By: Tim LaDuca
The Buffalo Bills were in position to win the game. All the team needed was one last field goal, and the game would be over. The field goal unit took the field as anxious Bills fans sat in the stands, envisioning the victory.
The ball was snapped, the hold was perfect, the kick went up and… “no good!” The ball did not go through the uprights, and the Buffalo Bills were losers once again. As the players were leaving the stadium, the kicker who missed the field goal was mugged by a trio of angry Bills fans. The kicker, Gerald Booth Lusteg, told police officers, “I deserved it,” after missing the 23-yeard field goal that would have beaten the San Diego Chargers in 1966. Instead, the game ended in a tie.
Over 24 years later, in 1991, the Bills were in a similar position, but the stakes were much higher. After battling the New York Giants for 59 minutes and 52 second, the Bills were once again a field goal away from victory. This time, a 47-yard field goal would determine the outcome of Super Bowl XXV. Scott Norwood, the placekicker for the Bills, shrugged his shoulders as he lined up the biggest kick of his life. Giants players looked on helplessly from the sideline and Bills players held hands for good luck. Norwood had enough power on the kick, but the ball sailed end-over-end, wide right of the goal posts. Giants fans celebrated Norwood’s mishap and their Super Bowl victory. Buffalo players had to somberly make the procession off the field and back to the state of New York and the city of Buffalo. What Bills fans did upon the team’s arrival to Buffalo speaks volumes about the city, the citizens of Buffalo, and their civic pride.
A Buffalo News file photo from Monday, January 28, 1991 shows a massive crowd in front of the Buffalo Town Hall at Niagara Square. Instead of protesting the team’s loss or wallowing in defeat, the city of Buffalo revealed how that infamous missed kick solidified Buffalo as a national sports hotspot. Norwood’s missed kick had substantial effects on the city both locally and nationally, shaping how the citizens of Buffalo viewed themselves and how the national media viewed the city. The 1990 season and the 1991 Super Bowl had positive financial effects on the city as well. The missed field goal helped turn the city around in several ways, putting an amazing amount of civic pride on display. The effects of that field goal are still relevant today among Bills fans and other citizens of Buffalo. The Bills, from the moment of the missed kick, unleashed Buffalo’s civic citizenship that is manifested today through support, charity, and a sense of community like nowhere else among cities with or without NFL franchises.
The Buffalo Bills became an official franchise in 1959 and won two AFL championships prior to the Super Bowl Era (1966-present) in 1964 and 1965. In the next season, the Bills ended up one game short of the inaugural Super Bowl. They would not reach the big game for 25 years, until that fateful night on January 28, 1991, when Bills fans around the world, including my grandfather, Robert LaDuca, watched anxiously. After Norwood missed that kick, the missed kick weighed heavily on the fans. Despite the overarching civic pride and citizenship that appeared after the missed kick, there still were some negatives that hung around Bills fans afterward.
My grandfather (“Gramps,” as a I call him) recalls holding hands with the people around him at the game before the kick as he sat in Tampa Stadium in Florida. Out of superstition, Gramps refuses to hold hands before any important field goals, even 23 years later. In 2014, the quarterback Kyle Orton and the Bills drove down the field during the late seconds of a Week 5 matchup with the Detroit Lions and set up the game-winning kick for Dan Carpenter, the placekicker for the Bills that season. As Carpenter lined up the 58-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game, my cousin, Thomas LaDuca, suggested we hold hands as a family and as Bills fans to somehow help will the ball through the uprights. Quickly, Gramps interjected and said something along the lines of, “no holding hands; the last time I held hands before a game-winning field goal, we lost the Super Bowl.”
