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'It was just electric' | Inside the atmosphere at Bills Stadium for Saturday's playoff game


Ken "Pinto Ron" Johnson has a catalog of Bills memories few others can match. He had attended 423 straight games, home and away, prior to this season and still managed to attend road games in Arizona, Miami, and Tennessee in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson added another memory Saturday when he attended the Bills' wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the first playoff game in Orchard Park since 1995. The defining image, he says, will be the elation of those around him when Micah Hyde batted down Philip Rivers' Hail Mary attempt to seal a victory.

"Back to the future," Johnson said. "We'd been there 20, 25 years ago and it was the exact same feeling. The one thing I noticed is all the people who were, say, 35 and under were losing their minds because they'd never seen this before.

"They've been waiting for an enormous amount of time for this to happen. I felt so good for all those youngsters who'd never gone through what we went through in the '90s. But it was exactly like the '90s. It was just like that. Everyone was wired. It was just electric in there."

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in December that roughly 6,700 fans would be permitted into Bills Stadium for their wild-card home game, Bills owner Terry Pegula issued a simple directive for fans in attendance: "Be safe, be smart and, most importantly, be loud."

The safety aspect, Johnson said, was a success. Fans were required to undergo a drive-up COVID-19 test at Bills Stadium within 72 hours of the game, which proved to be a quick and seamless process in partnership with BioReference Laboratories.

Once inside, Johnson felt he had no trouble avoiding close contact with others. In fact, the spread-out nature of fans in the lower bowl – and the fact that most fans were on their feet – seemed to even give the appearance of a stadium that was fuller than it actually was.

"It was totally safe," Johnson said. "There's never really large crowds. There's some crowds at the concession stands and bathrooms, but not enough that you can't maintain that six-foot distance on the little dots they put on the ground.

"You're not really close to anyone in the stadium. You don't have to walk over anybody to get to your seats. You never have more than two people in any given room, or two groups. … It was probably less crowded, less exposure to people than if you went to a supermarket."

The "be loud" directive – well, that was aced with flying colors. "MVP" chants poured from the stands following a touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs. When the Bills were on defense, fans took advantage of the open space by banging persistently on the seats in front of them.

"It was amazing, honestly," left tackle Dion Dawkins said afterward. "When I came out of the tunnel I just paused and looked around and thought, 'Man, it feels good to have you back.' … The 6,700 that came showed out, they represented the full capacity today. It feels so good to have the mafia here and I'm extremely happy that they got to experience it and I got to experience it."

Mitch Morse referred to the atmosphere as "remarkably loud."

"I'm very proud of our fans, especially when things weren't going right," he said. "They could have booed us, but they didn't. It's very heartwarming. They stayed patient and their impact was definitely felt. Even with the limited capacity home field advantage definitely made a difference."

There would be no boos Saturday, not with the emotional significance of what the moment meant. Johnson noticed the two fans closest to him, who he estimates were in their late twenties, crying and hugging practically from start to finish. He saw parents and children sharing the moment, many likely for the first time.

He was one of them. Johnson attended the game with his own 35-year-old son, who had been to playoff games but had few memories of his own.

"He was so excited," Johnson said. "It was beyond belief."

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