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How the Bills were a bright spot for Western New York in 2020 

Buffalo Bills vs Baltimore Ravens, Divisional Playoff Game, January 16, 2021 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin
Buffalo Bills vs Baltimore Ravens, Divisional Playoff Game, January 16, 2021 at Bills Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin

Josh Allen was asked on the first day of training camp why he chose to opt in for the 2020 season.

The Bills quarterback spoke about being a football player at his core and knowing no other way. Surely, he saw an opportunity for a special run after making the playoffs in 2019 and adding receiver Stefon Diggs during the offseason.

But his answer started with another motivation: Hope.

"We know that Sunday's a very special day in the lives of a lot of people around the world," Allen said.

The Bills gave Western New York a sense of familiarity at the tail end of a year that was nothing if not unpredictable. Against all odds, the lasting memories of football in 2020 might not be of empty stadiums or the tailgates that weren't.

Instead, people might remember counting the "Allen-Diggs '20" lawn signs on neighborhood walks. They may recall subtle interactions with strangers at grocery markets or car horns honked to the tune of "Let's go Buffalo." Photos will tell stories of trips taken to "Josh Allentown."

"Being here for five years now, I got to really know Buffalo," left tackle Dion Dawkins said, reflecting on what it all meant.

"For a football team to come in and kind of take the attention away from all of the chaos and put it on us, it kind of just gave the city hope and a little more juice and a little more swagger."

The Buffalo Bills partnered with Oxford Pennant to celebrate each win this season with a commemorative banner. Scroll through to see them!

Christmastime in January

Nate Mroz can pinpoint the moment he fell in his love with his hometown. He was in seventh grade when a trip with his mom to Children's Hospital turned into a downtown exhibition.

"That was the pivotal moment," Mroz said. "I'll never forget it. I remember driving through all the downtown streets seeing AM&A's and all these old department stores and all these old buildings, tall buildings.

"I was like, 'Wait, this is Buffalo?'"

The passion stuck. Mroz graduated high school in 2012, when the popular sentiment among others his age was to leave the city for greener pastures. He attended Buffalo State and majored in urban planning, only to be frustrated upon hearing professors talk down upon the city he had set out to improve.

That year, ironically, had been dubbed by the school as "The Year of the City."

"I even went to the dean about it," he said. "Look, this is a city that needs some vibrancy, needs these young people to stay. He said, 'Well, you're coming to me about this?'

"I said, 'Yeah, because you're calling this 'The Year of the City,' but you're telling these people to basically leave the area.' That's not going to help the area at all."

Mroz had fused his civic pride with his other passion: photography. He was getting through college working at a local grocery store when he decided to begin selling his prints for extra cash. The BFLO Store was born in 2012 as a kiosk in the Eastern Hills Mall.

Mroz's idea, it turned out, hit just in time for Buffalo's renaissance. He transitioned to his first brick-and-mortar store in 2015. By 2020, he had locations at the Eastern Hills, McKinley, and Walden Galleria malls and another attached to the Explore and More Children's Museum at Canalside. The Eastern Hills location was set to transition to "The BFLO Event Center," a mixed-use space occupying the former Sears department store.

Then the pandemic hit.

"The pandemic hits and we had to shut that down, lay off all my employees, including myself," he said. "It was tough, man. I got emotional. I had to lay off some of my best friends, people that worked for me for years, and I had no answers for them."

Mroz never truly considered bankruptcy, but he realizes now that he could have. Rent costs piled up while income had come to a halt. He transitioned to online sales and kept the store going long enough for government assistance to finally help pay some of that debt.

When he was allowed to reopen, Mroz saw a patronage unlike anything he had experienced pre-pandemic. People went out of their way to shop locally to keep businesses like his afloat, an effort that reached new heights when the Bills made the playoffs.

Mroz said sales in January nearly tripled those in November, typically the second-busiest month of the year due to Black Friday.

