EASTHAM — Sunday, Sept. 12 marked Week 1 of the 2021 National Football League season, so, naturally, many New Englanders were sitting in front of their televisions watching football. They were probably watching the New England Patriots because this is, after all, Pats Nation.
Eastham resident Janet Benjamins, 77, was not watching football on Sunday. She’s not much of a fan.
“I grew up in Boston,” Benjamins says. “I wasn’t that interested in football. I was never a Patriots fan.”
Benjamins moved around a bit. In 1982, she and her husband, John, moved to Orchard Park, N.Y., where they would stay for 35 years. Orchard Park was home to the Buffalo Bills. The Bills have long been known for having some of football’s most enthusiastic, die-hard fans.
“There were so many fans, and the fans were so attached to the team,” Benjamins says. “People say Buffalo is a real blue-collar town and maybe that’s why.”
Bills fans have even been called the “Bills Mafia” because of their loyalty and passion for the team.
The enthusiasm didn’t suck Janet Benjamins in at first, but in 1988 the Bills recorded their first winning record in seven years, eventually losing in the conference championship.
Buffalo was one of the best teams in football from 1988 through 1993. That’s right around the time that the Benjamins’ son, John Jr. (or “Jani,” as his family calls him), became interested in football and started playing.
“I once said no son of mine would ever play football,” Benjamins says.
But son and mother were soon hooked. Janet, husband John (who died a few years ago), son Jani, and daughter Maija all became Bills fans.
“The Bills had such a good team and it was so exciting,” she says. “They were winning consistently for years.”
The team even offered a course at the stadium called “Women Understanding Football,” covering the basic and advanced parts of the game. Janet signed up. On the last day of class, the women went out on the field and ran through some drills. Jani was a running back, so Benjamins said she wanted to do a running back’s drills.
“I ran to the end zone,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the football field was so long.” After that, she had a new appreciation for the players who ran up and down the field for an entire game.
Although the Benjamins lived in Orchard Park for more than three decades, they made it to only a few Bills games. There was one game, however, known simply as “The Comeback,” that has remained a special family memory to this day.
On Jan. 3, 1993, the Bills hosted a playoff game against the Houston Oilers. The Oilers played well and the Bills did not — at least, in the first half. The Oilers led 28-3 at halftime.
“The halftime score was pretty dismal,” Benjamins says. “I don’t remember details, but I have an impression. A lot of people were leaving. My husband said, ‘I think we should go home now. I have stuff to do.’ But I said, ‘You always have stuff to do. I think the Bills need our support.’ ”
The phrase “Mother knows best” has never been more applicable.
Early in the third quarter, the Oilers’ lead grew to 35-3. But the Bills eventually scored a touchdown — then another, and another, and another, and another. The team scored 35 unanswered points to go up 38-35.
Fans who had headed toward the gate halfway through the Bills’ comeback went back to their seats. Those who had left too early were not so lucky.
“By this time, the stands were going crazy,” Benjamins says. “You could literally see people who had left and were in the parking lot stop and turn around. People were walking back toward the gate, people were going under the gates and over the gates, and just flooding back into the game.”
The Oilers tied the game 38-38 with a field goal, but the Bills eventually won 41-38 in overtime. It is still the greatest comeback in NFL history.
“For two days afterwards, I could barely talk,” Benjamins says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be lucky enough to be at another game that exciting.”
The Bills were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly during that time, but he didn’t even play in the Jan. 3 game because of injury. The Bills won with backup quarterback Frank Reich against Oilers’ Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon.
The Bills went to the Super Bowl that year but lost. It was part of a four-year Super Bowl losing streak for the team.
Benjamins hasn’t been to an NFL game since seeing the historic comeback. Although she doesn’t watch much football and doesn’t consider herself a football fan, she said her family still has strong feelings for the Bills.
The Bills have been a disappointment since the 1990s, but now the organization has a young, talented team, led by quarterback Josh Allen, that reached the conference championship last year.
“My daughter came to Eastham to watch the game last year and she brought Bills caps and T-shirts,” Benjamins says.
Sports have a way of bringing people together or providing precious memories — even to those who aren’t looking for them.