How one player’s mistake helped birth Bills Mafia

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was a drop former Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson would never forget. But that gaffe led to something much bigger than he could have ever imagined.

It was overtime in a Week 12 game during the 2010 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers that the 2-8 Bills weren’t even supposed to be in. The Bills were at the Steelers’ 40-yard line with a real chance to spring the upset when then-Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick unleashed a deep pass to Johnson.

“Ball released from my hand, Stevie ran a great route, like game was over,” said Fitzpatrick, who put his hands in the air to celebrate briefly. “Ball was in the air, and we knew the game was over.”

But it wasn’t meant to be.

“No! No! He dropped it in the end zone. Incomplete! He had the game-winning pass in his hands in the end zone,” announcer John Murphy said on the Bills’ radio broadcast.

Flashback: Stevie Johnson drops potential winning TD in overtime

On Nov. 28, 2010, Bills WR Stevie Johnson is wide open in the end zone but drops what could have been the winning touchdown in overtime vs. the Steelers.

Reflecting on the moment, Johnson said he believed he had let the city of Buffalo and its rabid Bills fans down. The wide receiver was left sitting in the end zone with what should have been a game-winning ball in front of him. Instead, the Bills punted and the Steelers went on to win 19-16 on the ensuing drive.

The drop would have been just another footnote in a historically bad stretch for the Bills if not for a viral tweet that would indirectly change the Bills forever.

Dejected after the game, Johnson took to Twitter, then a relatively new social media platform.

“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…,” Johnson tweeted. He put his phone away and went to watch the film, but when he checked Twitter again the next morning, he saw the tweet had taken on a life of its own.

Johnson’s tweet of frustration after a tough loss not only would impact Johnson’s life but would indirectly lead to sparking the name “Bills Mafia.” The nickname for the fan base, only 12 years old, has become associated with raucous tailgates and fans jumping through folding tables, but also for fans giving back. The name has helped bring a spotlight to a tight-knit community that goes above and beyond to connect with its football team.

JOHNSON GREW UP idolizing players who put on a show. In his first NFL game, he watched San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens in Candlestick Park, dancing and showing out to the crowd. His favorite player was Deion Sanders, a cornerback known for having fun with celebrations.

“When they scored or whenever they did something good, they was either high-stepping or doing some kind of dance, and I felt like, I like that, I want to do that, too,” Johnson said.

When Johnson, who was selected out of Kentucky in the seventh round by the Bills in the 2008 draft, became an NFL player, he embraced the opportunity to put his own spin on things. Johnson joined a Bills team midway through a 17-season playoff drought, cycling through quarterback after quarterback.

Johnson enjoyed a breakout season in 2010, despite the Bills getting off to an 0-8 start. It was his first 1,000-yard campaign, and he went from having 12 career receptions coming into the year to 82 receptions in 2010, including 10 touchdowns.

In a practice leading up to the Steelers game, Johnson took the last rep off at the end of the day — it was the same play where he dropped the TD pass.

“It was crazy, it was the last rep, too, like, ‘Man, yeah, go ahead, y’all got it. I’ve been practicing all day,'” Johnson recalled.

And then came the drop in the game followed by the infamous tweet directed at God.

“I just be still thinking like, damn, how the f—, how the heck did I miss that? Like, it was just crazy,” Johnson said.

What happened in response to his tweet could also be described that way. CNN did a segment on it, comedian Stephen Colbert joked about it, and Johnson’s tweet was the subject of a segment on “The View.” The tweet became more of a topic than the drop.

How did it lead to the creation of Bills Mafia? Enter Adam Schefter.

ESPN’s NFL insider retweeted Johnson’s tweet almost 24 hours after the wide receiver sent it. And Bills fans, well, they took that personally. Fans tweeted some colorful thoughts at him. This was when Twitter was a relatively new platform. If fans crossed a line, Schefter would block them.

“Back then, if somebody was offensive, they were blocked,” Schefter told the “ESPN Daily” podcast in January. “So I don’t know who was and wasn’t. I know back then I was probably more sensitive to that, so to speak, it was more new to me. It’s all new at that time.”

As time went on with social media, Schefter’s policy changed.

“It was very obvious that Adam Schefter retweeted Stevie’s tweet at 4 p.m. and Bills fans — being the incredibly sensitive bunch that we are — we jumped on him, right, like right away,” Bills Mafia co-founder Del Reid said. “We just got through this whole news cycle. Now you’re bringing it back up again?”

Fast-forward to the week of the 2011 NFL draft. Reid tweeted out some of the handles that were blocked by Schefter — including those of Bills Mafia co-founders Breyon Harris and Leslie Wille, who played roles in spreading the term — during “Follow Friday,” a time when Twitter users would recognize their favorite accounts and encourage others to follow on the platform. Reid started the tweet with “#FF, #Bills Mafia.”

“I’m just standing there … and just scrolling through Twitter,” Reid said. “And then I said, ‘Oh, I [didn’t] do my Follow Friday yet. And so, I just thought about it like, ‘Oh, I’ll do this, you know?’ Cause I was trying to make it kind of interesting or fun.”

Thanks to the power of social media, it took off — much to Reid’s surprise.

“I mean, if I was trying to build a movement or I was trying to create, like, some brand around Bills fandom, I wouldn’t have used the team’s name,” Reid said. “And I wouldn’t have used the term mafia because even to this day, people write in letters to the editor to The Buffalo News complaining about the term ‘mafia.’ … I certainly would’ve created something a little bit more bland … that it wasn’t bland is probably why it took off.”

Reid, Harris and Wille call July 31, 2011, the Bills Mafia’s birthday because that is around the time Bills players started to pay attention. A 2011 rookie defensive back, second-rounder Aaron Williams, reached out to Reid over Twitter, and they texted back and forth about Bills Mafia.

