Published January 22, 2021
The unlikely and unexpected success of the Buffalo Bills this season has sown “seeds of hope” and become a path to build a community amid the isolation and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to UB sports law expert — and avid Bills fan — Helen “Nellie” Drew.
“Bit by bit, win by win, dollar by dollar, the Bills and Bills Mafia show the NFL, the country and the world how kindness, decency and hope can be the fabric to connect a community, even now — especially now — when we cannot be together physically,” says Drew, director of UB’s Center for the Advancement of Sport. A Western New York native — she was born and raised in Batavia — Drew was a recent UB law school graduate and a working attorney in Buffalo during the Bills’ four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl during the early 1990s.
The past year has been a difficult one, Drew acknowledges. “Here in Western New York, the march of months brought pain, suffering, tremendous economic loss, political strife and civil unrest,” she says. “But as the NFL’s truncated preseason unfolded, hope sprang anew, as it does annually. This year, however, was different.
“In a region and a fan base — more of a Mafia, actually — starved for good news, a seed of hope began to grow,” she says. “And as week followed week, with win upon win, Allen-Diggs signs springing up across the landscape, a new certainty took root: This was finally our year.”
The Bills’ success this year has “rejuvenated a weary population,” says Drew. “We may be locked out of the stadium. We may be tailgating socially distanced in driveways. But, even apart, the Bills Mafia came together in a year we needed community and connection more than ever.”
Every game became an event, Drew notes, “and every event another block rebuilding a special community.”
“The team is young, fun and engaging. (Quarterback) Josh Allen resonates with Buffalo: the underdog, tremendously hardworking, and down to earth,” she says. “The offensive coordinator is a local St. Francis (High School) grad. The defensive coordinator is a mastermind. The head coach’s team motto, ‘humble and hungry,’ applies to the fan base as well.”
Bills fans have also shown their passion and kindness through charitable donations made in honor of Allen’s late grandmother, as well as Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was knocked out of last week’s game with a concussion. “That’s over $1.4 million raised in a blue-collar community in a pandemic to support children in need,” Drew says.
The lucky 6,700 fans who were allowed into the stadium the past two weeks are a small sliver of the Bills’ worldwide community, she points out, noting that families and friends are connecting locally, nationwide and even around the world.
“Parents are enjoying the Bills’ postseason success with adult children ex-pats. ‘This is what it was like in the ‘90s,’ they say, digging out the Kelly-era sweatshirts.
“While we look forward to the day when we can return and cheer our team 70,000 strong and — yes, break some tables,” she says, “we will never forget that we are part of something much larger and more important.”