Mission Improbable: Surviving A Bills Game ... In A Kaepernick Jersey

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Two men recently attended an NFL game — on a mission they thought might be dangerous...

"Did you really make him get out of the car before you parked it?" I ask Pat Dugan.

"I did. He did not make that up," Pat says, laughing.

Back in August, Pat got a call from his friend, Tim Rohan. They’ve been close since high school, but they don’t get to see each other very often. Tim was coming to town on assignment, and he wanted Pat to come with him.

"I think people, when they wear his jersey in public, they're aligning themselves with him and his politics." (Pat Dugan)
"I think people, when they wear his jersey in public, they're aligning themselves with him and his politics." (Pat Dugan)

"I was a little hesitant at first. But, you know, I thought about it, and I’m, like, 'He needs someone to look out for him," Pat says. "But I didn't want anything happening to my car, anything damaged. I said, 'Hey, can you just get out?'"

"I was, like, 'You know what, that's fair enough. Ah, I should probably get out of the car right now,'" Tim recalls. "You know, I was trying to keep on a brave face because I knew Pat wasn't super excited about what we were doing."

Tim is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. And his assignment was to attend an NFL game ... wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey.

"The idea came up a few weeks ago, and I loved it," Tim says. "I loved it immediately. And I said, 'I want to be the guy that does that.'"

'Are You Sure? Buffalo?'

As you probably know, last fall Colin Kaepernick sat — and later kneeled — during the national anthem. He was protesting police brutality and racial injustice.

The decision to sit — or kneel — turned him into the most hated player in the NFL. Except, he’s not in the NFL anymore. He’s a free agent, and despite being more skilled than many quarterbacks currently employed in the league, he’s still looking for a job.

And Tim had just volunteered to attend an NFL game wearing his jersey. It was up to Tim’s bosses to choose which game. Veteran football analyst Peter King called with their decision. He told Tim, "Okay, you're going to Buffalo Week 1 to do this story."

I said, 'Are you sure? Buffalo?'" Tim says.

Buffalo fans are notorious. They call themselves the Bills Mafia, and some of them start tailgating on Saturday morning for a Sunday afternoon game. They post a lot of videos on YouTube showing their attempts at …

"What's the best way to describe it — daring, inebriated acts," Tim explains. "It's like an episode of 'Jackass,' pardon my language."

Last season, Kaepernick got his first start with the 49ers on the road in Buffalo. Vendors outside the stadium sold T-shirts showing him in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.

But on Sept. 10, the Bills were playing the New York Jets. And both teams could potentially use a quarterback like Kaepernick.

'Confusion And Awe'

Tim traveled to Buffalo and stayed with Pat. Tim calls him "Doogs." They went out to dinner on Friday night. And when their Uber driver heard what they’d be doing that weekend, she told them to watch out for flying beer cans.

And then on Sunday morning, Tim put on his Kaepernick jersey (Pat wore a Bills T-shirt) and the two men drove to New Era Stadium in Pat’s car.

"By that point, I had been hanging out with Doogs for two days, and I think we were letting our imaginations run wild," Tim says. "You know, I've done some reporting talking to fans about how they feel about Colin Kaepernick, and this is a very, very hot-button issue. It's race, politics — a mix of all these things that are going on in this country now, symbolized by one person in one jersey. So when Doogs was, kind of, sitting there nervous, I was definitely nervous too."

Once Pat got the car safely parked, he and Tim set off to wander the tailgates — to see and be seen.

There was some shouting — I can’t repeat most of it on the radio — but Pat says most people just shook their heads and muttered to themselves. That is — once they recognized what, exactly, Tim was wearing.

"The red color that he was wearing, the 49ers jersey, was close enough to some of the alternate jerseys that the Bills wear," Pat says. "And then he'd walk past them or vice versa, and they'd turn and they'd look and you just see, like, confusion and kind of, like, awe on everyone's face."

"That's not a Bills jersey, that's not a Jets jersey. This guy's wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey," Tim says.

"Did you really get bad looks from a guy in an O.J. jersey?" I ask. "I can't remember the last time I saw an O.J. jersey."