The missed kick clearly left negative, indelible marks on Bills fans around the world, especially after the Bills would go on to lose three more Super Bowls, which made them the only NFL team to ever make it to the “Big Game” four consecutive times and also the only team to ever lose four consecutive Super Bowls. People in Buffalo, such as Rick Howcroft, a Buffalo resident, were instantly affected by the kick. “At first I thought the kick was good, but when they said, ‘it’s wide right!’…the following days in school were torture listening to all the Giants fans and their Norwood jokes.” Not only did kids at school had to deal with the negative stigma that became attached with the Bills after Super Bowl XXV, but the negativity attached to the Bills and Buffalo spread outside the city limits as well.
The national media in the early 90s saw Buffalo as the “Super Bowl Killers,” according to beat writer, Sal Maiorana, who has been covering the team since 1991. He said people were sick and tired of seeing Buffalo in the Super Bowl because they ruined the game by consistently losing. Buffalo was outscored 139-73 across their four Super Bowl appearances. Besides the Super Bowl XXV where the Bills lost by one point, their opponents won each of the last three Super Bowl by at least two touchdowns. According to Maiorana, the Bills effectively ruined one of the most cherished sporting events in the world, four years in a row.
The Bills were even unjustly blamed for some national tragedies because of their failure and the city’s reputation. Timothy McVeigh was a Lockport, New York native and grew up as a Bills fan. According to Politico, an online magazine, McVeigh wagered $1,000 on the Bills before Super Bowl XXVII. The Bills lost their third consecutive Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys, and McVeigh lost his money. Three weeks later, he witnessed an incident between militants in Waco, Texas and the US government. After the US government bombed the group of militants, and according to Politico, McVeigh went to seek revenge and bombed the state government building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995. The author of this article, Sam Anderson, is very careful to qualify his article.
He wrote, “I am not saying that Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995 because the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row…such a claim would be absurd. Human motives are incalculably complex. But that Buffalo heartbreak was one of the many shadows that fell across McVeigh’s life between his unstable childhood and his perpetration of mass murder in Oklahoma City.”
Despite this, Anderson wrote an article that put a correlation between the Bills and terrorism. Anderson may not have meant to show a direct cause and effect relationship between the Bills and terrorism, but by publishing the article, he at least acknowledged that there could be. He also hints that if the Bills won Super Bowl XXV or made the field goal and won the game in 1991, McVeigh could have gone in a different direction, in turn saving the lives of over a hundred innocent Americans in 1995. This article shows that the national media thinks the missed field goal and the subsequent Super Bowl losses had a negative affect on Buffalo and the country.
The loss tacked another cruel punchline to the end of the joke that was Buffalo—and the joke was already long enough. This negative attention festered in the media, especially when the Chicago Tribune, in 1991, remained people how “outsiders joke about the midwinter blizzards that blanket Buffalo and call it the armpit of the nation.” Other national media writers recognized the City of Good Neighbors as “snow-buried, Rust Belt, shitty old Buffalo—a paragon of uncool, edge-of-the-map, glamourless American suffering, where the old industrial jobs had long ago dried up and which tourists had absolutely zero reasons ever to visit.”
Without Buffalo making any noise on the football field or demanding attention from the rest of the country for its industry, people resorted to the last thing they knew about Buffalo. It was cold. There were no jobs. There was nothing to do there besides wallow in self-pity and shovel the driveway of snow. Buffalo was so notoriously unappealing, it almost prevented Jim Kelly from coming to Buffalo.
There is no way to know for certain if the Bills would have made it to four consecutive Super Bowls without Jim Kelly. Fan favorite Frank Reich did lead the Bills to a historic comeback game against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game, but Jim Kelly’s legacy in Buffalo is still indelible. In 1990, on the path to the Super Bowl, Jim Kelly led the NFL in completion percentage (63.3%), quarterback ranting (101.2), and touchdown percentage (6.9%). However, Jim Kelly almost did not end up in Buffalo, despite being drafted by the team in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. “Buffalo would have two chances (twelfth and fourteenth), and I was praying they would pass on me both times. Everything I had heard about the team and the city was negative,” Kelly wrote. He preferred to play football in another football league (the United States Football Leauge), and he did. He played for Houston Gamblers for three seasons before taking a snap under center for the Buffalo Bills. At the time, who could blame Kelly for playing in Houston instead of Buffalo? The negative portrayal of Buffalo at the time almost derailed Buffalo’s Super Bowl future.
