This weekend one team, their coaches, and their fans will lose the Super Bowl. They will take the field riding the wave of a season in which everything has gone right. At some point, however, they will become failures. While one team is donning championship hats, the camera will turn to the expressions on the losing players’ faces. It will be a brief shot, the downbeat before returning to the victorious. It is important to look upon the losers.
I know all about that. I became a connoisseur of losers at a young age. Between 1991 and 1994 my hometown NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, played in, and lost, four consecutive Super Bowls.
Buffalonians are used to the jokes. Here are some: A Chorus Line’s “to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.” The 1994 Kevin Bacon comedy The Air Up There’s “Don’t talk to me about places not worth shitting on! I’m from Buffalo!” The time Ted in How I Met Your Mother goes looking to pick up women at the airport baggage claim and Barney chides him: “I’m about to drop some knowledge: cute girls are not from Buffalo.” And sometimes Buffalo humor comes from a place of love and is quite funny like Riki Lindhome’s “Pretty in Buffalo” which is a backhanded compliment version of Dar Williams’ “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York.” The most recent high-profile Buffalo joke I’ve come across is a New Yorker cartoon depicting a man speaking at a funeral in front of the deceased. He says, “He’s in a better place now – no offense to Buffalo.” Or, more personally, last fall I started a new job at a great Midwestern university. And yet, in the moment of my success, at a new faculty orientation, I found myself tied again to the idea of disgrace. During introductions, we discovered that four of the 45 or so new faculty in attendance were originally from Buffalo. Discussing the high quality of life for which our Midwestern city is noted, a senior university administrator casually told the room, “You folks from Buffalo are in for a real treat. To you folks from LA, I’m sorry.”
My usual response to such slights has been to engage a counter-campaign telling the world about Buffalo’s many greatnesses. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” will come on and I explain who Harold Arlen is simply so I can mention that he was from Buffalo. It’s easier to work it in with the Goo Goo Dolls and Ani DiFranco. And authors: if someone is talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald, son of St. Paul, Minnesota, I will find a way to mention that he lived in Buffalo for a few (no doubt formative) years while his father was a traveling salesman. Then I’ll point out that Buffalo and its environs figure prominently on the last page of Fitzgerald’s last novel published during his life. Mark Twain? Everyone knows he’s from Missouri and then lived in Connecticut. Except, I will be quick to point out, for the years 1869-1871 when he lived in Buffalo as editor of the Buffalo Express. In a December 17, 1887 letter sent from Buffalo’s Niagara Hotel, William Dean Howells wrote a correspondent, “Your letter … has found us all here in the prettiest hotel in one of the pleasantest cities in the world…. What charming and cultivated people we find here, in what lovely houses.”
You should be thankful that you’ve never been with me on a road trip to Niagara Falls. At some point I would have made an unannounced detour and you would have found yourself pulled over at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Virginia Street in downtown Buffalo. You’d be staring at an empty lot, listening to me describe Mark Twain’s nineteenth-century Italianate house and how it burned down but if you look really hard past the abandoned restaurant and through the weeds you can still see some of the original carriage house back there. By the time we get to the Falls I will have made this natural wonder of the world seem small in comparison to the greatness of the Queen City of the Lakes. After all, that water flows through Buffalo first.
No matter how charming Howells found Buffalo, however, nothing negates those Super Bowls. The first loss, in Super Bowl XXV, was excruciating. The Bills lost by one point as Scott Norwood’s last-second 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right. It was the closest they would ever get to winning one. The next three Super Bowls barely register as anything other than spectacular and inevitable losses (even though the Bills had halftime leads in two of those games). When the Bills won their last AFC Championship, sportswriters were upset about having, yet again, to cover the team that everyone, even fictional Lisa Simpson, knew were bound to lose.
When they don’t win any of the four consecutive Super Bowls your team plays in, it’s very easy to overlook how difficult it is to get to the Super Bowl, ever. The current Bills, holders of the longest playoff draught in the NFL at 13 years and counting, can attest that a four-year win/loss record of 49-15 is pretty amazing. But what do you do with greatness that never clears the final hurdle? Andre Reed, future Hall of Fame receiver from those teams recently attempted to describe that conversion from excellent to also-ran: “I don’t even know what the emotion is….You can’t even describe it. It’s like you get up (almost) to the top of Mt. Everest at 29,000 feet… you get to 28,500, and then you turn around and go back.”
The experience of watching those teams lose championships prepared me to expect the Buffalo joke. And it also prompted me to gird myself against the jokes by becoming a tour guide to a city of empty lots, a footnoter of the ephemeral presence of greatness that is now hard to see. How do you live in the wake of something good that is no longer? How do you go from being AFC Champion to abject loser in a manner of seconds? From great city to laughingstock?
About ten years before the first Bills Super Bowl, Bethlehem Steel began shutting down its massive plant in Western New York, the fourth largest steel mill in the world and employer of over 20,000 people. My dad would tell me, as we drove by a mile of plant gates, to imagine the massive crowds of people moving in and out at shift changes. Some people look at rust belt ruin porn and see haunting post-apocalyptic scenes, while others look upon the same scenes and see lives lived, enjoyed, downsized, or lost.
Neoliberalism hit Buffalo pretty hard with the one-two punch of plant closings moving blue-collar work south combined with the bank closures of the savings and loans crisis that eliminated many of the city’s white collar jobs. Bills fans noticed that our “small market” “blue collar” team kept losing championships to cities that anchor global capital in the U.S.: New York, Washington D.C., and Dallas. The hope that a resident of Buffalo could stick it to his friend who moved to Dallas is achingly present in this man’s epic pre-Super Bowl ebullience. (Bonus: autotune remix.) Buffalo’s unofficial motto is “City of No Illusions,” and it’s a fitting one. When I speak of Buffalo’s greatness, it’s not to answer the naysayers with an equal dose of boosterism. It’s to say that I have no illusions about the present. I understand the Buffalo jokes all too well, but respond, instead, with “and yet…” On Super Sunday I will be looking at the losers not to take pleasure in their anguish, but to be reminded of the balance of joy and sorrow, excellence and failure.
Looking at losers can teach us how to look at the world and our selves when good turns to shit, or when good things and shitty things overlap. The image of Scott Norwood burned into every Buffalonian’s mind, his downward glance and defeated slouch after “wide right,” represents the contradiction of being great and being terrible at the same time. It is not unlike the good feeling of making it far into a job candidacy combined with the terrible feeling after the phone call informing you that you were first runner up. What to do with the good memories and residual attachments you have to your partner when you realize your relationship is over? How to keep living in Buffalo when your job is in Mexico and your friend moved to Dallas? Being a champion is ultimately to have everyone participate in the fiction that something has been done that cannot be diminished. And perhaps this is why we like Super Bowls, because they are shiny and full of glitter, and help us imagine we live in a world where the highway dust will never fall. But in a world of fragile bodies and loves and economies, perhaps this illusion is not what we need. Maybe, instead, losing a championship gets us to the more important question of what to make of a diminished thing.
Jonathan Senchyne wants to show you some empty lots where stuff happened a long time ago.