ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Everybody mourns differently.
Buffalo Bills fans? They throw parties.
"It's therapeutic," Bills President Russ Brandon said, standing in the middle of a mob of fans simultaneously coordinating "Shout!" sing-a-longs throughout the afternoon. "Mr. Wilson, he would love this."
The gameday-like tailgate on Sunday, organized by the Bills Mafia fan club after Ralph Wilson's death on Tuesday, would have looked quite familiar to the founder and longtime owner. who often frequented the pre-game festivities in his younger days. Hundreds of fans donned Bills gear, sipped out of red Solo cups, passed around cans of cheap beer and danced to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," creating an atmosphere so festive that it seemed strange there was no football game to follow.
Due to such an overwhelming response to the idea of an honorary tailgate, the Bills Mafia had to move the tailgate's location to the parking lot of Wings Flights of Hope in Orchard Park in order to accommodate the crowd.
"What better way to honor Mr. Wilson than a tailgate," said Joseph DeMarco, the founder of Wings Flights of Hope. "We have plenty of room here."
The tailgate party officially started at 1 p.m., but fans flooded the parking lot early in the morning to get a head start. Some were old enough to remember the early days of the franchise, while others were too young to have even seen a playoff appearance. But they joined in celebration to remember Wilson, who declined enticing opportunities to move the Bills away from Buffalo.
"He was one of the last true owners. Everything's corporate these days. That's what I appreciated about him," said Rich Izydorczak, a longtime season ticket holder who hasn't missed a home game in four decades. "He kept the Bills here for 55 years."
Izydorczak brought a small picture of Wilson and taped it to his hat. Kathleen Hubbard brought an even larger picture, dating back to her days as a cheerleader in the early seventies. One day, Ralph Wilson decided he wanted a picture with the ladies, so he posed alongside Hubbard and a handful of other cheerleaders.
Hubbard not only kept the picture— she also framed it.
"I snuggled myself right up there next to Ralph!" Hubbard said, with the picture in her hands. "Ralph was a very kind person. Very giving, very congenial, always asking if we had everything we needed."
The tailgate also doubled as a Sunday prayer service for Jim Kelly, the former star who continues to battle cancer. Fans lined up one-by-one to sign a card for Kelly, and his name came up often in conversation. One group of fans called the tailgate "church for Jim Kelly."
Wings Flights of Hope helped Kelly fly to New York City for a medical appointment, and Brandon said he has consistently stayed in contact with Kelly to keep him updated on the fans' response in recent weeks.
"We're all thinking about Jim, obviously," Brandon said. "And I know how much he appreciates it to see the outpouring of support."
All proceeds from parking and food went to Kelly's foundation, Hunter's Hope.
"It's really very healing," Brandon said, "for all of us to be here together."