Effects on The City of Buffalo
Jim Kelly and others nationwide did not give Buffalo the time of day. The citizens needed a chance to show off Buffalo’s true character and reveal all the civic pride pent up from the shores of Lake Erie to places like Hamburg, Tonawanda, and Cheektowaga. Bills players like Kelly, Bruce Smith, and Scott Norwood finally gave Buffalo the chance to exhibit their pride after Super Bowl XXV. While some news outlets ignored the people of Buffalo and kept piling on after the missed field goal, other local and nationwide news outlets noticed something different about Buffalo and the way the citizens handled the loss, and their reaction made Buffalo special because the fans rallied around the team and city in a time of loss, revealing their civic citizenship.
In Buffalo, the missed kick became an opening for residents to develop and show off their civic citizenship. Of course, one of the most memorable things that occurred immediately after the game was the celebration in Niagara Square. Bills fans celebrated their team despite a loss. This goes a long way to exhibit the civic pride Buffalonians had, especially when juxtaposed to the lackluster celebration in New York City for the Giants after they won the Super Bowl in 1991. The Giants did not receive a parade to celebrate their Super Bowl victory. The Giants were greeted by fans at the airport, but, according to a UPI article from 1991, “whether the team enjoys a big celebration of any kind this year remains to be seen. Ed Croke, the club’s public relations director, cited the inappropriateness of such festivities considering war in the Persian Gulf. ‘It’s my understanding everything has been canceled,’ he said.” This was not the first time the Giants clashed with New York City. In 1987, the Giants won the Super Bowl but, then-Mayor Ed Koch refused to celebrate a championship for a team that does not play in New York City. Where there was animosity for the winning team of Super Bowl XXV, the losing city was still able to rally around their team and display civic pride. In the largest city in the United States, there was a rift between the city and their championship-winning football team. In Buffalo, the loss and the kick missed wide-right brought the city and the team closer than ever.
This civic pride did not go unnoticed by all of the local and nationwide media. In the Chicago Tribune, people read about Buffalo’s celebration after the loss. Sadie Hedgeman, who lived in Buffalo, told the Chicago Tribune how “the team unified our town. People who wouldn’t normally speak to you started speaking; there was a sense of family.” The sense of family was on display each year after that missed kick, including a family in Penfield, New York. Democrat & Chronicle reported how Pierre Héroux still has a bottle of champagne from 1991. He began opening the bottle as Norwood lined up the would-be winning kick. Once the ball sailed wide right, Héroux stopped opening the celebratory drink, and refuses to finish opening it until the Bills win the Super Bowl. Until then, he hosts Bills parties at his house for family and neighbors, rallying around the champagne, eager to open it one day. A family-atmosphere was strengthened for fan around the Bills and the missed kick created a closer community of Bills fans. The fan comradery was not the only institution strengthened by the missed kick. The city became unified and overcame the negative description they had inherited after years of economic decline and tons of snowfall.
The national media was finally starting to pay attention to Buffalo, not just because of the football team, but also because of how the fans reacted, even if the civic pride was often qualified with an ominous description of Buffalo. For example, as Buffalo was preparing for their second Super Bowl appearance in 1992, The New York Times described Buffalo as “a dreary place filled with faded factories and cursed with winters that are among the nation’s most brutal. But the metropolitan area’s 1.2 million people proudly defend their city, and lifelong residents like Ellen Collopy say that theirs is a community of good neighbors and loyal citizens.” The reporter noted how the citizens displayed their passion for their city and football team by cheering on the Bills, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in bars, or hanging Bills’ banners outside homes and business. Buffalonians were able to link their favorite team to their home city and create a family relationship based on the team’s success. Fans were finally able to display the great qualities of the city in the limelight after the missed kick.
