We didn’t attend many sporting events growing up, not so much because of a lack of money, more because Dad had a lack of patience. Nothing sent the original Mr. 20 Prospect over the edge faster than the gridlocked traffic getting into and out of the parking lots. For that reason, more than any other, I didn’t attend a professional sporting event until 1980 when St. Joe’s organized a parish excursion to a Buffalo Bills game.
It was the 4th game of the season, and it just so happened that this particular year was the first time in my lifetime that the Bills actually fielded a competitive team. They would eventually even make the playoffs, but that trip was organized long before, and with the parish providing round trip transportation on 2 school buses, it didn’t take much pleading to convince Dad to go to the game. So it was that we purchased a set of tickets, and set off for that eventful game against the Oakland Raiders.
Now one might think that a church organized excursion to a football game would be a wholesome family adventure, involving homemade lemonade, and the singing of songs on the bus. But this being 1980, one would be wrong. One of the most amazing things I have noticed as I have approached middle age, is how our society’s definition of acceptable public behavior has changed. Now a days public drunkenness is frowned upon. Back then, it was not only acceptable, it was the central purpose for large events like football games, and rock concerts, and church organized excursions were no exception.
Each of the two buses that we loaded into that morning came equipped with a half keg of beer in the back row. And even though we had just attended the 8 am Mass, people didn’t have any problem tapping into it on the drive up to Rich Stadium. The mood was festive, and the sense of anticipation palpable. I had never been to a big time football game before, and with the Bill’s hot start, all 80,000 seats had been sold for the game that day against the Raiders.
And what a glorious day it was. For the last weekend in September the weather was lovely, with achingly clear blue skies. By the time we arrived at the game, the temperature had already risen into the 80’s. The gravel parking lots outside Rich were full of tailgater’s, and the smell of hot dogs, and hamburgs’ filled the air. Total strangers were friendly and talkative in the lines getting into the stadium, and everyone was jovial. It was apparent even to a 12 year old that over 50% of them were already three sheets to the wind. As the game began the Bills jumped out to an early lead, and it quickly became a laugher. The “Bermuda Triangle” of Smerlas, Haslet and Shane Nelson was all over Dan Pastorini, and after every touchdown the crowd was on its feet singing along to “Talking Proud”.
But it isn’t what went on down on the field that I remember most. It was the view in the stands. This being the end of the 70’s the place was full of inebriated long hairs and resembled a scene from Woodstock. My friend Chris and I were more entertained by the drunk in the row in front of us who kept drinking wine from his bolo, waving a large anatomically correct stuffed Buffalo, and shouting “Pastorini bites the weenie” at the top of his lungs, than we were with the football game. I can remember going to the bathroom at halftime, and being amazed to see grown men peeing in the sinks, and a passed out drunk laying in the urinal trough. But most amazing of all, was how people went about their business as if this was normal.
After the game, it took a while for our parishioners to find their way back to the bus. We played catch with the drunks while we waited to leave. On the way home, the grownups in the back did their best to kill the keg before we got back to Batavia, and their slurred banter was the entertainment. This was a side of folks that I didn’t usually see sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, and it made quite an impression. Monsignor Schwarz sat at the front of the bus, and didn’t seem too greatly disturbed by the proceedings, so neither were we.
I’m not sure at what point this type of public behavior became unacceptable, but somewhere along the way decorum, and decency took over. In this age of Corporate Sports such behavior isn’t tolerated and it doesn’t take much to bring down the security guards, and get the rowdies ejected. In fact, they even flash phone numbers on the jumbo-tron for narc’ing on folks.
Maybe it’s the money involved, or maybe our litigiousness has made us more wary. Or maybe we have just matured a little bit in the last 30 years. Whatever the reason, there are few places left that a person can see humanity letting it all hang out. The infield at a NASCAR race springs to mind, and I have heard stories about Mardi-Gras that make my experiences pale in comparison. This may sound odd, but in some ways I think we have lost something. Maybe if we let our hair down more, and were more tolerant of such debauchery, we wouldn’t have half of the population taking anti-depressants, or seeing counselors to work through our anxiety. Then again, maybe it’s our past that has us so screwed up in the first place Something for your counselor’s to figure out. Let me know what they have to say.