Thursday, September 15, 2005

My Trip To Buffalo

Last weekend, my friend Brian had an extra ticket for the Buffalo Bills game and asked if I would like to make the trip. Having heard many stories before, I couldn't say no. I had always been curious about how different upstate Western New York was from back home here in Staten Island, which is much closer to the city.

And so, we took off last Friday afternoon around 5:30 for the long trip northwest. And what a trip it was. Of course, we ran into traffic in New Jersey that delayed things quite a bit. But by 7 PM, with the sun setting and nothing but darkness ahead, we were on our way. Cruising through the interstate can make you contemplate many things, especially when you still have part of two states to pass through on a seven hour drive. And so, that's what Brian and myself did to kill time. Discussed many different topics ranging from sports to politics to concern about what's happened to kids today. You could probably tell that this wasn't your normal convo.

As we stopped at Scranton, Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere at McDonalds, it was here that one of the topics took credence. And you could probably figure out why. Especially if you saw the way two young teenage girls were dressed inside. I know that's what a black dude was thinking when he asked if he could join them, to which they turned him down. Hey. You got to give him credit. Where was the harm? There's something troubling here which I know both of us discussed back in the car as we hit the road again. Hint: It's not the guy trying to be cool part.

As we made our way through the long part of Pennsylvania onward to upstate Binghamton, both of us got plenty of calls from family to keep things moving. You need that when you're navigating in pitch black with nothing but two lanes and other cars on the road.

With WCBS AM fading out so that we couldn't make out what John Sterling was saying during an opener of a key Red Sox-Yankees series, we shut it and talked about how the NHL's Eastern Conference would panout. That's when we finally made it to Syracuse and knew we were within striking distance of Buffalo. At our second rest stop, I bought a couple of McDonalds sundaes (one for Brian) and he sipped on some coffee to stay awake.

Brian had been to Buffalo many times before. His Dad lived there for 25 years. So he knew the area well and was driving. I had never been that way before, though once when I played travel basketball, we bused to Syracuse and took in a game at the Carrier Dome back in '88. Even remember all the rabid Orangemen fans continuing the tradition of clapping before their team scored a basket at the beginning of each half. They wound up destroying Seton Hall in the year the Pirates would reach their only NCAA final in school history, losing by two points to Michigan in a screw job.

After splitting another expensive cost on gas, I wondered if there would ever be any kind of normalcy regarding the price of oil ever again in this great country. The sad thought didn't last long as we finally made the final leg of our trip through Syracuse and Rochester.

As both of us concluded that Ottawa and Tampa Bay had the best chances to come out of the East, it took another hour and a half to finally reach our destination of Buffalo. When the clock approached 2 AM, we checked into the Red Roof Inn for the weekend.

Already, I could see and feel a difference outside. It wasn't just how much energy a worker at a tollbooth had when we exited the New York State Thruway. Like you would really see that back home. But just how cool it was and a noticeable change in the air told me all I needed about Western New York.

After getting a few hours of sleep, we got up the next day around 10 AM and Brian gave me a brief tour of Buffalo. As we drove towards where the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team played in a beautiful park, I noticed how small and old some of the downtown really was. It brought a harsh reality to what Brian had warned about the area. Yes, it was small and more relaxed, which wasn't a bad thing. This area had potential to be much better but according to what I was told, a brutal economy and crooked politicians had taken its toll. They didn't have the resources necessary to fix it.

Across from where the Bisons played was HSBC Arena, where you guessed it; the 'big market' Buffalo Sabres play. And right across from the train station is the nostalgic Aude, where a ton of noise used to be made. I could see why. It was a small building built in a fashion you never see anymore. Almost like a small warehouse. Here's all you need to know about Buffalo. You have these three venues all in the same area and right smack in the middle is The Buffalo News.

So, when I hear someone back home complain about this sort of thing, I will rip them to shreds because they just don't realize how good they have it, which really puts things in perspective.

We then drove back and went to the mall, which was another refreshing change from back home. Yes, it's not as many people but the mall itself had everything and when you went into stores, sales clerks were all nice. They treated you with respect, something that isn't always noticeable here.

As I picked up some postcards for family and friend, hockey tape and puck for brother, we walked downstairs into one of my favorite places. The book store. I love going there because I enjoy reading in my free time. I'm a big Jack Higgins fan. Though he specializes in fiction, it's always very believable, which makes it enjoyable to read.

The sales clerk was very nice as well. I inquired about a new work they had in hard cover to find out if it were available in soft cover but it just came in. She asked me something else as I picked out two other Higgins works but I was distracted. This was the kind of person I wouldn't have minded bringing home. Very nice person who looks right at you. Nothing phony.

