act surprised. They act as if this is all according to plan and that this is what they expected to be,” Anderson said. “They don’t try to be cocky and talk trash to anyone, they are all extremely humble and are true team players. I think that this is a testament to the culture that both McDermott and Beane have built over their time in Buffalo. Before McDermott and Beane, while watching the games it was almost like you were waiting for something bad to happen and they find a way to lose or not stay competitive. This season has completely changed that mentality and now no matter the game, situation, or play, I have the utmost confidence in our entire roster to come out on top.”
And being a Bills fan, even in the tough years, isn’t something that just goes away because of the struggles.
Those downtrodden years just make this season mean that much more.
“You’ve got to ‘BILLieve,” Bernard said. “It’s a part of me. They can go another 25 years and not make the playoffs and I’d still get season tickets and still be all in. It’s a part of my DNA.”
The Bills and Colts kick off at 1 p.m. on Saturday.