My father and I have a lot in common. We are both social and outgoing. We like to meet new people and ask them lots of questions. We like to tell stories and jokes. We love to laugh. We have the same taste in movies (The Last of The Mohicans, Braveheart, Glory). And we love the Buffalo Bills with all our naively optimistic hearts.
Every September, my father makes a trip from Cumming, GA — a small town outside of Atlanta — back to Buffalo, NY to hang out with me and my family and to go to the Bills home opener. It’s tradition.
The energy at New Era Field on opening day is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced — the mood consuming the stadium is one of pure elation. Football is back and the Bills are undefeated. At least for that fleeting moment at the beginning of the season. Taking part in that sports-induced joy with my father is a gift, and one I get to open each and every September. We pull into a tailgating lot within walking distance of the stadium, crack open a few beers and pop up some folding chairs. We sit, we drink and we watch the madness around us unfold.
We talk, too.
We’ll catch up on family stuff, comment on what my two brothers/his sons are up to, chat about my mother’s many physical ailments and reminisce. Every once in a while, he’ll glance up at the raucous crowd and the (sometimes overly) outrageous antics of our fellow Bills fans, point and laugh or point and roll his eyes, as if to say, “can you believe these guys?”
I nod and laugh, or answer his eye roll with one of my own.
The conversation that lingers between us during those Bills games is usually light. We try to stay focused on the task at hand: enjoying the day together and hoping for a home win. We normally reserve deep conversations for other arenas, like our weekly phone calls or at a bar on the Friday night of his weekend visit.
I have always felt that I can talk to my father about anything without fear or trepidation. We have gone through some awkward and difficult times in my 38 years. I battled with depression when I was a teenager and pulled away from everyone, including him. At 22, I came out to him and my mother over a plate of grilled chicken and vegetables. He didn’t know how to talk to me about it, and for a few years we hardly conversed about anything at all.
Yet, somehow, we always managed to find a way to reconnect. And sometimes, with so much time until kickoff, we found ourselves chatting about the deep stuff at those Bills games, too, about what the season might bring, about how fast life goes and how hard it was for me when I hit rock bottom.
When it came to depression, I talked about my dark feelings and thoughts, and he learned how to listen. When it came to my sexuality, I realized I had to meet him halfway. He realized he had to evolve. The emotional stuff is old hat for us now. We talk about it as easily as we talk about why the Bills can’t seem to find a viable option at quarterback. I remember taking a walk on the beach a few years ago, during a family vacation. We walked and talked about so many things. It’s one of my favorite memories to this day.
As for me being gay, it’s a non-issue (as my father often says). He refers to my wife as his daughter-in-law and he is actively involved in my daughter’s life. Yes, my father and I can talk about pretty much anything. Anything, that is, except politics.
On Sept. 15, 2016, the optimism at the Bills home opener against the New York Jets was tempered at best. The Bills had already dropped their first game of the season to the Baltimore Ravens and fans were feeling uneasy. Rex Ryan wouldn’t dare let Ryan Fitzpatrick and Gang Green walk out of New Era Field with a win, we thought collectively. No way.
At the time, my father and I thought Rex still had a shot at turning the Bills around. We were excited for the primetime show, a defensive swarm on Fitz and the entire Jets offense. What we got (and what everyone in the country got to see) was a complete and utter dismantlement of Rex’s championed defensive scheme. Fitz channeled his inner Tom Brady and threw for 370 yards and 28 first downs.
My father and I left early in the fourth quarter. I strode across the empty parking lot with a purpose to my step. I felt angry. I felt betrayed. I felt let down. I looked back over my shoulder to see my dad struggling to keep up with me. That’s when I realized I wasn’t mad at the Bills. It wasn’t Rex who betrayed me. It wasn’t the defense that had let me down. It was my father. Earlier in the evening, as we sat in our folding chairs in the bustling parking lot eating subs and sipping beer, I had brought up Donald Trump.
We hadn’t talked about Trump since the winter, when he was still considered (albeit with a bit of restlessness) a joke of a candidate. My father had originally balked at the idea of Trump as president. I remember the look on his face so clearly, because it was his patented “can you believe these guys?” eye roll. Only it had been reserved just for Trump. Yet, when other republican candidates began dropping out and stepping aside to widen the lane for Trump, I had a sinking feeling that my father would change his mind. I knew how much he disliked Hillary Clinton. I also knew he’d never vote for her.
Back in the tailgating lot, my father avoided my questions. He may have wanted a light conversation that day, but I didn’t. I wanted one of the deep ones. I wanted to talk about the election, and all the complications that went with it. Bills game or not, I pressed him. I have a habit of pushing people to answer things I feel I need answers for. He knew this. But still he tried to get out of it. Finally, after another beer, I asked my father again what he thought about Trump. He said a few things, but he wouldn’t come out directly and say he was going to vote for him. I was disappointed that he wouldn’t engage. I felt shortchanged. We talked about plenty of hard stuff before. Why not this? In the end, it didn’t matter. I already knew the answer.
The Bills season quickly went south. By late November it was clear we were headed for another 8-8 season at best. Sure, the playoff picture was an unfinished puzzle at the time but Bills fans knew better. We had lived through broken playoff dreams for the past 16 years; we knew what a failed season smelled like and tasted like. No matter how Rex tried to spin things, I think even he knew his days in Buffalo were numbered.
During Thanksgiving, my family went down south to spend time with my parents. We didn’t talk politics. For Christmas, both my mother and father came up to visit us in Buffalo. We didn’t talk politics then, either. Trump had won the election and both my parents voted for him. It’s odd. They raised my brothers and I to be open-minded, respectful of others and kind. Yet, they voted for a man who by all publicized accounts is the exact opposite. It’s still as much of a quandary to me as it is why the Bills haven’t sniffed playoff turf since 2000.
The day after the election, I sent my father an e-mail. I was angry. I was bitter. I blamed him to some extent. He didn’t respond right away, and I mentally prepared myself for the possibility he wasn’t going to respond at all. And then he sent me this:
Hi, hon. Believe me, I can relate to your despair and maybe anger as well. Mom and I were stationed in Key West (I was 26 at the time) and Nixon was president. I literally hated him. I remember distinctly receiving a call from Dad (your Grampa) just to say hello. What started out as a friendly call, turned ugly and loud. The subject? Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Shouting and angry words were exchanged. I couldn’t believe he supported this “evil man”. As weeks went by, I couldn’t shake the sadness of what happened. I even forgot the subject of my outburst. So, I called Dad. We both cried. We both apologized. We both came to the conclusion that no matter what happens “out there” nothing should break the bond of love within our family. That incident taught me one very important lesson. The three most important things in life to me (especially now as I approach your Grampa’s age) are Family, Faith, and Friends. I will not allow anything to come between the precious bond I have with my most wonderful daughter.
I’ve written articles and read plenty more on the rifts this election cycle caused between family members. Some people cut off relatives altogether because they voted for Trump. Relationships were destroyed and bad blood still flows. I can’t do that and I don’t want to do that to my father. Yes, some of his conservative beliefs confound and even anger me, but at the same time we nod our heads in agreement on plenty of other political issues — like how lobbying should be illegal and that marriage equality is a right. I know this because of the conversations we’ve shared, and that’s partly because the Bills have always given us common ground, a place where understanding is nurtured and our relationship deepened.
I don’t know why my father voted for Trump. He’s never said why. All I can do is speculate. From what I know about this man, who he is and who he has raised me to be, I believe that in his heart he didn’t want to vote for Trump. To him, “The Donald” is a very flawed candidate. I think, for now, my father is parked in the “let’s wait and see” lot. But the car is idling and I don’t think it will take much for him to drive away. The real reason why I think my father doesn’t want to talk politics lately is that he is disillusioned by the whole thing — the election, the commentary, the news articles and government in general. Like with the Bills, he’s hoping against hope things will get turned around and start heading in the right direction. But he’s not holding his breath.
I’m not going to stop talking to my father because he voted for a man I wholeheartedly despise. What good would that do? What problem would that solve? No matter what we’ve endured throughout our lives, the Bills have always been a constant link bringing us back together. Those open and honest conversations have long been the hallmark of our relationship. We don’t agree all the time, but we listen. That listening often leads to softening. And that softening often leads to evolution. I’ve seen my father evolve with my own two eyes. He once said he’d never attend a gay wedding. Yet, in the summer of 2009, there he was, standing in front of our guests while making a grand ole speech about me. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The fact my father voted for Trump leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. But I’m not going to harbor anger or resentment. I’m not going to blame him, either. And I’m certainly not going to stop loving him. I’m going to talk to him instead. Especially at Bills games, where our connection runs so deep. Come this September, when the folding chairs are out and beers are in hand, we’ll have a conversation.
We’ll muse about the Bills, chat about life and yes — we’ll talk about politics.