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Bills at the Arena

As you might have heard, I've been away from the News for the past 10 days to be with my mother, who is gravely ill with cancer in my hometown of Newport, R.I. On Sunday, I decided to get away for a few hours to watch the Bills play Arizona. So I recruited my dear friend, Charlie Burns, to help me connect with the one Rhode Island chapter of the Bills Backers club.

The R.I. chapter, which is about 100 strong, meets these days at the Arena Bar and Grill in Cranston, a town just south of Providence. They had been congregating at a place called "Balls", but that place recently closed. So owner Anthony Arena was kind enough to allow the Bills Backers to watch games in his bar, which has about a dozen TVs and caters to fans of various NFL teams. We got there in about half an hour and arrived just after the opening kickoff.

The Bills fans sit at a bunch of tables near the door. Arena provided a large-screen TV on the wall, between the two dart boards. This is Patriots country, of course, and the majority of the fans gather around the rectangular bar, cheering for the Pats -- who were also playing out West at 4 p.m. on Sunday. As you might imagine, the Bills fans cheered whenever Seattle had any success against the Pats. I wonder if any ugliness might occur during the day. But it was an older crowd and there were no incidents. Certainly more sedate than, say, a crowd at the Ralph. 

"It's OK here," said Joe Burgess, a Silver Creek native who now resides in Rhode Island. "At the other place, those guys were nasty."

Burgess said his father still lives in Hamburg and is a big Bills fan. "I'm sure he's watching the game right now," he said. "He gets ticked off when they black it out."

Phil Depaolo, the president of the R.I. chapter, was not at the bar. His wife, Pam, said he's recovering from spinal surgery. I thought that was a bad omen. But Pam was optimistic. She brings a little windup "toga" bear to the bar. It plays the "Shout" song when the Bills score. You have to hold it up close to your ear to hear it, but they pass it around to the Bills fans to hear.

I stood with a group of Western New Yorkers who had attended Roger Williams College here and remain staunch Bills fans. One of them had grim memories of the Dallas game on Monday night five years ago.  When the Cardinals lined up for a game-tying 61-yard field goal, the name "Nick Folk" came up prominently. They remembered sipping beers in stunned silence when the Cowboys won that game.

But Bills fans, as fatalistic as they might be, never lose hope. The Bills won in overtime. The Patriots blew a lead to the Seahawks and lost. Suddenly, the Bills were in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC East. The Rhode Island Bills Backers were high-fiving and shouting as the Pats fans sat silent.

During the game, Arena was selling raffle tickets. The winner got two tickets to the Bills game at New England early next month. I told him I didn't need to enter. I'd have a press pass to the game. Until I had a chance to spend an afternoon with the Bills Backers, I didn't know how much I'd missed it.


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