I almost sent vodka shooting out my nose when I perused this year's list of semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Oh, sure, I was excited to see a great former Bill like Bruce Smith getting his first at-bat, but even the potential enshrinement of one of "my guys" couldn't mitigate the flu-like symptoms I felt when I saw Art "I found a way to go broke owning an NFL team" Modell's name on the list. You have got to be kidding me.
What exactly are we honoring here, the breaking of a million hearts?
Seriously, how little does the league value the hearts and minds of the fan when it lobbies to enshrine an owner who relocated a team with one of the most robust fan bases in all of professional sports? It's beyond brazenly inappropriate, it's unthinkable. The assumption that everything is hunky dory because the wrong was righted -- Cleveland got to keep the Browns team name when it was eventually rewarded with a new franchise. Not so even-Steven when you factor in the perpetual expansion-level mess the "new" Browns remain, as the Dawg Pounders had to sit and watch the Baltimore Ravens -- a.k.a., the "old" Browns -- notch a Super Bowl win, and once again this year look like a serious playoff team.
It says here you simply can't put a relocationist owner in the Hall. It's blasphemous. The game's popularity was built on the money fans pay to watch the game, and in a Rust Belt town like Cleveland, none of those season tickets came easily.
If you really want to reward a deserving soul, I am here to tell you that a big, bronze bust belongs in the Hall for the unnamed hero who first thought it might be a good idea to make the Green Bay Packers a publicly-owned company. There's your hero of the people, my friends! For all the thrills great players provide us, no individual ever gave more back to the fans of the National Football League than the one guy who put a team in their control.
If you are lucky enough to be born a Packers fan, you not only get to enjoy what is arguably the league's most fabled and historically rich franchise, you also get to go to bed every night knowing that no matter how the economics of the game change, you will never wake up the next morning to the horrific reality of "The Los Angeles Packers."
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I should probably admit that my relocation outrage is pumping at warp speed because I am still trying to recover from the horror of last Sunday's Buffalo Bills "home" game. As a native of Buffalo, it's my birthright to have a special place in my heart for this team, and what they mean to the community I am proud to have grown up in. Along with that passion comes certain unwritten rules, not the least of which is "Thou shalt hate the Miami Dolphins above all others." I have a buddy from Buffalo who taught his son the following exchange at a remarkably young age:
"Who's your favorite team?"
"Who's your second favorite team?"
"Whoever's playing Miami."
I'm old enough to remember watching the Bills lose the entire decade of the '70s to Miami. Bad enough Buffalo was losing huge companies right and left and turning into the default punch line of every crappy city joke, then we go and get pimp-slapped by the Sunshine State's capital of glamour, fun and frolic. It bred all sorts of conspiracy theories. We were convinced the refs would never throw a flag against a Don Shula team as long as he sat in the lead chair of the Competition Committee. We were equally convinced they threw flags at us with extreme prejudice for the same reason. I can still remember hugging my AM transistor radio during an early '70s game as Miami drove down to our 4-yard line, poised to blow open a tight game ... when all of a sudden Bills linebacker Paul Guidry scooped up a fumble and ran it all the way back for the game-winning touchdown ... not! Of course, we all knew not to trust the moment, and sure enough the refs tossed the flag, the ball was returned with a "half-the-distance-to-the-goal line" bonus, and they hung another "L" on us.
If I wipe the pre-teen emotion off my glasses and take a closer look, the real problem was more likely the fact that we were an inept organization toiling in the same division as one of the best teams and coaches in the game at the time. But hate is hate, and it was born out of a familiar feeling: Humiliation.
I'm talking about the kind of hate that makes an NFL game extra-special. The privilege to soar and die in the throws of a big-time, down-and-dirty rivalry. We all know Buffalo is a small NFL market with great fan support. Win or lose, our stadium is full with people who care. So it was with great trepidation we reacted when 90-year-old owner Ralph Wilson went on record saying that when he dies, his family will sell the team to the highest bidder. What can I tell you, in an economy like Buffalo's, "highest bidder" is cause for alarm.
Then the Bills cut a deal to play one "home" game a year in Toronto. This one had Buffalonian heads spinning. Look, this isn't the Packers playing a game in Madison -- that's the same state, the same fan base, the same nation. Any hockey fan knows that not only does Toronto have nothing to do with western New York, but the Maple Leafs happen to be hockey's answer to the Miami Dolphins -- Buffalo's arch enemies. It was sold as the best way to keep the Bills in town, but we all know that Toronto represents two other things far bigger than fan loyalty in this here "let's put Modell in Canton" modern world -- big bucks ready to bid on the team, and the league's chance to expand its borders.
The only reaction you could have was, "Time will tell." That was when things were hypothetical. The hypothetical became creepily real when it was decided that the game to kick things off would be a December home game against Miami.
I have been at Miami games during Buffalo winters when the mere fact that the snow started blowing horizontally provoked huge cheers. It was a pride point -- try to wear your little aqua colored shorts now, jackass!
The whole premise of these Toronto games is that Bills fans couldn't afford them, and that was certainly driven home during the game broadcast. Not a single Bills jersey to be seen for miles. Every throw to commercial was accompanied by crowd shots brimming with fans dressed in Dolphin paraphernalia. It's not that the network was trying to rub it in; they simply couldn't find anyone wearing a Buffalo jersey.
The temperature in Buffalo was a delicious 19 degrees… yet the game was played under a dome in a climate-controlled 72 degrees.
There was no way around it -- we sacrificed home-field advantage to our most hated divisional rival so the team could get paid -- which I'm fine with if it keeps the team around, but let the Toronto game feature another quality visitor -- any Bills fan this year gladly would have served up games against the Chargers, Jets or Patriots. Take 'em, please. But the choice of this game spoke volumes about disrespect to the loyal fan who has given up a lot over the past 50 years. The factories that left town never came back. The local taxes still act like the entire state lives in Manhattan. It ain't easy, never has been, but hard-working people always put their money down and filled those seats.
Oh, remember that Miami game that could make sense of even the most humbling losing campaigns? Yeah, well, it's moving to Toronto this year…
Things are very dark right now in the nickel city. Buffalo sports fans are getting it from all sides. Rumors broke this week that the Buffalo Sabres may or may not be sold to a vastly wealthy buyer who might want to relocate the team to, of all places, Hamilton, Ontario. A quick scan of college football's bowl games reveals the once-defunct University of Buffalo Bulls, under the masterful guidance of coach Turner Gill, have risen from the ashes to such heights they are playing in their first bowl game since memory serves. And our reward? They face UConn in the third annual International Bowl played at (drumroll please ...) the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Hey, my mom is Canadian. I have a lot of respect for all things Canadian, but what the hell is happening here?
That's why I say the first guy voted into Canton is the guy who drew up those Packers corporate papers. The business model goes all the way back to the start of the franchise in 1923, so no doubt the legendary Curly Lambeau was involved. but you just know that somewhere in that mix a nice little accountant was at the wheel of what has turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to football fans in Wisconsin.