TORONTO — It started as a sea of green and blue. Green and blue seats, going around and around the Rogers Centre.
The scene before kickoff in Toronto looked scary to say the least. Sure, it’s the preseason, a time undrafted rookies get to become boxscore superheroes. But this is still the NFL, and it’s in Toronto. The presence of the NFL in a foreign country is still kind of a big deal, right?
Then suddenly a bomb went off. Or maybe it was that incessantly loud cannon that went off at every conceivable opportunity. Or perhaps it was the Bills band oddly starting the pre game performance with Auld Lang Syne. But something ignited this crowd.
The empty seats were still there (final attendance was 39,583, compared to the 48,434 who attended the preseason game against Pittsburgh in 2008), but the Rogers Centre sounded alive, and that definitely counts for something. In the middle of the first quarter Bills rookie first-round pick C.J Spiller–now carrying the load in the backfield with both Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson injured–sprinted to the outside for a 31-yard touchdown. The roar came.
Joseph Addai hit the hole hard for a 17-yard score to tie the game. The roar was there again.
Terrence McGee intercepted Peyton Manning for a pick six. And there was the roar once more.
Should this be surprising? No, far from it. It should be commonplace. Here’s the ridiculously simple, borderline intelligence-insulting equation: football is a hard-hitting, fast-paced sport, with quick bursts of action. So it should be exciting. Yet there is a perception amongst some media south of the border that there’s an overwhelming sense of indifference to the Bills Toronto Series.
Emotionally, the crowd is invested. Visually, the crowd is lacking, and that’s the root of the problem. It’s nice and cute when the noise slowly builds on a third and long, and when eyes widen as a deep ball sails through the air, and don’t forget that collective “ohhh!” and stadium-wide wince that follows a solid hit. It’s especially adorable when the wave rolls around the lower bowl amidst the still vacant green and blue seats.
But football is a business, and the Bills Toronto Series is a business endeavour, one that needs quantity to be successful and quality will be worried about later. At the best of times it’s difficult to take two areas with separate identities that are linked by little more than geography, and find some common bond.
For the players, it feels different. But it’s OK to be different. Just ask Trent Edwards.
“I thought the environment was great, I really enjoyed it,” said the Bills quarterback, who threw for 93 yards and a touchdown.
In a small way, this has become a home away from home for Edwards, like the family cottage that’s visited a couple times a year.
“The playing surface, and the stadium is a little different. The fans are on our side though, and I really enjoy playing here.”
Who the fans were supporting Thursday night is debatable, as the cheers for the “home” side nearly equalled those for the Colts. But winning the AFC Championship and going to the Super Bowl will do that for you.
Lee Evans, who caught a 70-yard bomb from Edwards for a first-quarter touchdown, has been around since the beginning of the Bills Toronto Series, and says the atmosphere is getting better with each visit.
“It certainly feels as though we have a lot of support out there, and the fans were a lot more into it than they have been in the past,” said the former first-round pick.
“It is different, but it feels a lot more like a home game now than it did the first time we played here.”