Once more to the stadium: Chiefs, Bills and finding yourself in fandom

Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, NFL Playoffs

What does this AFC Championship game mean to someone who came of age as a Kansas City Chiefs fan in a Buffalo Bills family?

I remember the first time I saw the jacket. It was early fall 1993. I was wandering through Laux Sporting Goods at the mall with some friends and there it was, so pristine, hanging high on the wall like a beacon calling me home. The Kansas City Chiefs Starter jacket was all black with the arrow logo splashed across the back in white and red. I stared at it longingly. I wanted it. Bad.

As soon as I got home, I calculated how many weeks of collecting money from my paper route I’d need to have enough money for the jacket — $180 in total. Then I began saving up. A month later, I strutted back into Laux with $200 in my pocket and my father in tow. I proudly pointed to the jacket, still there where I left it hanging on the wall, and watched as an employee used a long pole to get it down for me. The next day, I wore it to school and didn’t take it off. It was the first big purchase I ever made in my life.

It’s hard not to think about that jacket now.

The last time the Buffalo Bills played the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game was in January 1994 at what was then called Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. It was only a few months after I had bought my Starter jacket and I desperately wanted to wear it and every other stitch of Kansas City Chiefs clothing that I owned to the game. My father didn’t think it was a good idea and said no. He was afraid I’d be razzed and harassed, and I don’t blame him. But at the time I was a little bitter about it. There I was, sitting in the stands of what was the biggest and most important NFL game of my lifetime, surrounded by rabid Bills fans, and my football heart was beating for the opposing team. It’s not that I didn’t want the Bills to win, it’s that I didn’t want either team to lose. I had been born and bred in Buffalo, my father had season tickets for years. Being a Bills fan was in my blood. But that day I felt like a stranger in the crowd, an imposter in my hometown.

Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Growing up, my two brothers and I had various outlets of entertainment. We played sports, board games, wrestled, watched cartoons, etc. We always had the latest game console that was available. First, it was Atari, then Nintendo, then PlayStation — you get the idea. When Tecmo Super Bowl, a football game for Nintendo, reached the height of its popularity, we played it endlessly. My twin brother and I would get off the bus from school and he’d chirp in my ear all the way from the corner of the street to our front steps, saying I couldn’t beat him and that was I afraid to play him, blah, blah, blah. He’d rile me up so much that by the time we turned the key in the lock, I’d throw my book bag down in the foyer and yell, “OKAY, let’s GO!” No matter how many times we played against each other, we were always the same teams. He would be the Atlanta Falcons (he was a big Deion Sanders fan at the time) and I would be the Chiefs.

At first, I gravitated to the Chiefs because they were one of the better teams in the game. With the “Nigerian Nightmare,” Christian Okoye as the running back, I’d plow over defenses with ease. The defense, with Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith leading the pack, crushed and sacked quarterbacks in seconds. It wasn’t so much about the team as it was about beating my brothers. But then, it changed. We played so much, I began to get familiar with the roster. Then I started paying attention to the team in real life. I watched Chiefs highlights on SportsCenter and NFL Primetime with as much rapt attention as I did with the Bills. I put together a folder of article clippings on the team and players I found in The Buffalo News and Sports Illustrated. I was no longer marveling over Bruce Smith, but Neil Smith instead. Derrick Thomas, not Thurman Thomas, became my favorite player. I kept track of team stats, collected player cards (I still have them) and knew everything about the team inside and out. I even dreamed of going to Arrowhead Stadium for a game. I became a true Chiefs fan in every sense of the word, following them season after season.

So, in 1993, when the Chiefs were doing well and I had just purchased my Starter jacket, I was feeling pretty damn good. Fast forward to January and the AFC Championship Game and I found myself caught in between two worlds — the team I grew up loving and the team I had come to love on my own. It was a strange feeling, rooting for both sides. When the Bills defense slammed then Chiefs quarterback (the legendary) Joe Montana to the ground and knocked him out for the rest of the game, I was devastated. And yet, every time the Bills scored I felt a sense of relief. When the final score flashed on the scoreboard 30 – 13, I wasn’t thrilled. I wasn’t disappointed, either. I was . . . meh. But as Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” reverberated through the stadium and 76,000 strong began to sing along (Super Bowl XXVII was in Atlanta, Georgia that year), I joined in.

Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Not even a year after I had bought the Chiefs Starter jacket, the zipper broke. I took it back to Laux to exchange it but they didn’t have another one just like it. I ended up getting a different one, but it wasn’t the same. I still fervently followed the Chiefs for the rest of my teenage years. When I was 16, my mother bought me a Chiefs winter blanket for Christmas. I brought it with me to college and it followed me wherever I went/lived from that point on. At 42, I still have it. It’s in our finished basement, on the couch. And it’s still as thick and as comfy as when I first got it. It was the only Kansas City Chiefs thing I owned for many years, until last February when I bought a Chiefs sweatshirt ahead of Super Bowl LIV.

My fandom for the Chiefs peaked at 18 and then life as a young adult took my attention in a variety of directions instead. During and shortly after college, I barely paid attention to football at all. The Bills had become a shell of their former selves and I wasn’t home to share in my father’s frustration. Before my parents relocated to Cumming, Georgia in the summer of 2006, I was going through some old boxes in my room and I found my old folder of Chiefs newspaper clippings in the closet. I had written the names of every player on the 1993 roster across the front. On the back, there was a picture of Derrick Thomas from a magazine advertisement that I had glued on. Thomas died not long after a car crash in February 2000. I was a senior in college at the time and when I heard the news, I cried.

Somewhere down the line, maybe 2007, I began to reinvest myself in the Bills. They were still limping along, trying to turn things around, get the right coach and general manager, find their franchise quarterback and claw their way out of a deepening hold of futility. It was mediocre season after mediocre season, and the monotony was so bad that Bills fans started jumping through burning tables just to have something to do and talk about. Five or six years later, my father and I started a new tradition. He’d fly back to Buffalo from Atlanta for the Bills home opener and spend the weekend. I eventually bought season tickets, realizing the connection I had with Buffalo and with the Bills never fully went away. It was just dormant for a while.

Perhaps it’s serendipitous that the Bills and Chiefs are meeting once again in the AFC Championship Game, 27 years after the fact. It feels as if things have come full circle. Back in 1993, I was carving out my own identity as a football fan, reaching beyond the boundary of Buffalo and exploring my connection to a different sports team, in a different city I had never been to. It’s what we do as adolescents — we try out things, separate ourselves from our families’ traditions and the home we grew up in so that we can figure out who we are on our own.

It’s been a long journey of fandom since I bought that jacket. When I think about it now, I can feel a flicker of nostalgia. Still, even if the zipper hadn’t broken, I would have grown out of it. Being a Bills fan is something you don’t outgrow. And if I was able to be in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium for the 2021 AFC Championship Game with my father by my side, I’d proudly wear every single article of Bills clothing that I own. I’m not torn this time around. I know who I’m rooting for and who I want to win without a second thought. As I said before, the Bills are in my blood. There’s no getting around that. I will always have a soft spot for the Chiefs, and I was happy they won the Super Bowl last year. But it didn’t carry the same weight.

If the Bills win the Super Bowl, I won’t just be happy. I’ll probably cry.

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