How do you judge an NFL fan? It's a curious debate. Virtually every NFL team claims to have the loudest and most loyal fans (well, maybe not the Jacksonville Jags). And fans of any team will tell you they are the best, loudest and most dedicated.
I judge the quality and loyalty of an NFL team's fans by their tailgating behavior. Specifically, what goes on in the public parking lots pre and post game? If the 12th man is the noisy crowd inside the stadium, the 13th man are the fans in the parking lots.
My nominee for best fans are those of the Buffalo Bills. I grew up in the DC area and saw a ton of Redskin games. I've also lived in Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Yes, I've survived a Raiders game in Oakland and endured a 90 degree game in Tampa Bay. But nothing quite compares to the scenes I've witnessed at Ralph Wilson stadium parking lots before and after Buffalo Bills games.
I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly (mostly good/funny though). For every arrest and fight there are dozens of fun and humorous anecdotes. For starters, you gotta love the sausage girls. Its amazing what a grown woman can do with a cooked kielbasa. But that's nothing compared to other traditions. You can drink shots from bowing balls (think finger holes), you can dance around massive bonfires (garbage can fires), you can dance on top of vans and buses, you can play tackle football in a blizzard on an asphalt parking lot, and if you must, you can always fight an opposing team's fan.
Some of my personal favorites:
After losing to the Cowboys on Monday Night Football (a classic example of the Bills losing a game that was already won), I witnessed several men dancing on an old VW bus, naked except for g-strings, their entire bodies painted in red and blue. Huge bonfires surrounded the van - the fires cast an eerie light with horror film quality shadows. The van was surrounded by at least a hundred fans also dancing madly while chanting who knows what. The temperature was well below freezing, and bottles were being hurled from the crowd. It was mesmerizing. Like a train wreck, I couldn't take my eyes off the sight.
The classic porta-potty tipping. This is exclusively reserved for loudmouthed visiting fans. Nothing like shouting "timber" while the johnny-on-the-spot tips over backwards with a Patriots fan inside.
Fights. Most of these are relatively harmless. The "fighters" are so drunk that their flailing attempts at punches couldn't hurt my grandma (granted she's a tough old bat). My favorite was a marathon drunken tussle between a Bills fan who lost his pants but bravely fought on with his full moon in total glory. His opponent, a Steelers fan, lost his shirt and proved that you can, in fact, eat to many pierogis . This happened in a driving snowstorm with a temperature below 20 degrees with at least a foot of snow on the ground. I'm certain the hangover was more painful than the fisticuffs.
Food. Its incredible what you see pre and post game. Everything from thousand dollar grills to mini hibachis. My personal favorite is the fan that modified his car so that the grill is under the hood. No kidding, this dude's grill is where the engine should be located. You see it all from caviar and champagne to wings, chili dogs and "stews" made in garbage cans.
If you go to Bills games for a few years nothing surprises you. Santa taunting a drunken fan being arrested - been there, done that. Naked men (and women) making snow angels - old hat! Bloodied guys playing tackle football in the parking lot - they're not so tough. Running through and/or jumping over bonfires - meh, whats a minor third degree burn?
In reality, the thing that frightens me the most are when two sober women decide to brawl. Holy cow, cat fights can be soooo vicious! The hair pulling alone looks painful.
But really, what Bills management refers to as the game day experience is pretty fun at Ralph Wilson stadium. C'mon, who doesn't enjoy watching dozens of people douse a fellow fan with ketchup and mustard. And lets be honest, those obnoxious Jets and Patriots fans really deserve whatever they get.
The real worry is not the behavior in the parking lots, it's when the pre and post game antics are more entertaining than the game itself!