Booster club members savor playoff ride
Much like this year’s edition of the Buffalo Bills, there was something special about a young, emerging 1988 team. Offensively, running back Thurman Thomas was in his rookie season while Jim Kelly was becoming a top-notch league quarterback.
Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett dominated on the other side of the ball, allowing the fewest points in the National Football League, earning it a nickname of “Blizzard Defense.” Special teams, a priority for then Coach Marv Levy, also excelled as the Bills won their first AFC East title in eight years and began a run of conference superiority.
Dunkirk’s Rich Jesse remembers it well. It was the same year the Southern Tier Bills Boosters Club, an organization he has presided over for 32 of its 33 years, had its inaugural season.
“We did the Southern Tier when we first organized because we wanted people from Jamestown and Olean to join,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “But basically, now it’s just Dunkirk-Fredonia.”
Jesse exemplifies the blue-collar Western New Yorker.
Before he retired, he worked at a number of north-county factories, including Dunkirk Radiator and AL Tech Steel. His wife, Jeanette, also is a club officer.
On Sunday evening, the couple and other boosters will continue a three-decade tradition of gathering to cheer on the Bills when they take to the road in the divisional playoff round against Kansas City.
The event, which is open to members, will take place at the Moniuszko Club in Dunkirk, includes pizza and snacks while participants are encouraged to bring appetizers. In addition, due to club rules, those attending must show proof of vaccination.
With expectations for the Bills just as high as they were during the Super Bowl runs of the 1990s, Jesse noted numbers involved in the gatherings will never be like they were in the club’s early years. Besides lesser participation due to COVID-19, the viewing experience for many has changed.
“When we first started, we used to rent a big-screen TV, one of those big monsters,” he said. “Back then in the early ’90s, we had to get four guys to pick it up and put it on the table. That was like a novelty back then.
“Nowadays, everybody’s got their 42-inch, 56-inch TV in their own living room.”
Cost is certainly not prohibitive when it comes to membership. Jesse said the price to join is $10 for those in their first year and $5 after that. Those fees cover the food provided at the gatherings. Those who want to join can email firstname.lastname@example.org or they are welcome to attend a viewing event
In the early years, membership was nearly 400 residents. Today, the numbers are closer to about 170 and includes individuals from as far away as Virginia and North Carolina.
As season ticket holder for 42 years, Jesse has fond memories of the winning years and connection the club has had with the team. Part of the club’s origins came from the proximity of the team and the area’s link to legendary play-by-play broadcaster Van Miller, who grew up in Dunkirk. When Miller retired after the 2003 season, the Boosters helped host an event honoring the city native at the Kosciuszko Club that was filled with memories and laughs.
“Van was quite a character,” Jesse said.
Another major local connection was the State University of New York at Fredonia, which housed summer training camp until it was moved to St. John Fisher College near Rochester for marketing purposes in 2000. Coincidentally, it was after that transition when some of the darkest days of the franchise occurred. For 17 seasons, the Bills were hardly ever in a playoff race and more likely to be jockeying for a higher draft position.
That all changed in 2017 when General Manager Brandon Beane and Coach Sean McDermott started to put their stamp on this franchise. It began with a new culture that embraced winning and a young quarterback who continues to grow by leaps and bounds right before our eyes.
“Josh Allen owns the city of Buffalo,” Jesse said. “If (he) ran for mayor … I think even the guy who ran against him would vote for him.”
Last weekend, Jesse was one of the more than 69,000 who braved the frigid elements at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park while savoring the 47-17 romp over the rival New England Patriots on wild-card weekend. “The energy in the stadium was just fantastic. Most of the people, even those in the red heated seats, were all standing,” he said. “I know the players were feeding off the energy. … It was a great atmosphere.”
As for the coming weeks, he is just as optimistic about the team he and booster members have loyally followed for decades.
“If they stay healthy, they play their game, stay away from dumb penalties and turnovers,” Jesse said, “the Bills can beat anybody. There’s no doubt about it.”
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to email@example.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.