Someone remind me who’s coming to town for the NFL regular season finale this Sunday? Shit, it’s the goddamn New York Jets. As the Football turns, The Tebow Show, The Best Damn Soap Opera in the AFC East, call them whatever you please. When the Jets collide with the Buffalo Bills, it will cause a commotion across the nation with all the force of one of Buffalo’s…. Well, the way both teams have been playing over the last year, it will be the force of a gentle breeze on one of Buffalo’s warm, sunny summer days. Even though these two teams have a fierce divisional rivalry which stretches back to the days of OJ Simpson and Joe Namath, I’m not getting the sense that fans are throwing themselves into full-on hate mode for this one. After all, the usual story of the AFC East didn’t involve any Hitchcockian twists or surprise endings. The New England Patriots remain the model of division, conference, and league as they use the Bills, Jets, and Miami Dolphins as their personal stepladder.
The Bills started with high hopes, having signed Mario Williams to one of the highest contracts in the history of the league. Last year, they locked up quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as their franchise guy while Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller emerged as one of the most dangerous running tandems in football. The Bills – the only team in the NFL to miss the playoffs every season during the millennium – were looking to break their drought and at least challenge for the division crown. Instead, they earned a comparison to the classic sci-fi show Firefly for failing in spite of having everything necessary to succeed. They failed in a spectacular manner, too; their bleeding defense is poised to set a new team record for points surrendered in a single season. It looks like the only way the Bills won’t give up a new record is if the Jets offense fails, which might actually happen because their quarterback problems have been even worse than Buffalo’s. Then again, the Bills also made the Jets’ starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, look like Joe Montana in the first game of the season.
Buffalo football fans decided they have better things to do. The game sold 16,000 tickets beneath the capacity of Ralph Wilson Stadium, blacking it out. Why does this matter to me? I’ve spent the season working there, that’s why.
My seasonal vantage point has given me a newfound view of the NFL which contrasts starkly with my view as a fan. As a fan, I always hope for a well-played game with exciting offensive theatrics, thrilling defensive stops, dramatic end zone battles, five or six lead switches, and the league’s best and brightest rising to the clutch. As an employee, my hopes are always for blackouts and blowouts. I want a very undersold game that is out of control at halftime so people start leaving in the third quarter. If it’s late in the season, I only hope for the Bills to win so they placed at the fifth seed or better in the playoffs, which would result in extra money for extra home games. If they fall into the sixth seed or out of the race, I don’t care anymore.
The actual gameday work isn’t so bad. My work during games is to make sure the suites are fully stocked and running. I’m not allowed into the suites themselves, so my work mostly entails the back hall and bathrooms. Through most games, there isn’t a lot to do. Most gamedays are divided into three distinct parts: The first part is before the game, when spectators are trickling into the stadium and finding their seats. There’s very little to do for those couple of hours, so I walk back and forth through my section constantly and periodically check in the bathrooms just to be sure. Occasionally I glance out the doors to see how the bowl is filling up. The second part is the game itself, when I’m kept busy with a steady stream of work. Although I’m able to glance an occasional play or two on the TV screen at the concierge desk (the rich really know how to attend football games), I’m not allowed to watch because watching prevents me from getting the work done. Not that it’s a heartbreaker, though; I consider it an act of mercy on the team’s part, since the Bills have been unwatchable this season. The final act is after the game, which is a short, quick cleanup and garbage removal before I leave.
The real fun starts the next day, when cleanup begins. There is no greater testament to first world country excesses than an NFL football game. As I walk through the many rows of bleachers at Ralph Wilson Stadium, I’m often left to pontificate the finer points of what it must be like to have enough money to buy an eight-dollar plate of nachos and cheese which gets left totally untouched. It seems like a valid question because it’s the kind of thing I’m forced to pick up and throw into an oversized trash bag, no matter how disgusting the weather rendered the original contents. A lot of beer and pop cups contain the remains of chewing tobacco wads. I believed tobacco chewing was something that went out of style when the frontier disappeared, but an NFL game somehow manages to gather every tobacco chewer to the same place every week.
When the trash big enough to be picked up by hand has been liberated from the stands, it’s time to break out the brooms. A separate crew will use leaf blowers to push all the small debris, like confetti and peanut shells, up to the front wall of a section before we sweep it all into bags. After that, we’re finished. The whole process usually runs a few days, and it differs depending on how many people were at the game. At a Thursday night game against the Miami Dolphins, we had all the makings of a bad crowd and a terrible cleaning experience. We picked trash for three days, and at the end of those three days we still weren’t finished hand picking. The following home game was against the Jacksonville Jaguars; this was a case of two very bad teams fighting it out in torrential rain. People didn’t want to sit through the game, and the subsequent cleanup only took two days. The 300 section, which is the highest seating level at the stadium, was so sparsely populated that Sunday that it was picked clean in maybe half an hour on Monday.
Cleanup hours aren’t consistent, and they’re not even fixed until the moment we walk out of the stadium and back to the crew hut to call it a wrap for the day. We were once actually thrown out of the stadium because the Bills wanted to use the real field for practice instead of the fieldhouse. I’ve since then been joking about Bill Belichick offering me ten bucks to tell him about maneuvers the Bills were going over in practice that his secret cameras haven’t picked up on. The work isn’t organized all that well, and it often takes a toll on my back. I did make a couple of new friends in my time at the stadium, but what gets me through the day is constantly thinking a mantra: Never again… Never again… Never again… It’s a sentiment echoed by my friends. On the upside, though, I made more money than I expected, and can afford to take a short return trip to Chicago.