Because of the spotlight from the Super Bowls in the early 1990s, people around the country were realizing 30 years later that people in Buffalo have “always had class-it’s just that the rest of the nation didn’t pay much attention…it took a football team noted for its losing seasons to restore Buffalo’s lost pride.” The aforementioned lost pride certainly could have been a result of bad football teams throughout the 70s and 80s, but also because the city of Buffalo had lost thousands of jobs in the past 20 years. Buffalo’s population plummeted after steel mills around Buffalo began to close in the 50s. A respectable football team in the 60s helped Buffalo cling onto some semblance of outward civic pride, but when the team began to lose, the city’s pride seemed to go dormant.
With the resurgence of the Buffalo Bills, the city’s economy was able to rebound in some ways. The Bills drew league-leading numbers for attendance at their games in the 1990s. Pro-Football-Reference began recording season attendance numbers in 1993, right in the heart of Buffalo’s glory years as a football franchise. In 1993, the Bills had the largest single-season total attendance numbers with 1,125,988. The Bills remained in the top 5 for attendance for four more seasons. One particularly impressive attendance number occurred in the AFC Championship between the Bills and the Los Angeles Raider. There were the 80,324 Bills fans in attendance who were hoping to cheer their home-town Bills to their first Super Bowl. During the 51-3 trouncing of the Raiders, the fans quickly realized the Bills were going to secure the victory and reportedly, “by the fourth quarter they were singing and waving thousands of American flags of all sizes and celebrating the kind of victory that had been unthinkable.” Those passionate fans lucky enough to be inside the stadium were not the only ones making an impact financially.
Local businesses saw dramatic increases in sales while the Bills were going to the Super Bowl year after year. Norm Labruzzo, a restaurant owner in Buffalo during the 90s said “the difference for us between the Bills being in the Super Bowl and not being in is about $30,000 at the bar.” Bars would go through 50-80 kegs during the Super Bowls and other important playoff games. With fans eager to watch the game with other fellow Buffalo citizens, they would celebrate at the local bars, in turn, increasing profits and increasing the comradery throughout the city of Buffalo.
The bars were not the only businesses to feel the generous affects of the Super Bowls. Fans eagerly sported their Bills gear while viewing games at the bars or wore Bills blue-and-red-printed Zubaz pants to proudly display their fandom while walking the streets on a weekday. The businesses that sold that Bills clothing or other licensed merchandise were doing a “booming business.” So were the city’s magazines and newspapers. Buffalo’s news was stuffed full of advertisements selling tickets for the big game. The city was benefiting greatly from the Bills’ success and the fans’ passion helped add onto that economic boost. Without a passionate fanbase to consume beer and Bills shirts, the businesses would not have as much success even if the team did. The city was so passionate and proud about the Bills that there was always a demand for Bills gear, even after a kick missed wide right derailed the city’s Super Bowl dreams. The fans were a big reason for the businesses’ success during the early 1990s, and their support is still being felt today.
While Buffalo is still mounting their way out of the economic doldrums, the Bills play a big part in the city’s identity. Executive council member Chris Collins was willing to allow subsidies for the Bills because of the team’s impact. He was quoted in a Buffalo News report saying that the Bills are “the one cultural institution that we support that has all but 100 percent impact throughout the community… pretty much the whole community supports the Bills.” The fans support of the Bills keeps the team in Buffalo and the team keeps bringing in revenue for restaurants, advertisements and sports apparel. Also, according to Collins, the fans create a shared sense of community centered around the Bills across the whole city that has the biggest impact.
