Starkey: Be grateful, Steelers fans
The cartoon depicts a man hanging upside down in a medieval torture chamber, screaming “Pain! More pain! I love it!”
A guard turns to an assistant, points his thumb back at the man in the chamber and says, “Bills fan.”
Be grateful, Steelers followers. That could be you.
Your team is headed for its first losing season in, what, a decade? The Buffalo Bills haven't won a playoff game since 1995 and haven't had a winning season since 2004. Their eight-year slide is tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the longest active losing streak in pro sports, a title long held by your precious Pirates.
And that's not the half of it.
The Bills once lost four straight Super Bowls.
Their worst moment (wide right) was satirized in a dark Vincent Gallo film called “Buffalo 66.”
Their stadium is nicknamed “The Ralph.”
They went 0-for-the-1970s against the Miami Dolphins and nearly topped themselves by losing 15 straight to Bill Belichick's Patriots.
Their all-time best player is O.J. Simpson, for goodness sake.
And that's still not the half of it.
I speak from experience here. I grew up in Western New York. I am a recovering Bills fan. I am permanently scarred, and I am not alone.
So if you're looking to perform a good deed Sunday — and perhaps gain some perspective before you have to watch William Gay again — scan the tailgate parties and find somebody dressed in red, white and blue. That would be a Bills fan. Extend a hand. Tell him you're sorry for his losses (132 of them since the turn of the millennium). Tell him you're a big Jeff Tuel backer. Assure him that your team stinks worse than his.
Mostly, though, use the opportunity to appreciate your good fortune, even if these past few years have been rough. OK, they've been brutal, and the worst could lie ahead: The Steelers could finish behind the Cleveland Browns for the first time since 1989 — the same year the Bills sustained a soul-searing playoff loss at Cleveland because Ronnie Harmon couldn't catch a pass RIGHT IN HIS FREAKIN' HANDS! (relapse alert).
See, the Bills can beat any low point in modern Steelers history and throw out 10 more before you can say “Tim Tebow.”
I watched Joe Dufek attempt to play quarterback. I saw Kay Stephenson impersonate a head coach. I lived through every sickening Super Bowl loss, viewing them from increasingly dismal surroundings. The fourth found me alone in an efficiency apartment in Shadyside, in the dark, staring at a 15-inch black-and-white TV, knowing the Bills would lose even though they led at the half.
Do you know what that does to a man?
You either become a masochist, like the poor sap in the cartoon, or you walk away. I stuck with the Bills until the late 1990s, until owner Ralph Wilson stabbed Doug Flutie in the back as a thank-you for resuscitating the franchise. I still own a box of Flutie Flakes.
The last game I watched as a fan was the 1999 wild-card game at Tennessee — the one where Flutie was benched for a beach bum named Rob Johnson. The one where the Titans pulled off their version of The Immaculate Reception, winning on a trick kickoff return.
As far as I was concerned, the Bills got what they deserved that day. I've barely paid attention since. I've missed everything, including Dave Wannstedt's 363 days as defensive coordinator. I was on hand — sitting dispassionately in the press box — when Stevie Johnson went all Ronnie Harmon and dropped the Steelers game three years ago, then blamed God.
A much more harrowing recovery story comes from an old tailgate partner and self-described “former fan” named Bob Nusall.
Bob, 48, was as loyal as a fan could be. He bought his first season-ticket package in 1979, which means his first game ended in horrifying fashion: Tom Dempsey blew a 34-yard field goal, extending the Bills' losing streak against Miami to 19 games.
Bob organized all the tailgate parties. He bought the bratwurst. He tapped the kegs. He sat through every minute of every exhausting exhibition game. He was rewarded with those Super Bowl runs only to be cow-kicked in the gut at the conclusion of each.
Bob still goes to all the games. But he doesn't stay. He leaves, emotionless, at halftime no matter what is happening on the field. He is like Chief at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” He basically underwent a Bills lobotomy six years ago. Both of his sons are Patriots fans. He's glad about it.
Bob hit bottom Oct. 8, 2007. That was the Monday night the Bills intercepted Tony Romo five times but miraculously lost 25-24 when Dallas scored nine points in the final 20 seconds.
“I went home and put all my Bills stuff in a fire pit, doused it with gas and set in on fire,” he recalls. “Then I just sat there for a half-hour.”
Understand, this is an otherwise well-adjusted man, happily married for 22 years with four children and a successful business. He simply couldn't take it anymore. He feels gratitude when the Bills are, say, outplaying the Kansas City Chiefs only to see a Tuel pass go 100 yards the other way. It happened just last Sunday.
“Something like that would have worn me down for a week,” Bob says. “It's like banging your head against a wall. Sooner or later you say, ‘Why am I doing this?' ”
That could be you. So go find a Bills fan today. Extend a hand.
Tell him you're sorry for his losses.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.