"This is Buffalo, remember, so we saw a lot of O.J. Simpson jerseys that day and I'm sure no one was giving them bad looks," Tim says.

When Buffalo fans wear an O.J. Simpson jersey, they’re not showing their support of a guy who was accused of double murder. They’re celebrating the running back who played nine seasons in Buffalo and was the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

"But there's meaning assigned to Colin Kaepernick's jersey now," Tim says. "I think people, when they wear his jersey in public, they're aligning themselves with him and his politics."

(Pat Dugan)
(Pat Dugan)

As it turned out, on that Sunday morning, the first fans that approached Tim and Pat weren’t angry Bills fans. They were two African-American Jets supporters, LaCresha and David, who wanted to take their picture with the guy in a Kaepernick jersey.

"It's like as if they had seen someone in a Jets jersey, right? They felt like a connection," Tim says. "That we were kind of, maybe on the same side. So yeah, we took a picture together and then LaCresha gave me a high-five and wished me well."

Tim told everyone he talked to that he was on assignment for Sports Illustrated. He wasn’t keeping that a secret. And he was planning to use a friend of a friend’s tailgate as a sort of "home base."

"It's race, politics -- a mix of all these things that are going on in this country now, symbolized by one person in one jersey."

Tim Rohan

"But as soon as we got there, this long haired bearded man — he just saw the Kaepernick jersey and he bolted over and he wanted to talk," Tim says. "He thinks Kaepernick's being blackballed and this and that. Just the sight of the Kaepernick jersey really got him going."

Into The Bills Mafia

OK, two interactions, three Kaepernick fans. This is not the tally Tim and Pat expected in Buffalo. But they hadn’t yet ventured into the parking lot Tim calls the "heart of the Bills Mafia."

That’s where Tim was approached by a guy named Dan. Dan’s a veteran and a conservative. He told Tim he sometimes flies a Confederate flag at his tailgate, just to get a rise out of people. But like the Kaepernick fans Tim had already met, Dan wasn’t angry. He just wanted to talk.

"At one point while Dan and I were talking, he pulled out a Mason jar and he said, 'This is some moonshine.' He gets a special batch of it from his buddy in Georgia every June. So, uh, I thought it would have been rude to turn down the moonshine. And it was pretty good."

Before long, Tim and Pat were being introduced around from tailgate to tailgate. That’s how they met another veteran named James.

"James pulls me and Doogs over to his tailgate, which is across the way," Tim explains. "He offered a jello shot, and again I would have been rude to decline.

(Pat Dugan)
(Pat Dugan)

"He had very strong opinions about Kaepernick. And at one point he said, 'I spit on the ground he walks on.' And we talked a little bit of politics. And he was telling us how he served in Afghanistan, and in 2003 he was hit with an RPG. He said he had shrapnel in the left side of his body, and he had lost his left knee. And we talked a little bit, and then Doogs and I were off to see what else was going on around the tailgate."

'We Appreciate It'

Once they got inside the stadium, Tim and Pat stood for the national anthem. They hadn’t really considered whether — for the sake of their social experiment — they should do otherwise. And when the anthem was over, an older man walked over to their seats. Tim was nervous at first, but he didn’t need to be.

"He smiled and reached out his hand," Tim says, "and he said, 'I just wanted to thank you for standing during the anthem with that jersey on.' He said, 'We appreciate it.' You know, that's not the kind of response that's happening in our political discourse these days, right? So, I was, kind of, taken aback."

It was probably inevitable that Tim and Pat would encounter a fair amount of shouting in Buffalo.

But maybe they shouldn’t have been so surprised that the people they interacted with just wanted a chance to speak — and be heard.

Pat says he enjoyed listening to what people had to say — even when he didn’t agree with them. But, if Tim were to call up next week and ask him to do it again?

"I think I'd politefully (sic) decline," Pat says laughing. "I already gambled once. I think that's more than enough for me."

Read Tim Rohan's story for Sports Illustrated, "I Wore a Colin Kaepernick Jersey to an NFL Game."

This segment aired on September 21, 2017.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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