The government is grateful for the fans impact on the city, but Bills players are equally as grateful. The 1990s Bills success was a product of a great team with stellar management and great drafting of players such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith. All four players wound up in the Hall of Fame. However, the on-field talent also benefited from the passion and support of the fans. Marv Levy, the head coach of the Super Bowl Bills teams explained that, “our fans were unbelievably supportive in Buffalo even when we’d lose those Super Bowls. They contributed to us getting back there, so supportive and not critical. It was a great community.” This quote circles back to the Monday after Super Bowl XXV where Bills fans commemorated the Super Bowl losers. After that heartbreaking loss, the fans rallied even stronger and helped keep the Bills on a championship trajectory, as well as keep the city on their upward trajectory economically. The fans did not have to be so welcoming and supportive. The loss could have crippled the city’s moral and kept the city in an economic slump. That missed kick rallied the city together to help energize the Bills to three more Super Bowls. Moreover, it continued to rally the city’s economy.
The citizens’ actions also affected some players on a personal level. Scott Norwood was affected by the fans’ response the day after the Super Bowl. He bravely faced the crowd and was moved to tears by the support. According to John Baldoni, a writer for Forbes, when Norwood was at the podium in front of his fans, he “promised the crowd that he would be back to help the Bills continue to win. Norwood made good on his promise…he nailed a field goal that won the game for the Bills and sent them to Super Bowl XXVI.” The city’s support helped Norwood overcome his crushing mistake in the Super Bowl. The fans helped keep Norwood in the NFL and confident enough to have many more successful seasons in the NFL. This shows the effects of Buffalo’s civic pride on the morning of January 22, 1991 were not simply felt to the end of the Super Bowl runs but have carried into the 21st century.
Bills Mafia and The Kick Today
After the Bills made the playoffs during the 1999 season and lost to the Tennessee Titans on what can only be described “The Music City Miracle” in the AFC Wild Card round, the Bills ventured into a serious tradition of losing. The Bills did not make the playoffs in 17 consecutive seasons. The Bills finally made the playoffs during the 2017 season thanks to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy, and the 18th ranked defense led the Bills. They got a little help from Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals when the Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens on a last-second touchdown to propel the Bills to the AFC Wild Card round. Throughout that drought, there were some bright spots on the path to Jacksonville for the playoff game, and the Buffalo Bills fans are at the heart of each marquee moment with roots reaching back to the Super Bowl teams and the way the city reacted to the team after losing Super Bowl XXV.
The fans began a tradition of support, civic pride, and citizenship when they welcomed in the Bills after Scott Norwood missed the 47-yard field goal that would have won the game. One example of that tradition came in 2010 when the Bills were taking on the Pittsburg Steelers in a Week 12 matchup. With the game tied 16-16 and already in overtime, the Bills had a chance to win the game. The quarterback at the time, Ryan Fitzpatrick, threw a 40+ yard pass to Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson along the left sideline. Johnson got his hands on the ball in the endzone but could not complete the catch. Shocked at his own mishap, he sat in the endzone with his hands in his lap. The Bills were forced to punt later in the possession and the Steelers drove down the field and won the game on a 41-yard field goal.
After the game, fans began the second wave of fan support that began with Buffalo’s reaction to Scott Norwood. Stevie Johnson blamed God for the dropped pass on Twitter and NFL reporter Adam Schefter criticized Johnson for doing so. A Bills fan, Breyon Johnson, then tried to stand up for Johnson by criticizing Schefter’s coverage of Johnson’s tweet. More people jumped in to defend Stevie Johnson, and the small group of people defending Stevie Johnson were blocked online by Adam Schefter. Those blocked individuals, along with Breyon, Del Reid, and others, began identifying themselves with the hashtag “BillsMafia” on Twitter. Breyon suggested opening up the group to all Bills fans, and, in 2011, Bills Mafia officially became a movement online when a Bills player Nick Barnett threw his support behind the hashtag. Bills Mafia is a product of the civic citizenship and pride that appeared after the missed kick among Bills fans. According to one of the founders of Bills Mafia, Del Reid, Bills Mafia is a “FAMbase…that helps provide comradery and maybe even a commiseration with fellow fans. So much of the Bills Mafia experience is the interaction we have with fellow fans…we have always stressed the family part.” Also, Bills Mafia is “standing up to the national media about how it has always covered the Bills as an afterthought, and having the players’ backs.” Bills Mafia has built off the tradition of supporting Bills players first introduced on a large scale in 1991 and continues to support the players today, as well as recapture the family dynamic that was common among Buffalonians during the early 1990s.
