The Buffalo Bills were so dull during their lean years, comedian Nick Bakay feared his body would fuse to the couch while watching them play.
“It’s an incredibly disturbing image,” Bakay said of wasting away Sundays witnessing his hometown team sleepwalk through one loss after another during a 17-season playoff drought that ended last year.
“I never missed a Bills game. But I was always slumped on my couch. I was never sitting forward. I was never jumping to my feet,” said Bakay, who wrote “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and its sequel, and produced and appeared on the TV sitcom “King of Queens.” ”You sit on your couch, and your couch slowly eats you.”
No different for fans of Buffalo’s other pro sports franchise, the NHL’s Sabres, who finished last for the third time in five years and extended their franchise-worst playoff drought to a seventh season.
In a shot-and-a-beer town where the winters are interminably long, Buffalo sports fans ride things out on the notion of renewal always being just around the corner.
And there’s a new, palpable optimism for this hearty fan base, thanks to a three-day stretch which showed potential to alter the trajectory of both teams.
First, the Bills made a pair of splashes in the first round of the NFL draft on April 26 by trading up to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen and Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Two days later, the Sabres won the NHL draft lottery — something Buffalo lost the previous two times it finished last — and the opportunity to select projected No. 1 pick, Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
During the NFL draft, CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor got dirty looks from his wife during a rare dinner date sneaking peeks at the Bills’ picks. He then yelped with excitement upon learning the Sabres won the lottery while attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington.
“I had just resigned myself to never winning it,” Glor said. “But listen, I always have hope.”
In Buffalo, there’s a fine line between affection and affliction for hope.
“I always try to keep it in check a little bit,” said Glor, who grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. “Unfortunately, you get conditioned to where there are times you can be defeatist. And you try not to be. But you just don’t give up.”
Fans have little choice but to persevere in a place where nickname-worthy moments are tied to losses.
For the Bills, it’s “Wide Right,” after kicker Scott Norwood missed a last-second field-goal attempt in a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in the 1991 Super Bowl — the first of four consecutive Super Bowl losses.
For the Sabres, it’s “No Goal,” following a 2-1, triple-overtime loss to Dallas in Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. Brett Hull’s Cup-clinching goal stood even though replays showed his skate in the crease.
Those were the so-called glory days.
The Bills and Sabres have won five playoff games combined since 2008. By comparison, the NHL’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights have already won eight in their first year of existence.
Buffalo joins Nashville and Charlotte, North Carolina, as the only North American markets with two or more major pro teams to not have won a title.
“I think it builds character in a way. I joke with my friends that one day my kids will have to go through therapy because we are Sabres, Bills and Mets fans,” said former VH1-cable TV chief Tom Calderone, who’s based in New York City but maintains a home in his native Buffalo. “It’s easy to be a Cowboys fan or a Patriots fan. But it takes true dedication to be a Bills or Sabres fan.”
Calderone sees more hope reflected in signs of resurgence for the city itself.
The former site of the Erie Canal has been transformed from vacant gravel lots to parkland, a water park that doubles as an ice rink in winter, and an entertainment/hockey complex built by Bills and Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
Housing prices have tripled and a medical corridor is newly bustling along Main Street, where shuttered and boarded-up buildings have been renovated or replaced by new steel and glass structures.
Buffalo still has its rust-belt blemishes as one of the nation’s poorest cities. Racial inequities, failing schools and a crumbling infrastructure remain issues.
The Bills and Sabres aren’t immune to troubling headlines. Last week, the two teams’ president Russ Brandon resigned amid allegations of having inappropriate relationships with female employees.
Buffalo might never regain the industrial-age prominence it held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city became a Great Lakes shipping hub as the gateway to the Erie Canal.
Nor, however, should it become the punchline comedian Jon Stewart once delivered during a stop in Buffalo, calling the city the gateway to the Ontario border town of Fort Erie just across the Niagara River — population 30,000.
Watching a documentary on former Bills running back O.J. Simpson, Bakay was reminded of the gloomy times in the 1970s when the steel mills began closing and legions of people left to find jobs.
“It depressed me so much,” he said. “Every shot of Buffalo looked like a moose that farted into the sky.”
The decline led to Buffalo investing its psyche into its sports teams as a way of remaining part of the national conversation.
“Our teams were the only way we could punch back and say, ‘Yeah, we’re here,'” Bakay said.
Allen and the prospect of adding Dahlin has recaptured his imagination as to what’s possible.
“It’s like all of a sudden we’ve got go-big-or-go-home-talent coming our way,” Bakay said.
He recalled how the Bills once pinned their hopes on quarterback Trent Edwards, who earned the nickname “Captain Checkdown” for being overly cautious.
“After years of the Trent Edwards of the world, we get a kid who has that kind of talent,” Bakay said.
Maybe, he’ll finally be able to get off that couch.
“I don’t think we need any kind of help of, ‘Can we believe?’ We can believe in a bag of doughnuts,” Bakay said. “But that weekend was like, ‘Oh my god. Things are really happening. Pinch me.'”