By Mike Billoni
Sammy "V" Violante, a Town of Tonawanda resident who has been attending Buffalo Bills' games as a season ticketholder since the old War Memorial Stadium days, is the eternal optimist. After watching the Bills' third Connors & Ferris Training Camp practice and first evening workout at St. John Fisher College outside of Rochester in Pittsford, Sammy admits he has caught "Rexmania."
Rex Ryan, the Bills' new, larger-than-life, rock star head coach - clearly a "player's coach" - is why the stands and party areas were filled to capacity, and fans were standing five-deep in the endzone watching every play during this early workout session.
Forgot about the lack of a stud quarterback: Fans are optimistic the 15-year non-playoff run will end this year, because Ryan is known for creating great defenses in the National Football League and this year he has a roster full of outstanding defensive talent. He also has a strong running game, talented receivers, a good offensive line and very good specialists. In this scheme, an adequate quarterback will suffice.
"Fasten your seat belts," Sammy V proclaims, borrowing a line from the late "Voice of the Bills," Van Miller. "It is Super Bowl or Bust. We 'Billieve.' "
Mike Billoni, left, and Sammy "V" Violante.
Sammy was part of two busloads of Bills' Monday Quarterback Club members attending practice on Aug. 3. Paul Peck, the former Channel 4 sportscaster who now calls the University at Buffalo football games on ESPN 1520, is a registered representative for AXA Advisors and president of the QB Club.
Peck and his board of directors has changed this group of business leaders and Bills fans from luncheon meetings to after-work gatherings at different locations downtown to accommodate more members and allow them more time to mingle and talk football. They are still accepting applications. Learn more by visiting www.mondayqbc.com.
The Bills are only one of 10 NFL teams to hold training camp outside of their home stadium. For them, it is a way for fans and sponsors to get close to the players and the team, and it's a key revenue generator for the team.
This is the Bills' 16th year of holding training camp at Fisher and it was Russ Brandon, the Bills' president and managing partner (and a St. John Fisher graduate and member of its baseball Hall of Fame) who moved camp from Fredonia State College because, at the time, the team was trying to regionalize itself eastward in the state.
"Training camp has been a tremendous way for the Buffalo Bills to regionalize itself into the Rochester market and, look around, it gives the fans a great opportunity to get close and personal with our team," says Andy Major, the Bills vice president of operations and guest experience. "The fan experience here is tremendous and camp also gives us a great opportunity for our sponsors to interact with fans and the team."
Major also senses an excitement among the fans this year.
"It's 'Rexmania,' for sure," he says with a smile. "He has been great to work with and the fans have been fired up since the opening practice session here with an energy level that's better than any I have ever seen."
Steve Salluzzo, St. John Fisher director of auxiliary services, left, and Andy Major, Bills vice president of operations and guest services.
Steve Salluzzo is director of auxiliary services at St. John Fisher. He says the college loves hosting camp each summer.
"Training camp is huge for St. John Fisher College," he explains. "Each summer we get so many people walking around our campus that otherwise would never be here. On top of that, it has been a great experience working with such a class organization as the Buffalo Bills."
Bruce Popko, who was promoted by new owners Terry and Kim Pegula to executive vice president of business development for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, created the business model with Brandon for corporate sponsorships for the Bills, which is evident everywhere at training camp and throughout Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.
Trace George, the founder, owner and president of the VSP Graphic Group, his son, Trey, and their team have worked closely with Popko's and Major's teams on creating and installing the hundreds of signs on the ground, fences and walls at training camp.
"Training camp is a two-month process with our team working closely with the sales and marketing team of the Bills to create, produce and implement all of the signage at training camp to make it look Olympic like," explains Trace, whose company is the official graphics company of the Buffalo Bills, Sabres and HARBORCENTER. VSP also was an integral player in the retrofitting of the new branding inside the renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"It's a labor of love to be working with such professionals who run the front offices of the Bills, Sabres and HARBORCENTER," he adds. "This year, you can feel a tremendous optimism in the air. It is 'Rexmania' and he has created a buzz in the air for success. The players finally have a leader on the field."
John Murphy, the current "Voice of the Bills," who has a nightly sports show on WGR Radio, has been coming to training camp since 1981 at Fredonia when he worked at WBEN Radio. He also sees an upbeat atmosphere at camp this year.
" 'Camp Rex' is great," Murph says before he addresses the Quarterback Club before the recent practice. "The players are working very hard this year. Rex also uses all of the fields to keep all of the players active during practice. He is a great guy, but he is asking his players to work hard in practice and they are. This is no Club Med."
The fans, as they watch practice, wander the grounds to obtain something to eat or visit the massive souvenir store, all have one question: "Who will be the quarterback?" when the Bills open the season at home against Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
Only time will tell.
Training Camp Information
How to Get to St. John Fisher: Take the New York State Thruway to Exit 46. Take Route 390 North to Route 590 North to Monroe Avenue (Route 31). Turn Right on Monroe Avenue. Follow green and white road sign to any of the shuttle lots, which are at Sutherland High School, 55 Sutherland St., Pittsford, or Barker Road Middle School, 75 Barker Road, Pittsford.
There will be a $1 charge for ages 12-62 to ride the shuttle buses. All services are handicap accessible.
Schedule at St. John Fisher: Saturday, Aug. 8, 7 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 10, 10 a.m.; Tuesday, Aug. 11, 10 a.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 12, 6 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 16, 10 a.m.; Monday, Aug. 17, 10 a.m.; Tuesday, Aug. 18, 6 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 22, 10 a.m.; Sunday, Aug. 23, 6 p.m.; Tuesday, Aug. 25, 10 a.m. Camp heads to Orchard Park.
Tickets are required for evening practices. The Aug. 17 day practice is with the Cleveland Browns. Tickets are required. Visit the Bills website, www.buffalobills.com, for more information or call 877-228-4257 for camp information.
The Bills Experience
Training camp is a great place to bring the kids and the Bills have done a wonderful job of creating the same experience they have in the AdPro Sports Field House at the stadium on game days. The interactive games area is adjacent to the practice fields. There is a new Bills "Super Slide" for kids along with a quarterback challenge, field goal challenge, a football toss, the "Bills Blaster," a red zone competition and an obstacle course. Kids ages 14 and under can get autographs after each practice at the Kids Autograph Zone tent. Each child can have one item signed. Fans also can get autographs along the fence of the field as players exit practice.
The VSP team: From left, Trace George, Tray George, Samantha O'Connor and Josh Szay.