January 24, 2022

Me and My 70,000 Friends: Tailgating and Togetherness

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

I’ve always enjoyed going to Buffalo Bills games. I like watching football live and being part of a crowd. I’ve written before about the tailgate scene which adds fun and unpredictability. I’ve attended three games this year and have been reflecting on why I’ve been enjoying these games in person more than usual.

In one sense, I think it’s a simple matter of escapism. If watching sports normally feels like a break from the regular routine of life, I would say that watching a football game in a stressful and ongoing pandemic definitely feels like an escape for me. It’s a full day of not thinking and worrying about pandemic ills.

Surely many would question the decision to surround myself with tens of thousands of people and say it increases the risk of contracting the virus. It’s obviously a chance I’m willing to take and one I rationalize on the grounds of it being an outdoor event, and, crucially, that I am vaccinated. My work involves spending a good portion of the day being indoors, in a classroom, masked. I like being outside for an extended period of time, taking in fresh air, and not wearing a mask. It’s fun to cheer for a team with a massive group of people. I value community and being part of huge crowd with the shared focus of rooting for the home team is a form of community.

The first game I attended this season was in September with friends I’ve known since we were rugby teammates in the mid-1990s. It felt good to spend a day with people I’ve been friends with for 25+ years. One of the guys in our group was a fan of the visiting team, The Washington Football Team, and he wore their team jersey to show it.

He got booed and verbally harassed as we tailgated,  but he didn’t care. One of the first people to bother him ended up changing his tune and having a drink with us. He proudly displayed his vaccination card to us. He had gotten his first shot just a few days prior so that he was in accordance with the vaccination policy to attend the game. We were gifted with a beautiful day, and I loved soaking up the sun during an easy victory.

The second game was a Monday night in December, when it was thirty degrees and strong winds. It was brutally cold. One could question my parenting choices for bringing my 10-year-old to a game in such cold weather, and on a school night. He wanted to go, it was a few days before his 11th birthday, and I knew it’d be a memorable game being that it was a Monday night contest in rough weather. It turned out that we were not as cold as we expected. We wore enough layers. I kept asking if he was okay and he said yes each time. We lasted the entire game.

The game was on the boring side, and unfortunately resulted in a loss to the New England Patriots. My son was upset and on the verge of tears. Experiencing the disappointment of a loss is something that comes with being a sports fan. And to be a Buffalo Bills fan is to be familiar with the feeling of losing big games.

Game three, on the Sunday before Christmas, was a family fun day for us. Our 11-year-old was happy to join my wife and me, whereas our 14-year-old is at the age when spending a day with his family feels like a punishment, so he brought a friend. We met up with friends who are experts at tailgating. We laughed and enjoyed drinks together. An upside to December weather in Buffalo is how cold your beer stays until the end of the game. After enjoying a comfortable win, we hurried back to our car in anticipation of blasting the heat. We happened to walk alongside a well-known fan who goes by “Bills Elvis” due to his costume and guitar. He was super friendly and chatted up our 11-year-old, in appreciation of a young fan. He then graciously stopped for pictures at the request of his fans. I overheard someone ask him “Are you the Twitter girl’s dad?” in reference to his daughter, who has a significant social media presence. These kinds of interactions fascinate me.

For two years we’ve been advised to practice social distancing. There’s no social distancing in a crowd of nearly 70,000 people. Inserting myself into such a crowd would be considered by many to be reckless behavior. I recognize it as at odds with how careful I’ve generally been through the pandemic and how seriously I take the virus. But having some fun and letting loose at games this year has helped me, psychologically. Truth be told, I’ve been in a funk for a lot of the pandemic. Like anyone else, I find it challenging to adjust to new norms and deal with the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last. I count my many blessings but struggle to stay positive given all the suffering happening in the world. Going to these games has been an enjoyable reality break.

I won’t romanticize the entire experience. At a certain point, I get sick of drunk people talking to me. And people turning on each other in a race to get out of the parking lots after the game is obnoxious. Plus, I grapple with the idea of watching men brutalize each other in a game that leads to severe injuries, and, for many players, results in financial ruin. For me, this experience serves as an example of cognitive dissonance. Still, I truly appreciate the opportunity to go these games while making memories in the company of family, friends and fellow fans.

Have you had special or memorable experiences during the pandemic? What helps you cope with the stress of the pandemic?

Comments

Thank you so much for the nice article you shared.

Awesome article. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

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