Each afternoon following Bills home games the neighbors converge at a house 10 miles southwest of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Crock-Pot Sundays, they call the get-togethers. The gray house is mainly distinguishable from the other tract homes that line the treeless street by the patch of brown grass that the owner can't quite coax into green. The neighbors—among them a beer distributor, a prison guard, a DEA analyst, a physician's assistant and a woman in medical equipment sales—enter through the open garage, drawn by the aroma of chili and pulled pork that the host's wife, Liza, slow-cooks all game long. They bring pies and cream-cheese dip and drink Labatt Blue. They talk about their jobs. They talk about the 40-foot-by-80-foot ice rink one of them is planning for his backyard. They talk about their kids, nearly all of whom are blond. Someone counted 103 children living on the street, and they all seem to show up on Crock-Pot Sundays. They chase one another around the living room sofa like a school of fish, and joyful screams from the basement confirm that it too is stocked with a horde of towheads.
Last Sunday the talk centered more than ever on the Bills. The Bills, who a few hours earlier had shocked the Patriots with a last-second 34--31 win. The Bills, who had goaded Tom Brady into a career-high four interceptions, matching his total for all of 2010, and beaten their AFC East rivals for the first time in 16 tries and 2,941 days. The Bills, who had become the first NFL team to overcome deficits of 18 points or more in consecutive weeks to win. The Bills, who had put a city desperate to love them through 11 seasons without a playoff appearance but who are now 3--0 and on top of the division. In the middle of it all—dishing out his wife's cooking, apologizing for the dead grass, grinning through his thickening beard—was Crock-Pot Sunday's 28-year-old host. As usual, Ryan Fitzpatrick had beaten his neighbors home from the stadium. They like to stick around the parking lot for some postgame revelry, but NFL quarterbacks don't tailgate. Though on Sunday, Fitzpatrick might have liked to.
FITZPATRICK, 6'2" and 220 pounds, had the physical abilities to be an NFL quarterback—that much was certain when the Rams chose him out of Harvard in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. "On our level he was Tim Tebow, only a better passer," says Tim Murphy, the coach at the school, which has produced 45 Nobel laureates but before Fitzpatrick no one who'd thrown an NFL pass. Still, he saw only spot duty in two years in St. Louis and two more in Cincinnati. It wasn't until he wrested the Buffalo starting job from Trent Edwards for good last season—the lesser of two evils, really—that Fitzpatrick showed that what he lacks in arm strength he makes up for in quick, smart decisions. "If you can release the ball a second earlier," says Bills coach Chan Gailey, "it gets there at the same time as the guy with the strong arm."
Another aspect of Fitzpatrick's success is harder to measure. He is a natural community builder, a connector, in ways that extend beyond neighborliness. "Even though he's from Arizona, he's like a Midwest kid," says Murphy. At Harvard, Fitzpatrick endeared himself to his teammates with his competitiveness: Sent into his first game with directions to run out the clock, he knocked a Holy Cross defensive back out cold on a naked bootleg. An economics major, Fitzpatrick won over the rest of the student body with his charisma and easy manner. "I feel like I can relate to everybody," he says. "Part of that was from Harvard. All the different types of people, all the different types of backgrounds." One of those people was Liza Barber, the All-America captain of the soccer team, now his wife of five years and mother of their three kids.
In Buffalo, where Fitzpatrick signed a three-year, $6.9 million deal as a free agent in February '09, he set about molding a group of castoffs and misfits—of the top three receivers, just one was drafted, Stevie Johnson in the seventh round—into a cohesive whole. "Each player is unique," he says. "As a quarterback you have to be able to manage all those personalities, and relate to all of them."
With running back Fred Jackson and fullback Corey McIntyre, Fitzpatrick talks about superheroes. With wideout David Nelson he talks about family. With Johnson—and most of the Bills—he talks about rap, though he's not personally a fan. "I'll memorize a line and spit it out in front of them and they'll all start laughing," he says. "I usually just pick the most vulgar thing."
"He has the kind of persona that allows him to come up to a defensive lineman, approach a receiver, and find common ground," says Nelson. That, says Fitzpatrick, isn't uncalculated. "The off-the-field stuff totally translates to the field," he says. "It's cool."
The Bills are simply a group of pals from whom nobody expects much, so they might as well do all they can to win. Gailey's mismatch-exploiting offense has spurred the resurgence, which began last season with a 4--4 finish after an 0--8 start, but at times he has wisely yielded to the force of Fitzpatrick's personality and analytical skills. Two weeks ago against Oakland the Bills scored on all five of their second-half possessions to erase a 21--3 deficit, with Fitzpatrick often improvising in the huddle. "He was pretty much drawing plays in the sand," says Nelson, who caught the winning touchdown. "Stevie, you go inside here; David, you go outside there. We were calm, collected, we felt like we knew what we were doing."
Last week's comeback against the Patriots was less freestyle, but it was similarly spurred by Fitzpatrick's poise, which he'd displayed years ago in equally improbable comebacks against the likes of Dartmouth and Brown. "They just seem to keep happening to me," he says. "Some of it is, I'm not a guy that gets too high or too low."
He is also a guy who will never hold a teammate's failings against him, and so twice on the Bills' final two drives he threw deep to Donald Jones, whose first-quarter muff led to an interception that contributed to New England's 21--0 lead. Jones caught both of those late passes for crucial gains of 48 and 29 yards.
Fitzpatrick, who threw for 369 yards, second highest in his career, didn't beat the Patriots by himself. He had help from Jackson, the undrafted back from Division III Coe College, whose late 38-yard catch-and-run set up Rian Lindell's winning field goal, and from a defense that stiffened in the second half. To counter Brady's fearlessness in throwing over the middle, Buffalo defenders focused on keeping their hands up and otherwise blocking the passing lanes. Of their several deflections, one produced Drayton Florence's 27-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown return.
But there was no mistaking the primary source of the comeback. "The confidence continues to get higher," said Fitzpatrick in a jubilant locker room. "Who knows where we can go?"
Sunday afternoon was melting into early evening, and Fitzpatrick stood among his guests in his driveway, the long paper banners the towheads had made for him—RYAN IS AWESOME!—fluttering on the lawn. He admired photos of babies thrust at him on iPhones. He chided Markus, the prison guard, for overgrooming his beard, which he had vowed to let grow until season's end in solidarity with Fitzpatrick. ("I work in a respected profession!" Markus protested.) A little boy named Jack ran up to Fitzpatrick and asked him to spin him by his arms. "Last time he swung me around when I had to go pee, and he made me pee my pants," Jack explained. "There will be no spinning today," said Fitzpatrick, mock-sternly.
As he watched the genial chaos and reflected on the day, Fitzpatrick smiled the smile of a man who has found his home. Understated and unflappable, he has emerged as a hero in a city starved for one, a hero who, down to his cold-weather beard, shares Buffalo's ethos. Fitzpatrick and the Bills are reportedly discussing a long-term extension, which would ensure many more Crock-Pot Sundays. "I get to play with my buddies, work our way up together, and then I get to come home and be with my family and friends," he says. "It's just fun, isn't it?"
"THE CONFIDENCE CONTINUES TO GET HIGHER," FITZPATRICK SAYS. "WHO KNOWS WHERE WE CAN GO?"
Photographs by DAVID BERGMAN
HOT WING Fitzpatrick threw for 369 yards in the comeback win against New England, a team the Bills hadn't beaten in eight seasons.
Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
TRUSTING HANDS After muffing a pass that led to a Pats interception, Jones rewarded Fitzpatrick's faith with critical catches for a total of 77 yards on Buffalo's final two scoring drives.