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Erik Brady: Go Bills! Two small words define a community and its fandom

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Go Bills!

A Go Bills sign put up by Streamline Designs on Niagara Falls Boulevard in North Tonawanda.

Go Bills.

They are just two words. Two syllables is all. But they say a lot.

Some of us use the phrase as an all-purpose salutation – our “aloha,” if you will. Like that single Hawaiian word, our two-word phrase can be used to say hello or goodbye, though it goes deeper than that. Like aloha, it also means fellowship. It means sharing the love with those around you.

Go Bills.

The phrase goes back decades, but perhaps no one player has embraced it more enthusiastically – and publicly – than Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. He often ends his news conferences with it, and pretty much all his national TV interviews, too. On NBC’s postgame show on Thanksgiving night, he said it with a mouthful of turkey.

Go Bills.

“Love that he does that,” said Del Reid, co-founder of Bills Mafia. “He understands Bills fans. He understands our culture. He understands Buffalo. That is who we are: We end our conversations with ‘Go Bills’ – and he does the same.”

So who started this shorthand code for universal Bills fandom? Who knows? Reid said the term has been around for at least as long as he has. The origins appear lost in the mists of time.

Go Bills.

Eddie Abramoski said it has been a thing “for as long as I can remember” – and he was the Bills’ original athletic trainer in 1960. He recalls fans saying it in the Bills’ early years, but not players. He thinks that part is relatively new.

“It’s all because of Bills Mafia,” Abramoski said. “They have made a real imprint on the team, and on the city.”

John Murphy, the radio voice of the Bills, doesn’t know where it began, either. But he remembers a time some years ago when both of the major-league teams in town were struggling: “There was a bumper sticker then that said: ‘Go Bills. And take the Sabres with you.’ ”

The term is rarely invoked so cynically anymore. These days it is typically used as a show of support that is both generic and genuine and can be found on virtually any piece of fan regalia from yard signs to key chains, to mugs and T-shirts. It has been written in sand, and in snow, and even in corn maze. 

Go Bills.

Once upon a time Marv Levy put those words to music. The Bills coach of their Super Bowl years wrote a team fight song in 1994 and he titled it “Let’s Win for Buffalo.” The first stanza goes like this:

Go Bills! For we are here to cheer for you

Go Bills! We are your fans so true

With victory in sight

We'll yell with all our might

So, Go Bills! Fight Bills! Go!

C'mon, let's win for Buff-a-lo!

It didn’t win a Grammy. Bruce Smith asked for a rap version. And you can hear it here as Levy sang it publicly for the first time on his TV show, with full-throated audience participation. The song repeats these two words more than a dozen times:

Go Bills!

Our aloha works a little like a secret handshake, signaling a bond of affiliation. When you are away from Buffalo and see someone in Bills gear, those two words are a quicksilver way to introduce yourself, even if just in passing.

Buffalo etiquette calls for the other person to say it in return. On the rare occasions that doesn’t happen, it's like an unreturned phone call or an unrequited high-five.

Jay Josker is a longtime Bills season ticket holder who hosts occasional video bits for Visit Buffalo Niagara. He strolled through the Walden Galleria a couple of Christmas seasons ago. The cameras followed the jocular Josker as he offered holiday shoppers this comradely cry:

Go Bills!

Josker accompanied his greeting with exuberant high-fives. All but four of 36 shoppers responded in kind. “Probably a Patriots fan,” Josker sniffed as one shopper whiffed.

Go Bills.

Josker figures he uses the phrase almost daily to close emails and phone calls. Once, a few years ago, he was carrying a Bills flag on a hike in Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Several times he found himself serenaded with calls of, well, you know.

On Twitter, the phrase often comes packaged as a hashtag. And if you search it on any given Sunday, or any other day of the week, you will find dozens and dozens of tweets:

#GoBills.

Here’s one from Twitter user Angelina, who styles herself as BillsBabe716, on why she says the magic words even when the Bills are in their offseason:

 “BECAUSE it’s a lifestyle.

“Walking the dog? Go Bills.

“Going through the drive thru? Go Bills. Passing someone in the Wegmans parking lot? Go Bills.

“Outside shoveling? Go Bills.

“Leaving work? Go Bills.”

This tweet attracted almost 3,000 likes and this comment: “You don’t have to explain it to the real ones … they know. GO BILLS.”

Not to get too technical, but the phrase is an example of the imperative mood in English. It implies the hortatory conjunction, as in “Let’s go, Bills,” which makes it a first-person plural imperative. Or something like that. Never mind: That’s a tad too high-minded for this discourse.

Suffice to say this sort of formulation for sports teams appears to be something heard mainly in North American English, whereas in Britain the equivalent is: “Come on, Liverpool!”

Fans of some teams double up on their go-go: Winnipeg Jets fans cheer: “Go Jets Go.” Green Bay Packers fans chant: “Go Pack Go!” But that extra syllable seems redundant, doesn’t it?

Go Bills.

Even if we don’t know who started all this as a rallying cry, we know who popularized it on a national scale. Tim Russert, a son of South Buffalo who was then host of “Meet the Press,” often signed off like this:

“If it’s Sunday, it’s ‘Meet the Press.’ And oh, yes:

“Go Bills.”

Perhaps Russert’s best use of our punchy hometown salute came on the Sunday morning of the Bills’ third Super Bowl, in January 1993, at the Rose Bowl. Russert looked into the camera at show’s end and said: “Now it is in God’s hands. God is good, and God is just. Please, God, one time.

“Go Bills.”

As Russert often told the tale, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw then chastised him off-air: “You Irish Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless. You can’t pray on the public airwaves.”

To which Russert responded: “You’ll see the power of prayer, Brokaw.”

Alas, the Dallas Cowboys won, 52-17. When Russert returned to his hotel, Brokaw called out to him from the lobby bar. He was holding a Texas longneck: “Hey, Russert! I guess God is a Southern Baptist!”

Luke Russert, Tim’s son, was born and raised in Washington but is Buffalo to the bone. And, as his 266,700 Twitter followers can attest, Luke loves the Bills unreservedly.

Go Bills.

“It’s a very Buffalo thing,” he said. “I say it in airports all the time, because I always try to wear a Bills hat when I travel. And when I talk to my cousins in Buffalo, that’s how we sign off:

“Go Bills.”

Two words. One Buffalo.

“It is built into the fan base and the city,” Luke said. “People say it at weddings. They say it at graduations. It is pretty much omnipresent. I can’t remember when I started saying it. Since birth, probably.”

The phrase, like the city, is nothing fancy. But it is ours.

“It’s always there,” Luke said. “And it’s just natural. It is the universal language of Buffalo.”

We lost Luke’s father to a heart attack in 2008. Buffalo mourned. The nation did, too. It’s hard to imagine the death of a newsman hitting as hard today – such was his impact as the political pundit who offered working-class wisdom in a button-down town.

That night, Brokaw offered benediction on the evening news. He praised Russert as an everyman with a razor-sharp intellect and a profoundly moral center. “Do me a favor,” he said in closing. “Say a prayer for Brother Timmy, and tip a cold one.”

Brokaw paused, then signed off:

“Go Bills.”

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