Things jumped to the next level when Johnson direct-messaged Harris and told him that they should create a Bills Mafia Twitter account after seeing the support and use of the hashtag.

“I think that he knew that we started it, and he did not want somebody else to get credit for it,” Harris said of Johnson.

Johnson shared it as the official Bills Mafia Twitter account, encouraging fans to follow. Reid estimated that when Johnson put out the tweet, they had 300 followers in a minute and the following grew to over 1,000 within the week. (The account now has over 169,000 followers.)

The trio decided they wanted to use the growing popularity of Bills Mafia to give back to the community and donate to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Reid worked at the time. They used proceeds from sales of T-shirts they made with the Twitter bird logo, a red streak through it and “Bills Mafia” on it.

The popularity of the name started spreading nationally when “SportsCenter” hosts started using the Bills Mafia name on air.

“We would all text each other like, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see that? They said Bills Mafia,'” Reid said.

More and more players adopted it too, with draft picks in 2012 and 2013 tweeting the hashtag after they were picked. The co-founders would send wristbands to players at the stadium with Bills Mafia on them, and the players would tweet out a picture when they received it.

The phrase wasn’t initially accepted by the team — when a player would tweet using the #BillsMafia hashtag, the Bills’ account manually retweeted it but took out ‘Mafia.’ As the name grew on a national level, the perception of what Bills Mafia is has shifted, but the core has remained the same. The official NFL hashtag for the Bills has become #BillsMafia.

“For a while, we were associated with people going through tables, right? Now people know Bills Mafia is about donating,” Harris said. “It originated off of us donating, and I wish that that’s what the story would be told.”

Johnson spent six seasons with the Bills and wanted to build a connection with fans. When Johnson was posting his thoughts about God and sharing his personal feelings on Twitter, it was his way of trying to connect to that community, just as he wanted to do for the fans in the stands.

Despite the national attention in the aftermath of that game, he felt the support of fans and those like Reid, who went on to create a company, 26 Shirts, that sells Buffalo-themed T-shirts with the profits going to a specific family in need or a charitable organization. Johnson gets a welcoming and warm reaction from fans when he returns to western New York.

“That was their opportunity to either bash a player or build some type of love or strength, and they chose the love,” Johnson said. “I appreciate it so much, and it just shows, just from that negative moment, they created something positive even though that season we was, like, middle of the road at that time, too.”

Johnson learned from his experience dealing with the blowback after the TD drop and his tweet. He has reached out to athletes he sees posting on social media, looking out for those who are in tough situations. There’s wisdom Johnson would like to pass on to the next generation, so he established a mentorship program to help develop student-athletes.

When it comes to wishing that he had made that catch or that things had turned out differently, Johnson doesn’t regret how things worked out.

“I’m appreciative that it did happen,” Johnson said, “because I can associate with kids and up-and-coming athletes on both sides from a winning the game standpoint and from a losing the game standpoint.”

BILLS MAFIA CAN be found all over Highmark Stadium and Buffalo now. The Bills partnered with Benny the Butcher, a rapper from Buffalo, on a Bills Mafia anthem. The official NFL shop has Bills Mafia T-shirts. The name has become almost synonymous with the team.

‘Right here, right now’: The origin of the Bills Mafia’s iconic mantra

“Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” Former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy’s words will forever live on as the mantra for one of the most electric and loyal fan bases in the NFL.

Buffalo is different from most NFL cities. It’s the second-smallest market (Green Bay is No. 1), so players are highly visible in the community, helping to build a different type of bond with fans.

“I feel like the Bills players, not all of them, but in general, I think they tend to interact differently with the fans here, and that’s a big part of it,” Wille said.

When the team’s game against the Browns last season was moved from Orchard Park to Detroit due to a snowstorm, neighbors went to players’ houses and helped them shovel driveways and find paths out of the snow. For safety Micah Hyde‘s annual charity softball game this May, 16,000 fans showed up, despite conditions that led to a rain delay. When pass-rusher Von Miller said the toilet paper in the dorms at St. John Fisher University during training camp was “different,” Bills fans promptly sent packages of toilet paper to his room.

Of course, the power of Bills Mafia was on display in a big way when safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac event on the field during the team’s regular-season game against the Cincinnati Bengals in January. Signs with his jersey number, 3, were all over the city.

Perhaps there is no greater indicator of what Bills Mafia has transformed into than the Bills deciding to trademark the term as their own official way of describing the fan base.

Bills COO/EVP Ron Raccuia reached out to Reid, who kept Harris and Wille in the loop and met with the Bills — including co-owner Kim Pegula — to discuss his thoughts and what they wanted to do. Wille said she had mixed feelings about Bills Mafia being taken on by the team, but the co-founders said it was their end goal for the team to embrace it fully.

“It’s not a value thing, it’s not a money thing,” Reid said. “That is like, ‘Holy crap, my favorite football team in the entire world, one of my favorite things in the entire world is embracing something that was an expression of my love for them, our love for them.'”

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“Bills Mafia’s Origin Story: The Role of a Single Player’s Mistake”

Former Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson’s infamous Halloween day drop in overtime during a 2010 game was where Bills Mafia’s journey began. Johnson’s error led to an infamous tweet directed at God, and would indirectly lead to the spark that gave name to the fan base that has become associated with raucous tailgates and fans but also for fans giving back: Bills Mafia. Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL insider retweeted Johnson’s tweet almost 24 hours after the wide receiver sent it. This tweet inspired fans to take it personally and create Bills Mafia, which started to gain national popularity when SportsCenter hosts started using the Bills Mafia name on air.

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