ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — In the end, Mother Nature was no match for Bills Mafia.
With the remnants of a lake-effect snowstorm moving north on Monday, the Bills' hearty fanbase took over, helping dig out Highmark Stadium while finding new ways to tailgate before Buffalo hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in a weather-delayed AFC wild-card playoff game.
“Nothing was going to stop us,” said Ryan Stang, who organizes a tailgate event for each home game at a bar near the stadium. “It doesn’t matter if it's snow, rain, sleet. We are playing this game ... We’re used to it. This is nothing new to us.”
The game initially was supposed to be played at 1 p.m. Sunday but was pushed back to 4:30 p.m. Monday. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and the NFL cited public safety concerns for the delay even before the 24-plus-hour storm dumped more than 2 feet (0.6 meters) of snow on the Buffalo region, with much of it concentrated on the Bills' home in Orchard Park through Sunday night.
Monday began with the hum of plows clearing snow from concourses and the scrape of shovels digging out seats. The sun that shone at noon gave way to a gray sky, but no more snow, as a small army of stadium employees and helpers being paid $20 an hour raced to clear the 70,000-seat facility ahead of kickoff.
Crews had been working since Sunday, when snow fell at a rate of more than 2 inches (5 centimeters) per hour. They worked overnight, with the Bills making a plea for more help early Monday.
The task proved too daunting, and a majority of the seats were still blanketed in snow when the gates opened. Fans borrowed shovels from guest services and used their hands or pieces of cardboard to clear the snow.
The Bills also sent out an alert suggesting fans wear snow pants to stay dry. Temperatures were expected to dip to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius), with winds ranging from 8 to 16 mph (13-26 kph).
Major roadways leading to the stadium were cleared, with 5-foot snowdrifts lining the roads after they were plowed. Snowfall limited parking around the stadium, which contributed to a slow-arriving crowd.
At kickoff, a majority of fans were standing. And the few pockets of empty seats were mostly in the third deck, where conditions were the coldest because it is open to the wind.
Otherwise, it appeared to be business as usual for two teams that had to wait an extra day to play. With the field cleared of snow, the Bills were cheered when taking the field for pregame warmups, while the Steelers were mostly booed, except for a group of Terrible Towel-waving fans behind Pittsburgh’s bench.
Bills fans found a way to use all that extra snow collected around them by throwing it like confetti to celebrate Buffalo’s game-opening touchdown.
The lack of wind and the occasional hint of a blue sky provided relief for the shovelers earlier Monday.
“It lightens the mood,” said Bob Isaacs, catching a glimpse of a blue sky south of the stadium.
As for how daunting the task at hand was, Isaacs said: “For 2 seconds. Then you got to remember you’re a Bills fan. It’s all part of the deal.”
This is the fourth year the 62-year-old Isaacs has volunteered to shovel snow at the stadium, which he considers his way of supporting his hometown team.
In the parking lots surrounding the stadium, fans improvised their tailgating amid the 10-foot mountains of plowed snow. In one lot, some snowboarded down the hills on pieces of cardboard. At another lot, three fans stood atop a hill chanting, “Let’s go, Buffalo,” before they jumped down onto a burning folding table.
“We are built for this, it’s Buffalo,” Stang said.
Some Steelers fans were impressed at how much snow had been cleared at the stadium in such a short time.
“It was better than we expected, given all the horror stories we were seeing on the news,” T.J. Wesling said before being hit in the back by a snowball thrown by a Bills fan. “Everybody has been super hospitable. All the Buffalo fans are really cool. It’s not like going to Philadelphia.”
AP freelance writer Jonah Bronstein contributed to this report.
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