On paper, their gameday is much the same as any Bills fan.
They wake up early, pack the car, hop on the I-90 towards Ralph Wilson Stadium, set up the tailgate, tailgate, tailgate some more, head into the stadium, cheer on their Bills, head out of the stadium, tailgate just a little more (have to eat the leftovers, of course), then head home.
Sounds like a typical Ralph Wilson Stadium gameday experience, right?
But beginning and ending with their unwavering dedication to the Buffalo Bills for the past 26 years, this trio – known as the Bills Brothers – has become anything but typical.
Brothers by blood Ed and Tony Califano, and brother by Bills Robin Brooks purchased three front row endzone season tickets in 1986, not knowing then what traditions and years of memories would come. Now, over two decades and 400 games later with no regular season absences – not even one - they’ve not only become the unofficial mayors of their section, but local celebrities too.
“I don’t think when we started this that there was ever a thought that this would happen,” said Tony. “That’s not what we were doing it for. I think it happened naturally. The three of us always went together, we got these three helmets, we gradually bought current jerseys, and that’s all we did. We didn’t know it would draw the attention it has.”
While they were quietly enjoying their gameday traditions and renewing their season tickets year after year, people were watching, and slowly these three brothers became an integral part of gameday at the Ralph.
“People know us, and sometimes I think it’s just kind of normal,” said Tony, laughing. “My brother (Ed) comes from Albany so he doesn’t make the preseason games. We get in and everyone’s asking where he is. They ask if he’s okay.”
“Some of our friends will see us on tv and tell the people they’re watching it with, ‘I know those guys, I see them every time at the games!’” said Robin. “Their friends don’t always believe them. That’s just another thrill of everything."
Humbled by their local celebrity status, you won’t find them bragging about the fans, players, coaches, referees, ticket takers, security guards and countless other Ralph Wilson Stadium regulars who know their names and their stories, or at least recognize their trademark red helmet hats.
“They’re user friendly,” said Tony of the ‘vintage’ hats bought at a Ralph Wilson Stadium apparel stand circa 1990. “They’re warm and they’re waterproof. They really work. People ask us all the time where we got them.”
“During the warmer games people say, ‘You’ve gotta be hot in those hats,’” said Robin. “We tell them, if the players can wear their helmets, we can wear ours.”
With their helmets on, their current Bills player jerseys above all other clothing layers, and Ed and Robin in the sunglasses for which they were dubbed the Bills Brothers (derived from the always shades-clad Blues Brothers) they’re easily spotted both in the stadium and just behind the action on TV.
In fact, they’re so easily spotted that they were once hand-delivered the football after Drew Bledsoe’s first touchdown pass to Eric Moulds.
“He looks to the left. He looks to the right,” remembered Tony. “He pump fakes to the left, and I see Eric Moulds go across the center. He throws a bullet to him. Eric Moulds falls down, gets up, comes right at us and gives me the ball. I had his jersey on, but he knew us.”
Though they can’t say for sure why Moulds was compelled to give the group of recognizable brothers the football that day, it stands as a sign of the impact the trio has on gameday.
The Bills Brothers, over the course of their decades of resolute fandom, have provided an intangible but crucial part of gameday for so many people.
“We’re leaders of a different sort,” said Tony. “We get people going down there. I think people want us there. We try to pump people up when it’s down.
“You feel like you’re part of the whole thing, part of the game.”
And after 26 years of the ups and the downs of every home game and every Bills season, these die-hard, close to the action fans remain optimistic.
“We’re up on this team,” said Tony. “I’m excited. You always think things will be different, but this is beyond that. There’s heart here. There’s some serious playing. And the guys are enjoying it too.”