When the NFL schedule comes out Thursday, fans across the league will start planning their fall calendars.
Sarah Larson is used to having her travel affected by Buffalo bills.
When she was a senior in high school, Larson met Bills quarterback Jim Kelly at an event at a nearby mall. Her friends knew how much she loved the bills, and they pushed her forward.
I asked Kelly if she knew where she was going to college. Larson was still making the decision, but he fell out of favor with some options, including the University of Miami, his university. Kelly asked if she had seen the campus yet. Larson did not.
She said, “He said, ‘If you see the campus, you’ll know. I actually got on the bus to see the campus after about two weeks, because I couldn’t afford the trip, and I was able to see the campus. I always joked that it was the reason I went to the University of Miami.'”
In her senior year, in the first game of the season, Kelly was a special guest at the game. “It was just a kismet at that point,” she said.
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Following bills across the country will become a way of life.
Even among a Bills fan base known to flock to opponents’ courts, Larson has since set a very high bar. She made it to all 19 of the Bills’ games last season – home and away, regular season and post-season – despite not living in Buffalo. Its flights totaled about 38,000 miles in 20 weeks.
“It’s always been my big dream,” she said. “My son went to college (last) in August, and it was a kind of perfect time. I always said that as soon as I had the opportunity to do it, if it all worked out, I would.”
Larsson isn’t the only fan to have made every game of the season. But her itinerary had the added layer of having to travel to Bills home games as well. She grew up near Finger Lakes, and now lives in Sunrise, Florida, about 35 minutes north of Dolphins’ HardRock Stadium. Last year’s schedule, with three games in Florida, gave her three games a short drive away.
The timing was set in other ways to help make the significant cost more achievable. Larson, a senior manager at a mortgage company, had a number of trip credits due to having to cancel plans due to Covid the previous year. She sold her house to live with the family for a bit. By the end of the season, she had accumulated more travel points. Her job allows her to work remotely, so she spent the week in Buffalo between the last two games of the regular season, instead of flying back and forth.
Being on a full roster of games in person was a dream for Larson. She’s been pregnant for the season for a few years, and most of her family is still in western New York. As a child, Larson, 40, was drawn to football because of her curiosity.
“I will never forget that I was five or six years old, watching a game and just asking questions,” she said.
Her parents were not particularly interested in football, so she began to order books. I read about the rules, about the history of the league, about the salary cap space. Larson learned more about the intricacies of the game, all while fully clinging to the bills.
Now, a big part of encouraging The Bills is to share the experience with other fans.
“Over the past two years, I’ve met a lot of people, but this season, obviously, I’ve really been able to develop relationships,” Larson said.
There was Friendsgiving in New Orleans. The 40th birthday of a friend in Florida. Seeing friends from her childhood in the fourth week.
Her son, Giovanni, joined in for a long time during his winter vacation.
“We were on our winning streak at the end of the season, and he kept saying it was good luck,” Larson said.
The crusade to follow bills doubled on off-season trips. Larson went to the NFL Draft in Las Vegas. She spent more time with friends with whom she became close during the last year of her travels. Watch Larson up close with Alyssa O’Reilly as the Bills pick out the next junior class. O’Reilly is a Tonawanda native who lives in the Dallas area and has gone a lot of miles after the Bills as well.
There were some matches where Larson hardly knew anyone when she got to the field. Admittedly, she was nervous about some parts of it and initially didn’t like to go to games alone. But her desire to see her team outweighs other concerns, as do many out-of-state fans.
“It’s hard to make friends when you get older,” O’Reilly said. “It’s different. But when you have this shared passion about bills, I think it sort of happens naturally because we’re, I think, very grounded people. I think a lot of us come from working-class families and very humble beginnings. So you just want Enjoy and be with other passionate people like you.”
At first, Larson was quiet about her quest to get into all of the games. But she continued to encounter some of the same fans week after week.
“They’d start seeing me,” she said, “and they already knew who I was from my past introductions.” Finally, I got to the point where it was, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve been in every game so far, haven’t you? “
Around the fifth or sixth week, her mission became a talking point. In addition, Larson began to communicate more and more with other groups to see who would be in future games. Larson and O’Reilly met in New Orleans, then saw each other at other games, thanks in part to a group message.
“She’s kind of a mayor. She knows people in all different fields,” O’Reilly said. “I think that says a lot about her personality, to be able to handle so many different types of Bills fans. I think this is amazing. … She’s like a hen mother, checking people out to see how they’re doing. “
This sense of community was especially refreshing after the previous season’s seclusion.
“I think it really helped the full Covid experience for all of us, from having a place central as well,” O’Reilly said. “It kind of helped me with that loneliness and monotony in your days.”
Larson would eventually like to reach every stadium in the NFL. You’ll be going to the Miami game as long as you live there. You’ll likely skip some stadiums you’ve already visited, but that depends. What if it was a particularly big match? What if it’s late in the season?
I’ve talked about it with other die-hard Billings fans who make it to every game every year. Their messages were all the same: If you go long enough early in the season, it will be hard to stop. Larson has kept that in the back of her head as she prepares to see where – and where, where and where – this Bills season will take her.
“I’ll try not to pressure me,” Larson said. “At the same time, they know how much the Bills have always meant to me. They understand how passionate I am about the team. So they know how much I will try to keep everything going.”