"I mean, the vibe of Buffalo changes when the Bills win," Mroz said. "People were happy, people were excited. It's a different vibe now because at Christmastime, everyone's in a rush. Everybody's panicking and this and that.

"Here, it wasn't a panic to buy necessarily. It was more, 'We want to support local but we also want to support our Bills.' … Their winning made us tangibly successful, which was very refreshing. Not just for us. There were a lot of places that saw tangible increases whether it's your local takeout places, restaurants, plenty of places. Even our vendors as well."

Proactive involvement

Shatorah Donovan grew up during the Bills' heyday in the 1990s. She remembers being quizzed by her brother, Will, on Thurman Thomas' position and Bruce Smith's jersey number.

"Part of our bonding growing up was over the Buffalo Bills," she said.

Donovan, now chief diversity officer for the city of Buffalo, got to know the Bills up close in 2020. She received a call from defensive tackle Harrison Phillips weeks prior to the season, a conversation that laid the foundation for the team's three-point plan to address social change.

"They had a really good idea of what they wanted to do," Donovan said. "I was able to add a little bit of color to it and say, 'If that's what you want to do, here's the best way.'"

The initiative took shape during a 45-minute call with Dion Dawkins, Jerry Hughes, Taiwan Jones, and Josh Norman. The Bills players decided to donate funds to provide internet to the homes of Buffalo Public School students. They also lent their platforms to promoting census awareness and voter participation.

The proactive nature of it all was what struck Donovan the most. It happened again in November, when Norman – who at that point had appeared in just four games with the Bills – reached out with the idea of his "Buffalo Business Blitz" to support small businesses in Western New York through the pandemic.

"In my role as chief diversity officer, the only thing I think about is my community and how to make sure the community is getting what it needs in every sector, every corner," Donovan said. "To have an organization, a juggernaut like the Buffalo Bills reaching out proactively to get involved in the community is amazing.

"Players continue to reach out to see what more they can do. I don't think this was a 2020, COVID type of phenomenon. I think this signifies the type of organization the Bills are under this leadership."

The on-field success, meanwhile, found its way to Donovan's office. Large banners celebrating the Bills' AFC East title were hung from City Hall, becoming a popular place for fans to take photos as the team got further along in its run. Donovan took a ride around Niagara Square to take in the atmosphere following the team's Divisional-Round win over Baltimore.

Through it all, she thought of her brother.

"Being able to send my brother Bills gear directly from the Bills Store and him sending me pictures of his kids with Bills gear on even though they live down in Houston – it doesn't matter where you are," she said. "Bills fans are for life. It was cool to see it being passed down to the next generation."

Scroll through to see the fans that cheered on the Bills as the team beat the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional playoffs.

The number 27 took on an odd prevalence during the week of the AFC Championship. The Bills had advanced to play the Chiefs, the same team they played for a trip to the Super Bowl 27 years ago – and also 27 years before that.

Both teams' paths were forged in part by a trade between Buffalo and Kansas City that resulted in the Bills getting the 27th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, which was used to select No. 27 Tre'Davious white.

It was fitting, then, that about 200 fans chose to watch the game outside in 27-degree weather at the socially distanced "Playoffs on the Patio" event on Chippewa. Friends gathered under Mylar blankets and over buckets of Labatt and cups of hot chocolate, all to have a sense of community while the Bills played for a shot at the Super Bowl.

Early on, there was plenty to celebrate. Fans got a double dose of the "Shout Song" after Mecole Hardman dropped a kick in the first quarter – once when the fumble occurred and again when the Bills scored a touchdown on the ensuing play to take a 9-0 lead.

Catching the Chiefs seemed like an uphill climb by the time the song played next, after a Tyler Bass field goal late in the first half. Kaleb Borgus, a 25-year-old who drove 64 miles from Nunda, NY to watch the game out in the cold, remained upbeat. He talked about his grandmother, a lifelong fan who told him stories of the Super Bowl runs during the '90s.

Even as the run neared its end, he was happy to be a part of it.

"I love it," he said. "The Bills are playing."

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