Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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The Bills Rack Up Wins. Folding Tables Get Wrecked.

Though the team prohibits it, Bills fans are carrying on a new table-slamming tradition deep into the playoffs.

Devoted N.F.L. fans show their love in lots of ways that don’t make sense out of context. Green Bay Packers fans wear foam blocks of cheese on their heads. Raiders fans paint their faces in black and silver and torment visiting players from their seats in the “Black Hole.” In Kansas City, Chiefs fans drive tricked-out school buses painted in red and gold, the team’s colors.

Then there are Buffalo Bills fans, who make the ridiculous look routine.

For the past few years, growing numbers of Bills tailgaters have ended their pre- and postgame debauchery by jumping from a high place — the back of a pickup truck, say, or the top of a Porta Potty — and slamming into a folding table. The WWE-inspired idea is to destroy the table, entertain friends (many of whom record the mayhem on smartphones) and get fired up for the game.

So when Vincent Spano returned to his home in Buffalo around midnight after the Bills beat the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday, he was not surprised to see hundreds of fans down the street cheering a large man as he jumped off a step stool and crashed onto a table in the middle of a busy intersection. He was also not surprised that a video of the pandemonium that his friend posted on Instagram instantly went viral.

“The guy jumped cleanly through it, popped up fine and everyone cleaned it up,” said Spano, a lifelong Bills fan who lives in the Allentown neighborhood, a center city area which now welcomes visitors with a sign that reads “Josh Allentown” in honor of the team’s quarterback, Josh Allen. “It’s all adrenaline and you’re so happy for the Bills, it takes over and you don’t think about it.”

For his part, Allen said in an interview that he would jump through multiple tables if the Bills win the Super Bowl.

The prevalence of table slamming is part of the frenzy sweeping Western New York as the Bills rumble through their best season since their glory years in the early 1990s, when the team played in four straight Super Bowls, losing all of them. Week by week, as the Bills marched toward their first division title and first playoff win in a quarter century, fans across the region have expressed their joy in bigger and more public ways.

Seemingly every storefront in the city includes a ‘Go Bills’ sign. Huge banners celebrating the home team hang in front of city hall. Sales of retro Bills gear at Spano’s store, My Cuzin Vintage, have soared more than 50 percent this season. Restaurants as far away as Erie, Penn., are selling pizzas in the shape of buffalos. A Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Buffalo sold folding tables alongside Bills merchandise. Table slamming has become so closely linked to the Bills that ESPN designed a graphic video of Josh Allen jumping off a bus and onto a table.

The popularity of table slamming, reckless as it may be, has coincided with the emergence of the Bills Mafia, a Twitter account started as a joke by three fans that has morphed into a kind of virtual identity for fans to show their passion. The seemingly random way in which these two elements quickly turned into traditions is part of their appeal to Bills fans.

“We started Bills Mafia before people started jumping through tables,” said Del Reid, one of the account’s co-founders. Though Reid said he has never table slammed, he said he has no issue with the practice. “As long as people are being safe, however they want to express their fandom is fine,” he said. “People are trying to outdo themselves.”

The outpouring during this Bills season has proved cathartic yet bittersweet because coronavirus restrictions prevented fans from attending regular season home games. Most fans made do by gathering with a few friends and family to watch games.

Ashleigh Dopp, who could not use her family’s season tickets, turned her garage into a fan cave, complete with a Bills-themed mural, a refrigerator, a television and a heater. Dopp said she has not bought a folding table to slam in the driveway, though she got tossed on a table at a road game a few years ago.

“Table slamming is about showmanship,” Dopp said. “It kind of ends your tailgate.”

The Bills, though, have a complicated relationship with table slamming. Alarmed by excessive drinking and the violence of table slamming, the team told fans in 2018 that they could face criminal charges, have their tickets revoked, or be ejected from team-run parking lots for destroying folding tables.

“The viral videos on social media, it’s embarrassing when we see that,” Andy Major, the team’s vice president of operations and guest experience, told The Buffalo News in 2019. He said a few fans “make a big stink out there — a few knuckleheads who wreck it.”

So as the Bills began their postseason run and Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed about 6,500 fans to attend the team’s two home playoff games, the team is discouraging table slamming in the parking lots surrounding Bills Stadium.

Eric Matwijow, who lives a three-minute walk from Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. has no trouble with the policy. He runs a parking lot on game days across the street from his home. Matwijow, whose nickname is “The Hammer” because he strictly polices his patrons before games, said his longtime customers clean up after themselves and don’t get out of hand.

He has less tolerance for some of his younger customers, whom he calls “junior adults.” He banned table slamming because “people jump off vans and knock themselves out,” he said. “The power of alcohol can be strong.”

Some team backers, though, said they will take their flying leaps on the road. The Bills travel to play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday and are one win away from returning to the Super Bowl. Months ago, Therese Forton Barnes, a Bills season-ticket holder since 1999, reserved a rental house near Tampa, Fla., site of this year’s Super Bowl, to work remotely in the warmer weather. She arrived there this week and one of her first purchases was a folding table that she uses as a desk.

If the Bills win on Sunday, she’ll try to get tickets to the Super Bowl and wear the Jim Kelly jersey she brought with her. And if the Bills win their first Super Bowl title, Forton Barnes plans to stomp on her new folding table.

“If we win, I may jump through a conference room table,” she said. “Go big or stay home!”

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