Unfortunately, we had to go. Being on a tight schedule and budget doesn't leave you much time. Though we were pretty close to Canada, there just wasn't time for everything. If we had a couple of more days, we definitely would have gone.

We stopped for lunch at Quizno's. Believe it or not, it was the first time I ever tried it. Definitely top notch. While on line, a couple of younger girls who probably attended The University At Buffalo were chatting and I said something. One was from Long Island and my one remark was, "It's better than Staten Island," to which they laughed. In all honesty, living here isn't that bad. I guess when you live in one area for almost your whole life minus 11 months in Bristol, Connecticut, it has that kind of effect.

After picking up stuff at Tops Market for the tailgate Sunday, we finally relaxed and watched some U.S. Open tennis. There was Andre Agassi defying the odds once more, winning another five set match against Robby Ginepri. Flipping between that and the Yankees making a washed up Curt Schilling look dominant again wasn't much of a choice. As a Yankee fan, my one thought was, 'How come every other team lights up Schilling and we can't beat him with a bum ankle or now?' Kind of tells you what I think of the Yanks' chances. Brian agrees.

As we flipped between Notre Dame 'upsetting' another overrated college football program Michigan and Roger Federer pulling off more sick shots against Lleyton Hewitt than Alexei Kovalev has moves in his arsenal, I couldn't help but wonder why more people don't watch the genius of tennis. There certainly is enough court movement, hustle, incredible shots for awesome rallies and ridiculous winners which make the crowd 'oooohhh and ahhhh.'

In many ways, tennis and hockey are very similar. Both are niche sports, which cost a lot of money to play and have problems drawing in The States. Both are fun to watch and can bring fans out of their seats. Federer with his running forehand or backhand crosscourt behind opponents or Kovalev with his deke or blistering wrist shot. Agassi with his precision from the baseline resulting in 'how did he do that' winners or Joe Sakic with his patented wrist shot which finds the top of the net. Kim Clijsters with her great hustle on defense to keep points alive or Martin Brodeur with his stack of the pads to deny someone.

Of course, one sport is one-on-one with each combatant trying to adjust on the fly during a match without more than a minute between two games and a couple of injury timeouts if needed. The other sport is team oriented that includes tons of strategy put in by coaches and tons of communication. For some reason, I find myself leaning towards tennis because there's no one there to help you win. It's a physical and mental battle of attrition that can last four or even five hours. But I always come to the same conclusion: Both are great sports which deserve more recognition.

As we went to sleep fairly early to prepare for the early rise for the special Opening Day tailgate extravaganza Sunday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what it was going to look like. Were these Bills fans really as diehard as I had heard?

By 6 AM the next day, we already got up and prepared for the long day ahead, which would include the journey to Rich Stadium and then a long trip home.

Having checked out fairly early, we hit the road for the half an hour ride to the Stadium. On our way there, we stopped at the one and only Tim Horton's for some breakfast. I heard many things about Horton's. Let's just say it lived up to the hype. A perfectly toasted everything bagel with just the right touch of butter and a decaf said so.

As we got closer to our destination in the middle of nowhere (not exaggerating), suddenly to the left was Rich Stadium. Just picture this. You're cruising in a nice small town and then you see an arena on your left. That's Buffalo.

Amazingly, at 8 AM, five hours before kickoff, the Bills pregame show came on the radio and already some dolt was referring to Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman in his first start as "the next Rob Johnson." For those who don't know who that is, let's just say it was a former Jaguar QB that Buffalo made a big investment in, only to see him unseated by Doug Flutie. Yes. That DOUG FLUTIE.

It was too early for this. 'It's Game One and this troll is making that comparison when Losman has yet to start a game,' I beckoned to Brian. I even pondered calling up as he laughed.

As Brian nervously wondered how we'd find Two Bills Drive, the site we posted on who was setup somewhere already on the lawn, luckily it wasn't that tough to find them thanks to a sign which pointed us in the right direction.

At 8:15 in the morning, what impressed me was how well organized everything was. When they found out we weren't staying after the game, they had us park in front, which would come in handy later. If I remember correctly, SDS (Scott) hosted the event along with Jack, Jay, Cindy and Rockpile. Note: If this confuses you, just understand that we're dealing with a site of diehard fans and trying to give as much credit as possible.

A table was setup in the back where Jay successfully hosted an auction of a classic black road Jim Kelly Houston Gamblers jersey which went for $225 to Tyrone and for a great cause! The money was donated to The Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. A very noble gesture.

Meanwhile, Rockpile's lovely daughters helped sell raffle tickets for fans interested. Their smiles were enough for me. I bought 13 for the great price of $5. There were many winners including yours truly. A host of Bills items were won including hats, 2004 yearbooks, shirts, etc. I was very pleased to take home a Willis McGahee hat. One of my all-time favorite Miami Hurricanes and already establishing himself among the NFL's elite running backs.

