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The January Thaw

Once again the Super Bowl gives frigid Buffalo a chance to bask in the sunlight of respect

It started with William McKinley.

The year was 1901, and Buffalo was a thriving port, when President McKinley arrived for the Pan American Exposition. The international shindig, it was thought, would provide a glimpse of things to come in the new century.

Which, in a sense, it did, because McKinley got shot. It hasn't exactly been downhill ever since for us here in Buffalo, but the tragedy had lasting symbolism. When Scott Norwood's last-second kick went wide right in Super Bowl XXV, ensuring a 20-19 win for the New York Giants, it wasn't the first time that Buffalo hadn't quite gotten over the top. What happened between McKinley's demise and Norwood's inaccuracy made the residents of this city no strangers to misfortune. The steel mills closed, Great Lakes freighters stopped calling, and the Blizzard of '77 forever froze our image in the national consciousness. Buffalo declined from prosperity to punch line. Living in Buffalo came to mean always having to explain yourself.

The nation rarely turns its attention to Buffalo for nonmeteorological reasons, which is partly why the Bills are an obsession and these three straight Super Bowl odysseys so captivating to Buffalonians. Still, that doesn't explain why 80,000 fans fill Rich Stadium's seats in ghastly weather, why former residents commute from other states for home games, why a priest embroiders Bill helmets on his garb. It doesn't explain men publicly weeping after each Super Bowl loss or why Norwood was cheered after he failed.

There is something else, something only we here in Buffalo understand. It's about living in a place that is habitually maligned and the defiant sense of community that that breeds. It's about a shared understanding that the city's virtues, from a world-class art museum to a 20-minute rush hour, will never be appreciated by outsiders; that its quiet charms—a cooling July breeze off Lake Erie, architectural treasures that humble any steel-and-chrome skyscraper—will remain our secret. As will Buffalo's intangible resource, the compassionate toughness of its people. It's a quality bred by the unforgiving elements and reflected in our revealingly modest slogan: The City of Good Neighbors.

The Super Bowl is our chance for a measure of respect from a disdainful world. For a city that has been knocked down so often and has come close too many times, the game is a chance to finally scale the mountain, to be seen—at least for a moment—in a different light. If and when that day comes, it will not be forgotten. All we ask is that it come just once.

The previous two Super Bowl trips taught us only to distinguish between losses. The first one—try hard, lose close—we can live with. The defining moment came a day later. While a few hundred fans met the Giants' plane at Newark Airport, 30,000 rallied here for Norwood. America seemed puzzled by our generosity of spirit, but to us the response was reflexive. Norwood, a quiet, unpretentious plugger whom glory had eluded by a few feet, shared our communal humility and reflected our history. We would no more reject him than we would turn away a wayward son.

Yet, as we learned last year in Minneapolis, placing the communal banner in hired hands can be tricky. Days before the game Bruce Smith blamed the city for a few pieces of hate mail he had received, and that's the sort of cheap shot we expect only from outsiders. Our disgust deepened when Thurman Thomas pulled his pouting-teen act and then didn't have his hard hat handy when the work whistle blew.

When the game mercifully ended, the prevailing sentiment wasn't disappointment but betrayal. We don't demand that our mercenaries share our sense of what the team can do for the city; we simply expect them to understand it.

But this is Buffalo, and the Bills are our ticket to an otherwise unreachable world. By this seasons's start all was forgiven and a team-record 57,132 season tickets had been sold. Still, it took the Jan. 3 playoff win over the Houston Oilers to resurrect the spirit of the first Super Bowl season. By figuratively coming back from the dead, led by a second-string quarterback, the Bills conveyed the sense that something inexplicable was at work. That notion was fed by the pair of road playoff wins that followed.

Now, once again, we dare hope that destiny will be stood on its head, the ghost of McKinley exorcised once and for all. What the hell, it's worth another shot. We're familiar with hard times and broken dreams. We know how to deal with those. Given the slights we routinely deflect, the risk of being marked a three-time loser elicits only a sigh and a shrug. So we approach this week filled not with dread but with anticipation. Anticipation of a moment in which the snow melts, flowers bloom and the last laugh is ours; when we're universally regarded as having the best of something, even if it is only a football team.

Maybe our obsession with the Bills, their domination of our psyche, suggests the team is simply too big for Buffalo's small britches. In truth, the real question is whether the team is big enough to carry the city's giant heart. Which is why, come Sunday, all of us in this gray Rust Belt town, even the few who don't care much for sports, will have the same two words on their lips.

Go, Bills.

Donn Esmonde writes a life-style column for The Buffalo News.