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Buffalo Bills fans in Brandon do more than root for home team

Of all the vehicles filling the east end of the Oak Park Plaza parking lot in Brandon on this NFL Sunday, one stands out.

It's an outlandishly blue and red converted delivery truck, and it serves as a symbol of the passionate revelry that binds the hundreds of western New York transplants inside O'Brien's Irish Pub.

But even "Big Blue," the moniker the fans gave the truck, isn't big enough to fully illustrate the devotion driving the Buffalo Bills Backers of Brandon. Or the charitable hearts that make this one of the area's most unique fan clubs.

For nine years, they have gathered at O'Brien's. Dick LoCicero, who owned season tickets in the Bills' 1960 inaugural season, is the oldest backer at 78. Karys Sommer, 4 months old, is the youngest.

Bills centerpieces, banners and mementos such as boxes of Flutie Flakes fill the room. They talk about life "back home" and laugh when someone shows up with a T-shirt that says, "My city smells like Cheerios."

It's a Buffalo thing — you wouldn't understand.

Four times a year, they have a pregame tailgate party (the next one is Oct. 10) in the O'Brien's parking lot with the only brew a true Buffaloan drinks: Molson Canadian.

The pub serves food germane to western New York: Beef on weck sandwiches and authentic Buffalo wings like they make at the famed Anchor Bar, unbreaded and lathered in Frank's Hot Sauce.

It helps that the Backers' president, Ron VanHall, also is an O'Brien's manager.

Every time the team's offense gains another set of downs, everyone screams, "It's another Buffalo — first down!"

When Buffalo scores, the bar erupts in unbridled joy. Fans wave mini Bills flags as the husband-and-wife DJ team of Dee and Scott Macchio plays a special version of the Animal House anthem.

Shout! Buffalo's happenin' now, Shout!

We're on the move now, Shout!

The Bills' are happenin' now, Shout!

They're makin' it happen now, Shout!

For most of the Backers' existence, their football team's mediocrity has tested their loyalty. But the club, whose membership ranges between 300 and 400, remains faithful.

It may be the state's largest Bills fan club, drawing folks from as far away as Lakeland, Bradenton and Cape Coral. Board member Mike Pranpat, 33, drives down from Wesley Chapel every Sunday.

"There are two things Buffalo lives on: beer and football," Pranpat said.

To understand what sustains their passion, ask Backers to share some Bills stories.

Mary Lou DeMarco, 53, harkens back to her childhood, when Bills games were family affairs and her uncle, then the mayor of Buffalo, led the way.

Sue Smith, 53, explains that when her kids were toddlers, she hired an in-home babysitter during games even though she was in the house.

Her kids took a backseat to Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, if only for three hours.

Then there's Barbara Emerson, 53, who vividly recalls the day the Bills lost the Super Bowl in January 1991. Her husband, Steve, a Marine scheduled to be deployed to Iraq the next day for Operation Desert Shield, wanted, ahem, some affection before he left the next morning.

But all of Barbara's amorous feelings sailed away when the Bills' last-second field goal attempt sailed wide right.

"I said to him, 'Did you not see the game? The Bills lost,' " Emerson explained with great laughter. "I had to go for a stress walk. I was crying."

They're still married, in case you're wondering.

Only the Backers' passion for helping others rivals their love for the Bills.

DeMarco, one of the founders, crafted the idea of a Buffalo club when she moved to Brandon in 2001. DeMarco, who works at Moffitt Cancer Center, couldn't fathom the idea of watching games by herself.

She ran an ad, and the first meeting drew 75 people. From the beginning, she and the other founders believed the group could lend a hand when they weren't clapping for the Bills. The club has raised nearly $50,000 for various needy families and children.

The first year, they bought a bicycle at Christmas for a needy child in Tampa. They delivered the bike and asked why the family didn't have a tree.

The mother said "We don't even have beds," DeMarco explained.

The family ended up getting furniture from the Backers, and the feel-good emotions have fueled their giving ever since.

Now the club seeks another child to boost, another family to help. If you know of a need, contact DeMarco at (813) 233-6021.

For a fan club to display such big hearts may surprise some, but DeMarco says their generosity is just a by-product of the neighborly goodwill that bonds Buffalo residents.

"It's the weather," DeMarco said. "When you get 6 feet of snow in an instant, neighbors help each other. We check on the older people, clear off each other's roofs and help each other dig out."

I never realized frigid weather could produce such warmth.

That's all I'm saying.

Buffalo Bills fans in Brandon do more than root for home team 09/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 4:30am]
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