While all this took place, on the side setup were some first class tailgates, which made the day an instant success. Among the best were Rich's buffalo wings, which had the perfect kick in them to wake you up. There were also some excellent sausages, barbecued chicken, jerk chicken, fries and even an assortment of hot peppers if anyone dared try. Being the daredevil I am, I bit into a red one that had me on fire for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, a nice lady came up to me and said, 'The way you bit that, you looked like you had experience.' It had to be one of the funniest remarks I've heard. Yes, it was true. I like hot peppers and have been known to try a few. But just the way she termed it put a smile on my face.

Luckily, there were enough ice cold beers and other assorted drinks to cool me off.

What also was cool was that they chipped in to buy a birthday cake for Scott, the host of the site. He didn't really have any words but the look on his face when Jay introduced him was priceless.

If I got any of this wrong, I apologize.

I'd like to give special props to R.Rich and Blitzburgh. Both were great to meet along with everyone else I ran into including someone from Freehold, New Jersey.

As things wound down, we participated in a group photo to conclude the festivities. All in all, a great time with some hardcore fans. I had to see it to believe it. There was even singing in the background to the trademark Bills touchdown song, the all too familiar Otis Redding's "Shout," spinoff with a "Let's Go Buffalo" chant mixed in.

On to the game. Full of anticipation heading into Rich Stadium, it was everything I expected and more. I came away very impressed. Our seats were all the way up in Section 337 with our hosts, who I thanked for the tickets along with other fans from the tailgate. Full of electricity, over 70,000 strong stood up and cheered loudly as each Bill was introduced. You could feel the energy.

With it being the fourth anniversary of a very tragic day, a moving ceremony took place to commemorate 9/11. I found myself rather emotional as the national anthem was sang. As U.S. Navy planes flew over the stadium in salute, it was the perfect touch on a special day.

The game itself was all Bills. From the very first snap, they dominated every single aspect against a scared Houston Texans squad. At least to the naked eye, they didn't look like they wanted any part of Buffalo. Especially the defense, which turned David Carr into a statue.

In his debut, Losman had a very good game, throwing for one touchdown and most importantly, no turnovers. He showed the pocket poise of a savvy vet, hardly panicking. When the Texans made it interesting near the end of the first half, McGahee took over on one drive, faking out a Texan to get one first down and then running for two more in a statement drive, which resulted in the only Buffalo touchdown.

With his team in command 19-7 at halftime, an amped up Losman went to the fans yelling at them to get up, prompting more cheers. Just from how excited he was to listening to him on the postgame, I concluded that the Bills had a very bright future at QB. So, if he falls apart, you know who to blame.

With the Bills in command 22-7 with 5:00 left, we finally decided to go, knowing there was a long trip home. It was a wise decision. We were able to beat a lot of traffic and made three stops along the way including a final one at Horton's, for a soup, roll combo with coffee and a donut for three and change. Where else can you get that kind of deal? Maybe it's time for Horton's to come to these parts.

After splitting costs on gas, we traveled back passing the country-like Rochester along the way with Binghamton to follow and then Syracuse. As we passed The Carrier Dome in pitch black, it was hard to believe that a trip that began just a couple of nights ago was coming to a close. To kill time, I called up my brother Justin, who was drafting a fantasy hockey team for me. The best part was that Brian also made suggestions and it felt like a real draft, where we were working the phones to choose the guy we wanted. Everyone got their say. All things considered, I'd say we did pretty well. I still couldn't believe the yahoo system didn't have Alexander Ovechkin in it but of course included Sidney Crosby.

As the draft concluded in Scranton where we stopped at McDonalds, I thanked my brother for helping out and we got going. Then another chat reminiscent of the one we had Friday night about what's happened to kids resumed. Both Brian and I concluded that kids today are growing up too fast. I won't get into specifics but I'm sure people can speculate.

It's not just the lack of respect many have for authority today. But it's the lack of discipline which falls on parents. Funny but I don't remember it being this way when Justin or I were younger. It just seems like certain family values and other fundamentals aren't being emphasized enough. Kids are getting away with too much these days. But you can't always put the blame on them. It starts at the top. Maybe if people got back to basics, things would be a lot better for everyone.

As we listened to the end of the Colts 24-7 win at Baltimore on WFAN back for one final gas stop in Northern Jersey, the end was finally near. A trip which began with much excitement had an hour left. When we arrived home past 12:30 AM, about seven hours after really moving along, I thanked Brian (Clements22 to most) for driving and most importantly, for inviting me to Buffalo. It was a worthwhile experience that showed a different way of life.

All these years, I heard all the stories. It turned out he wasn't kidding. Western New York is nothing like here. It's just got its own unique lifestyle. Now that's pretty darn good.

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