Being unable to attend Bills playoff games due to pandemic pains Canadian fans

·7 min read

Once again, Jason Tangorra, Bill Kretz and Leslie Churchill will be glued to their respective television sets watching the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night.

And once again, their hearts will be in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The three Canadians are Buffalo season-ticket holders and they're reveling in the Bills' success this year. But they're unable to attend games in Western New York due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed the border to non-essential travel.

That couldn't come at a worse time for fans of an NFL team that hasn't tasted playoff success in decades.

Buffalo (13-3) finished atop the AFC East Division this season to secure the conference's No. 2 seed. That gave the Bills their third playoff berth since 2017. but the club's 27-24 victory last weekend over the Indianapolis Colts was its first post-season win since 1995.

It also was Buffalo's first home playoff contest since 1996.

On Saturday night, Buffalo hosts the Baltimore Ravens in second-round action. Like last week, New York State has approved admission for about 6,700 fans after not allowing any fans into the nearly 70,000-seat facility during the regular season. Fans must get a COVID-19 test at the stadium two to three days before the game and then have a negative result to be admitted.

Instead of sitting at Bills Stadium with his uncle — a native of nearby Jamestown, N.Y. — and four cousins, Tangorra will be watching on television with his wife and daughter. The 40-year-old real-estate agent has been a fan of the team since 1990 and a season-ticket holder for the past six years.

"My daughter is conflicted because her stepdad is a Bears fan," Tangorra said. "But my wife will cheer with me because she knows what we (Bills fans) have been through all these years so she has empathy.

"Oh what I wouldn't give to be there. The emotion you feel when you go to a game, especially when you're with family, it's comradery, it's friendship and it's culture. I remember when (Bills coach Sean McDermott) came in, he was saying, 'The process, the process, the process,' . . .and when you see the team grow and you're like, 'Wow, this is cool. Anything can happen if you put the work in, if you put the right process in place.' It's pretty amazing.'"

Tangorra isn't alone. Bills Mafia, the moniker for the club's rabid fanbase, is alive and well in Ontario and Quebec with Bills Backers chapters located throughout the provinces. It's estimated between 3,000 and 8,000 Canadians are season-ticket holders.

The stadium is located about a 30-minute drive away from the Peace Bridge, which connects Fort Erie, Ont., to Buffalo.

"I go back to 1990 but it's funny because I watched that Super Bowl (a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants when Scott Norwood missed a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds) but I wasn't fully invested until the following year," Tangorra said. "My uncle is from Jamestown, which is close to Fredonia and where the Bills used to hold their training camp.

"I'd go there and watch those and I can tell you I met every single player from 1991 to '92 though '93. It was a pretty amazing experience for a kid and so cool (because) you get to engage. It was one of the best experiences."

Kretz, 49, owns The Manhattan Bar and Grill in St. Catharines, Ont., and it would usually be very busy when Buffalo plays. Not only is Kretz a Bills season-ticket holder, he organizes bus trips to various events, including Buffalo football games

"The financial hurt as a business owner is crippling but then just as a life-long Bills fans it's devastating to not be able to be there," said Kretz, who''s been attending Bills games since the late 1980s. "It is affecting my fun as well as my business."

Kretz had arranged to attend a Bills home game in Las Vegas but, predictably, had to cancel those plans this year. He also took a serious look at all possible ways to make the trip to Orchard Park for Saturday's contest.

"There's a company doing helicopter trips to fly you over the border," he said. "It crossed my mind but I think this is a team that could go all the way.

"If they go to Tampa (site of this year's Super Bowl) I will seriously consider flying down and quarantining and doing all that . . . I'm that big of a fan."

Churchill, 38, operates R U Serious Tap and Grill in Guelph, Ont., with her sister, Kim, also a diehard Bills fan. Churchill has been a Buffalo season-ticket holder since 2015 but members of her family have had tickets for upwards of 30 years.

"Obviously we own a bar and it's an industry being hit the hardest but I feel like we're going to muscle that out and be OK," Churchill said. "On a personal note, the most difficult thing this year and what I miss the most is being in Buffalo.

"I drive my son (three-year-old Jack) to daycare every morning and just as the sun comes up I roll my windows down for the cold air to come in because it reminds me of getting to the border on gameday and I get emotional and am on the verge of tears and I'm hiding it from my son. There are certain routes I take where I can get WGR 550 (a Buffalo sports radio station) and I'm listening to it. This year that's been the biggest struggle and the thing that makes me the most sad."

What Churchill misses the most is the ambiance, and especially the people.

"Today I made sure my sister and I had our jerseys on because if it was a year ago and it was normal times, we'd be at the Econo Lodge on Mile Strip Road," she said. "We know everybody from (section) 315 to 312 and it's these people I now consider family who I haven't seen . . . and that's been very tough."

One of Churchill's fondest memories of attending a Bills game was Sept. 24, 2017 when fans threw her an impromptu baby shower.

"It was the game against Denver and I was eight months pregnant and it was the hottest game we had in history there," she said. "That afternoon I was sitting there in the shade and friend after friend was showing up and they threw me a baby shower in the parking lot.

"It makes me so emotional now just to think about it because these are the people that are your family. Realistically you only spend so many hours with them but you have this bond and love and they share this passion with you. I go to Buffalo for these games and these weekends and I feel the most at home more than anywhere else I can be."

The road to the Super Bowl is a difficult one for Buffalo. Baltimore finished with an 11-5 record this season and looming for Saturday's winner could be a road contest against the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs, who posted a league-best 14-2 record this season and will face Cleveland (11-5) on Sunday.

"Kansas City is a very good team," Tangorra said. "(But) I think Buffalo can win the Super Bowl, I really do.

"I think when you have someone as dynamic and unmeasurable as Allen (Buffalo starting quarterback Josh Allen), I think the sky is the limit. I think the guy can put the team on his back, much like Lamar Jackson of Baltimore. That's no different, two dynamic players."

If the Bills and Chiefs both win to set up an AFC title showdown in Kansas City, Tangorra said he'll take a look at the logistics of attending — Canadians still can fly out of the country, though the government is recommending against travel. However, with Ontario enacting a stay-at-home order this week, he doesn't like his chances.

"Am I going to look into it? Yes," he said. "Do I have any hopes for it? No.

"But I'm going to look into it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press