Of all the host NFL cities on my agenda to visit, Buffalo was the one I was looking forward to the least. Buffalo is not known for its natural beauty or tourist attractions. In fact, the only thing it is really known for are its wings, the old 1933 song and, of course, the Bills. I knew it would be a challenge to make this trip fun or interesting, so I decided to extend it a couple days to include Niagara Falls and Toronto. Accompanying me on this, my 20th NFL stadium visit was my sweetheart Cathy.
I knew for certain that I needed to get to a game here pretty early in the season before the frigid temps and snowstorms reared their head and I figured a game in early October should be safe. Surprisingly, we were treated to unseasonably warm, near record high temps. We were warned at the hotel desk that since there is only one main road from Buffalo to the stadium in Orchard Park that traffic can get pretty intense, so we needed to head out no later than 10 AM. For many residents in greater Buffalo, Bills games are their religion and the only thing many of them have to look forward to. There are thousands of fans without tickets to the game who head out to the stadium on gameday just to tailgate.
En route to the stadium, we stopped to fuel up on donuts and coffee at Paula’s Donut Shop, an old school bakery where the intoxicating aroma of freshly made donuts engulfs you as soon as you enter. There was an endless stream of customers coming in and out but oddly, despite it being a Sunday and all of them about to get donuts, they all looked miserable as if it were the line at the DMV. Also, many any looked as if they’ve slept in their clothes for a week straight. Then I remembered that we were in Buffalo. Great donuts though!
We made our way over to the field a little after 10. The traffic was actually lighter than expected with only some slight delays getting into the parking lot. The $30 parking fee was a bit low by NFL standards, but I usually don’t end up driving to the game. Since we arrived well ahead of game time, we spent some time strolling through the acres of tailgaters. Some folks were ‘no-frills’ with folding card tables, Cheetos and cans of sterno while others were hardcore with 8,000 watt generators, 6 foot speakers and 4 tanks of propane hooked up to industrial grills roasting whole pigs.
New Era Field was built in 1973 making it the 6th oldest stadium in the NFL. It clearly shows signs of age but actually is holding up better than a lot of newer venues that I’ve been to such as Nissan Stadium or FedEx Field. In the main plaza across from the stadium store, there was live entertainment and vendors hawking beer. There are plenty of gathering spots for fans in the stadium, but none that offer views of the field.
I was bracing for the worst in fan behavior based on what I read in reviews, but everyone was well behaved and I heard only a handful of F-bombs in my section. Maybe this was due to the Bills leading throughout most of the game, maybe it was due to the pleasant weather, who knows? There were a few pretty eccentric fans in attendance including a guy dressed up in a blue gorilla suit wearing a Bills jersey and some shirtless dude covered in body and face paint who weighed close to 500 pounds. Throughout the game, they showed this guy on the big screen about 5 times, each time resulting in an ovation from the crowd – so I guess he's kind of a minor celebrity here.
The stadium was clean and well laid out and there were no issues getting around. I was a little surprised that among the names of the Bills players in the Ring of Honor around the stadium’s perimeter was O.J. Simpson's name. I even spotted more than a handful of folks wearing a Simpson jersey. Where the hell do you even buy those anymore? Also, during a timeout there was a ‘Great Moments in Bills history’ clip played on the big screen featuring Simpson which had many fans cheering "JUICE". I guess folks in Buffalo have a very forgiving nature!
Before the game, there was a recognition of cancer survivors as part of a feature the NFL is running this week called Crucial Catch where the focus is on awareness and early detection. There was a video on the big screen of Bills legendary QB Jim Kelly thanking the fans for their support in his battle with oral cancer and giving his endorsement to this cause. Then, as a surprise and delight to the fans, Jim Kelly himself came out onto the field along with other former Bill players who are also cancer survivors.
The food and beer offerings were nothing exceptional, just basic stadium fare. Since there are always lots of fans coming across the Peace Bridge from Southern Ontario to see the Bills, Canadian beer favorites Molson and Labatt’s were available throughout the stadium. The lines for concessions and bathrooms were not very long. Instead of urinals, New Era Field has a long metal 'piss trough' for their male patrons to empty their bladders into. This is the 3rd stadium (Wrigley Field and Heinz Field) that I've been to that featured this gross contraption.
We had great seats for what turned out to be a close and exciting game, albeit with only one TD being scored. The Bills defense kept pressure on QB Marcus Mariotta all game keeping the Titans out of the end zone and limiting them to just 4 FGs.
The only TD of the game came on a 16 yard scramble by Bills rookie QB Josh Allen. Late in the 4th quarter with the Titans up by 2, the Bills forced a punt and marched downfield on a 4:43 drive led by runs from Shady McCoy and Chris Ivory, culminating with a game winning FG by Stephen Hauschka with just 3 seconds left. Every time the Bills scored, the PA blared a version of the old Isley Brothers 'Shout' song with custom Bills lyrics.
I was hoping for a blowout so we could leave early and get a jump on the crowd, but no such luck. The traffic getting out of the lot was a complete standstill for nearly an hour.
That evening, we headed over to the famous Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo which is claimed to be the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. We shared a large plate with a side of broccoli bites which we washed down with some Labatt’s Bleue.
The next day we headed out to Niagara Falls which was my first ever trip there. I may have been one of only a handful of folks my age who live this close and have never seen them. The falls met all of the hype; they were majestic and beautiful. We took the Maid of the Mist boat ride which brought us right up to Horseshoe Falls where we all got pretty drenched. Afterwards, we headed over the Rainbow Bridge to see the falls from the Canada side (or as Cathy calls it ‘Canay-dia’). My advice to first time visitors is to not even waste your time on the NY side as the views are so much nicer in Canada.
We spent the last two days of the trip in Toronto where the perfect fall weather persisted. The city has some great neighborhoods (Yorkville, Old Town, The Distillery District), attractions and cuisine. We made it a point to visit the St. Lawrence Market to have one of the famous Peameal Bacon Sandwiches served up by the Carousel Bakery and later went to the Amsterdam Brewhouse on the lakefront across from the Toronto Islands for some Poutine (kind of like Canada's version of 'Disco Fries'). I also took my first ever trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame and to the top of the CN Tower.
Twenty stadiums down, eleven more to go.
Fans - B - Despite season after season of dismal play - the fans still love their Bills. I was expecting a bit more intensity like I saw in Pittsburgh or Green Bay. Great tailgating.
Features - C - Nothing really remarkable compared to some of the newer venues. Plenty of outdoor gathering space, but away from the game action
Location - D - Orchard Park is pretty much the middle of nowhere. With no mass transit options, you're pretty much stuck dealing with the traffic
Food - C - Basic stadium fare. Would have been nice to see some regional food options like wings or the famous Buffalo 'Beef on Weck' sandwich. Decent Canadian beer options.
Game - A - Not a lot of offense but a close game throughout with the Bills beating the heavily favored Titans on a last second field goal
Overall Experience - C+