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'Where else could you be?' | Inside Bills Mafia's raucous return to Highmark Stadium

Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers, September 12, 2021 at Highmark Stadium. 
 Photo by Craig Melvin
Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers, September 12, 2021 at Highmark Stadium. Photo by Craig Melvin

Bill Crist and Brian Buske found themselves channeling Marv Levy as they made the nearly three-hour trek from Oswego, New York to Highmark Stadium early Sunday morning.

There was, quite literally, nowhere else they'd rather be than on a bus to Orchard Park.

"We were driving out here and said that several times," Crist said prior to kickoff, surrounded by friends and family members in a lot on Abbott Road. "I mean, where else could you be? This is the place to go."

The origins of their tailgate can be traced back to a family reunion, where Crist and Buske had a revelation. To that point, their clan had taken three separate vehicles to attend games. Why not buy a bus to fit the whole group?

Crist and Buske drove two hours that very night to see about a school bus that had 29,000 miles and read "Christian Central Academy" along the side. Over the ensuing five years, their "labor of love" has made attending Bills games a family affair. The bus is completely customized with Bills colors, inside and out. A TV inside allows the group to watch evening games as they drive back to Oswego.

The tradition was sorely missing last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic relegated the Bills to playing in an empty stadium. The group parked the bus outside Buske's house to try and recreate the magic, but it wasn't the same.

"We've been talking about this for months," Buske said. "Yesterday, we were counting down the hours."

Though it ended with a 23-16 loss, Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers marked a step toward normalcy for the 69,787 fans who packed Highmark Stadium in its first full-capacity game since 2019. Fans marched through the gates in droves more than an hour before kickoff, anxious to greet a team that captured the city's imagination with a run to the AFC Championship last season.

Del Reid was not among the early entrants. The Bills Mafia co-founder had to forego his usual tailgating traditions to attend church with his two daughters. He found himself sweating nervously as he began his drive to the stadium at 11:35 a.m., hearing reports on the radio of fans and players being caught in extreme traffic.

Thankfully, he missed the worst of it. Reid and his family were in their seats by the time Bills players were introduced to the roaring crowd.

"It was great," he said. "Sitting next to a stranger and celebrating together, it was obviously something that we were not doing last year. We weren't doing anything with strangers last year. But it was really great. I met a couple people next to our seats and exchanged a bunch of high fives. It was a much more familiar Bills game experience."

The noise continued throughout the afternoon, 21 months' worth of pent-up shouting and bleacher slapping. At one point, Steelers rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth – who played his college ball at Penn State, home to the second-largest stadium in the United States – remarked to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger how loud it was while they were on offense.

"That's a hostile place," Roethlisberger said. "Those fans are awesome. They were loud. It was very, very loud."

Scroll to see photos of Bills Mafia during Buffalo's Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Highmark Stadium.

Conway the Machine was one of those fans, watching from a suite surrounded by family and friends. The Griselda Records rapper and Buffalo native played a show on his "Love Will Get You Killed" tour in Baltimore on Saturday night and had another in Philadelphia on Sunday.

This occasion was worth the brief trip home.

"Hell yeah. Absolutely," he said. "It's long overdue. I'm excited for the people."

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