That support also goes beyond the players on the field. Bills Mafia has helped raise money for many charities such as Andy Dalton’s charity, a Chicago charity, and a Tennessee charity. After the Begnals helped put the Bills in the playoffs, Bills fans donated to Dalton’s charity. Dalton said, “the Pass it On Fund is our grant program and it was able to double in size because of all the donations that we received. So for us, we feel like it’s our responsibility to pass it on and give back to Buffalo.” The Dalton family also donated to a Buffalo hospital. Bills fans sincerely donated to the Bear Necessity Foundation in Chicago after NBC Sports Chicago made a video portraying Bills fans as drunks, essentially calling Bills fans the laughingstock of the NFL fanbases. Reid, with the help of many others online, “set out to prove [Bills fans] are more than crazy fans, who tailgate, but we also have big hearts…we donated over $10,000 over the span of two days.” Bills fans and Buffalo citizens identify so much with the Bills, that they are willing to donate in defense and sin support of their hometown team. The fans have built off the civic pride they showcased after the missed kick and amplified it to full on civic citizenship by donating to charities countrywide.
Bills fans like Reid have to grapple with the reality that the NFL and fans outside of Buffalo do not always see Bills fans in the same light as locals do. The Broward Palm Beach Times published an article titled, “9 Reasons Why Buffalo Bills Fans Are The Worst,” citing drinking habits and a low quality stadium. Even with this negative perspective, Bills fans continue to reveal their civic citizenship they learned from the fans of the 1990s. Recently, Fox Sports held an online poll to determine the best fanbase. In the semifinals, Bills fans were up against the Tennessee Titans fans. It was an online poll where any Twitter user could vote. With the Bills leading the poll going into the last ten minutes, a Tennessee Titans fan, @keelanzpage, spent $660 and bought fake, virtual votes and applied them to the poll in favor of the Titans, and the Titans won the poll. Although it was an essentially meaningless poll, Bills fans wanted to prove they were better fans than Titans supporters. Again, Bills Mafia stepped up and raised money for a Tennessee charity, Nashville Children’s Alliance. The charity received $15,932 as of April 4, 2019.
Bills fans rallied around Scott Norwood to show their civic pride in the face of a huge loss. Their support helped show the world the true colors of Buffalo are not rust-brown, but Bills blue and red. The city rallied around adversity to unify the city in 1991 and helped bolster the civic pride and the economy. Years later, in the midst of historic playoff drought, Bills fans would support their players no matter how many game-winning touchdowns are dropped. The support for Stevie Johnson by the Bills Mafia was bred from the passion and support of the Bills fans in the 90s. All of that support culminated on the city of Buffalo to help increase comradery, as Del Reid would say, and also helped reveal Buffalo’s civic citizenship by rallying around how the Bills are portrayed nationally to help charities across the USA. After Norwood missed the kick in Super Bowl XXV, Adrian Meadows told the Chicago Tribune, “it was nice going to the Super Bowl, but no one remembers the team that lost.” Meadows could not have been more wrong.
Of course, losing four consecutive championships would make any loser memorable, but Buffalo and Bills fans are remembered for their compassion and the civic pride they showed Norwood. They are still being remembered and celebrated by the Bills Mafia, and any Bills fans that rally around the Bills in order to donate to a good cause, all thanks to wide right.
Featured Image: WALTER IOOSS JR/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED