‘Bills Elvis’ Turns 30 As Team Readies For Playoffs
For John Lang, perhaps the most recognized Buffalo Bills fan since 1992 when he first donned an old white jump suit and had sideburns painted on his face, gameday is more like game weekend.
“I can barely sleep Saturday night just thinking about what’s going on for the next day on Sundays,” said Lang, better known in Western New York as “Bills Elvis” at home games in Orchard Park. “It’s the funnest day on earth to me, it really is. It’s just the funnest day.”
The Lockport resident will be among tens of thousands of fans in attendance Saturday night to see the Bills play the New England Patriots. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically limited who was able to see the team live during last year’s run to the AFC Championship game, meaning this will be the first sellout crowd to see a home playoff game in more than 25 years.
“It’s the weather, it’s just the people,” Lang told The Post-Journal in an interview this week of what makes Bills games unique.
Lang added: “We want to have a good time, we want to celebrate. I mean, it’s our Mardi Gras, the Bills home game. It really is. Everybody takes it seriously and tries to have fun with it.”
ELVIS HAS ENTERED THE BUILDING
Lang’s alter ego was born 30 years ago in 1992. Instead of betting his friend the usual box of cigars on a Bills-Dolphins game, Lang went “double or nothing” he could get himself on the television broadcast.
He found a guitar that he sanded down and painted, adding the words “Go Bills” on one side and “Squish the fish” on the other. His wife painted sideburns on his face and added chest hair for good measure.
The gimmick worked.
“They had me on the broadcast,” Lang said. “They had me in the newspaper, from what I remember. Chris Berman had me on that night making fun of me on ESPN. And when I left, it was funny, my whole section was like, ‘You gotta do this again! You gotta do it again!’ It turned out to be something else from there. It’s been a great ride.”
Lang graduated in 1980 from Royalton Hartland High School in Middleport, New York. After briefly moving away, he returned to Western New York and attended one or two Bills games each year. By the early ’90s, the height of the Jim Kelly-led teams, Lang had season tickets and had officially become “Bills Elvis” with his iconic guitar that often had messages both rooting for the Bills and taking shots at the opposing team.
“You could feel the energy of the stadium from miles away,” he said of the time. “It was incredible.”
LOTS OF UPS… AND SOME DOWNS
Since 1992, Lang has missed only three home games. That means he’s witnessed many memorable moments in team history.
“I mean the comeback game always stands out because it was just incredible,” said Lang, referring to the Jan. 3, 1993, Wild Card playoff game in which the Bills overcame a 32-point deficit to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in overtime. “It’s almost surreal to look back on it.”
Down by several scores heading into halftime — and with the Oilers scoring on an interception right out of the break — many fans headed toward the exits.
Lang said fans at the time were allowed to bring coolers into the games.
“My wife and I were sitting there, and I remember saying, ‘You know, when this cooler’s gone, we’re just going to leave,'” he said. “That was like at halftime. And so, you know, we’re sitting there just kind of nursing a beer or whatever and then all of a sudden all of the energy of the entire stadium changed. It’s still surreal to me.”
Cameras showed Lang, in his classic Elvis garb, with the words “Do the Reich thing” painted on his guitar. It was the Bills’ backup quarterback, Frank Reich, who famously led the comeback effort over the Oilers that day.
Then there was the 1994 Divisional playoff game against the Los Angeles Raiders, notable for being the coldest game in Bills history. “We were tailgating, and just the regular temperature was minus-20, so we had to keep our beer in the coolers to keep it from freezing,” Lang said.
The Bills won the game 29-23. The team would beat a Joe Montana-led Kansas City squad the following week in the AFC Championship game before falling — for the second year in a row — to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
There’s been some duds as well over the years, including a 6-3 loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns in October 2009. “I probably smashed my guitar after that one,” Lang said.
Then there was the last-second loss to the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 on Monday Night Football. “I probably smashed my guitar outside the stadium after that one,” he said.
Regarding the guitar, a central piece to his “Bills Elvis” persona, Lang said he goes through about five each season. “They fall apart smacking them on the wall,” he said.
Lang is no stranger to Chautauqua County. His day job as an outside salesman regularly brings him to the Jamestown area. He’s also a huge fan of the 10,000 Maniacs.
As the weekend approaches, though, it’s all about football. For Lang, watching the Bills play has become a religion. Leading up to home games, he will paint his guitar, complete with a new phrase, and coordinate with a large group of friends he meets with regarding the tailgate.
“We’re going back and forth, who’s bringing what and trying to figure out what the weather’s going to be like,” Lang said.
The group tries to get to a lot near the stadium around 7:15 a.m. on game day. It takes them about a half hour to get everything set up, including tents and grills for cooking.
“We put a lot into the tailgating aspect of it,” he said. “We like to think we have one of the best that there is.”
COVID-19 prevented fans from witnessing a historically great team last year.
“That was not easy by any means, that’s for sure,” Lang said of not being able to go to home games during a season in which the team won 13 games, captured the AFC East division title for the first time since 1995 and reached the conference championship game.
Lang was able to attend the divisional playoff game against the Ravens; he appeared in highlight packages by NFL Films after Stefon Diggs scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
“It was a very spirited crowd,” he said of those in the stands during the Bills-Ravens game, “because we waited for that game for a while. Yeah, it was fun.”