The Legend of Pinto Ron

Buffalo Bills
Pinto Ron

Every city likes to claim it has the best fans in the world. It’s almost strange to find a club that doesn’t market itself in this way. Buffalo, I’d argue, is an exception. There has to be something in the air, in the wings, something, that sets their fans apart from all else in the NFL. Bills fans are as passionate as they come—despite having never won a championship. Not to mention, having gone to the Super Bowl four consecutive years….and losing all four. Ponder that for a second…imagine your team going to the big dance four straight years and losing each one. Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s perhaps the only streak of its kind in all of sports, one that would break even the most loyal of fans.

Despite this all, the Bills Mafia, as they like to call themselves nowadays, persevere and support their team as if they were defending champions every year. To understand this fervor, I sought to find a true Bills die-hard who could properly unearth the roots of this passion. Enter Ken Johnson, an almost mythic tailgater who has experienced this history every stretch of the way. Known the country over as “Pinto Ron,” an accidental name given to him in a 2000 interview, Johnson hasn’t missed a game in person since 1994, or as he says, “in real time—radio, TV, internet or person—since 1982.” He adds that he’s been to the “the last 423 consecutive Bills games no matter where they are.” Attending the last 423 consecutive of anything would be an impressive feat, let alone a pro football game.


Johnson isn’t alone—the Bills have a strong fanbase all across the country, one that’s willing to back their team anywhere in the tens of thousands. The reasons for this lie in the city’s booming past. “Buffalo used to be a big city. Now it’s a small city, because Buffalo was a steel city. It was complete steel, up until about the ’70s. 50% of all the residents worked at the steel mill, or businesses that supported the steel mills.” The steel industry slowly disappeared after the ‘70s, which caused many of its residents to migrate to growing cities like Houston, Charlotte and Dallas.

“When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”

“You know, they may have left Buffalo, but they didn’t leave Buffalo behind. So they continue to be Bills fans—I’m talking rabid Bills fans.” There really isn’t an away game for a team like the Bills, not when you can pack a stadium with over 25,000 of your own fans, like they did in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans in 2019.


People change cities all the time, so what makes rooting for the Bills so special? Johnson claims that part of the loyalty has to do with the general mentality of the Northeast Corridor. A hardened spirit that’s present in cities from Buffalo and Cleveland, to Philadelphia and Boston. “During winter, we spend a lot of times in our houses. When you’re in your house, what’s the focus of your attention? Generally, the TV. So people just gravitate towards their sports teams to break up the monotony of winter. You just make the habit of it and become a fanatic.” Now you need to understand that it doesn’t just snow up there, it snows a hell of a lot—almost half the year. It’s just one the many elements that contributes to the persevering attitude ingrained in its current and former residents. An attitude that former Bills head coach, Mark Levy would proudly tell his team, “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”


Just like Buffalo’s steel-working past, the Bills were once booming in the days of coach Levy, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and that high-octane no huddle offense known as the “K-Gun.” Well, booming, at least up until the Super Bowl. Jokes aside, the Bills won a record 101 times in the ‘90s, the most of any team in that decade, and that’s definitely something to be proud of, considering the great teams that included Jimmie Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys, George Seifert’s San Francisco 49ers and Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos.

As a veteran tailgater, Johnson and his crew have been “up to shenanigans” as he says, since 1985. Sed-shenanigans include using a toilet bowl as a beer cooler; pots, pans, hub caps—anything really—to grill on the hood of his Ford Pinto, a once-family car turned into a dedicated tailgating whip. Other customs include getting doused in ketchup and mustard before games to offering anyone brave enough to take a shot of 100 proof cherry liquor out of a bowling ball. A lot of people want in on that shot, in 2019 alone, he went through 145 of those bottles. All of these bizarre traditions developed organically and serve as a precursor to the table-slamming frenzy of today’s Bills tailgating.“There was a couple of kids, who actually just got out of law school (to tell you the truth), who wanted to figure a way to get on Deadspin. So they did the table crashing and made it on the site and kept doing it with different outfits, and switching people, so it seemed like different people doing it.” Couple the viral movement of the Bills Mafia and the fans have made it known that they are the show, not the players, not the results.


When asked what his favorite moment was, Johnson amusingly remembers the 1991 AFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Raiders. The Bills were up 42-3 at halftime “and you’re sitting there in the stands, with an entire half of football left to play, knowing that the Bills are going to the Super Bowl. That whole second half was just a giant party inside the stadium. No one cared about the game anymore.” Fast-forward to the present and head coach Sean McDermott has a young motivated Bills squad looking to those teams of the ‘90s to combat decades of disappointment. However, speaking with Johnson and you really just forget about the anxious chase of winning a title. If titles are the cherry on top, it paints an interesting picture on how much players and fans forget about all the good stuff beneath. Memories and experience are what championships are all about and they aren’t just formed in one game or one season, the Buffalo Bills are perhaps the best fanbase in the league to teach you that.


This article featured as part of the series, SUPERFANS, in SPIRAL Issue I.


(01) Images Courtesy of Pinto Ron