When Kenny “Pinto Ron” Johnson picked up the phone Wednesday evening, he was on his way to Buffalo Bills’ stadium—about 80 miles from his home in Rochester—to get a COVID test. A 34-year season-ticket holder for the team, he was able to get one of the 6,772 spots the Bills have opened up for fans at this Saturday’s playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts—pending a negative test.
Before this season, Johnson had attended 423 straight Bills games, home and away, going all the way back to 1994. But it’s the home games that made him famous, at least in Buffalo. It’s before those that he throws his legendary tailgate, which features his red Ford Pinto (hence the nickname) and ends with him being Jackson Pollock-ed with an alarming amount of ketchup and mustard.
Though the Buffalo Bills have spent most of the last 25 years being very bad at football, their rabid and devoutly loyal fan base has established itself as a rowdy, debauched juggernaut. In recent years, “Bills Mafia” has become a football phenomenon. This is thanks in large part to an ever-growing library of videos featuring red, white, and blue-clad fans eagerly and willingly risking grievous bodily harm by smashing through tables from various heights, armed only with Western New York grit and, one might reasonably guess, a numbing amount of booze.
Johnson’s rituals don’t involve table body slams, but are legion nonetheless: taking shots of 100-proof Polish cherry liqueur out of a bowling ball; Pizza Pete’s pizza, which gets cooked in a filing cabinet; and, of course, the condiment rain shower. Johnson says that though his tailgates have “only” 100 or so people around 9 a.m., they might swell to a thousand “around the ketchup opening ceremony time.”
This year there have been no tailgates and no fans at home games. Which hasn’t stopped Pinto Ron from attending games at stadiums that have allowed for spectators, which, this season, included Miami, Tennessee, and Arizona. “Right now, I say that I’ve been to 426 games in a row that allow fans, and put a little asterisk on it,” says Johnson of his streak.
For game 427, he’ll be parked on the 20-yard-line, row 37. He’s an “upper-deck guy” at heart, but that’s closed right now—these were the highest seats he could get. He’s already got tickets for the AFC championship too, should the Bills make it that far.
As for the game, and this 13-3 Bills team which, after decades of waiting, finally looks capable of getting back to a Super Bowl? He says he feels good—so long as those COVID test results come through.
GQ: Are you planning a tailgate for this weekend?
Pinto Ron: No. Erie County is under Cuomo’s Orange Status. That means no restaurants can be open for indoor dining. And let me tell you, outdoor dining is a little tough right now. Also: no gatherings of more than 10 people. My biggest problem is I attract a crowd. I can’t say I’m going to be somewhere because I’ll get a crowd, and I’ll get a big crowd. And I don’t want to be in the awkward position of telling people to go away. And I also don’t want to be in the awkward position of being the person that Cuomo makes an example of.
Are you bringing the Pinto?
No, for the same reason. If I parked that somewhere, there’d be 50 people around it. Just because it’s there.
This must be the longest time you’ve gone in a while without getting doused with ketchup and mustard.
Well, not exactly. When we were in Tennessee, there was a tailgate that the Arizona Bills Backers put together. They found four acres of farmland and they got about 250 people to show up. So it was a very socially distant, spaced out tailgate, but we did have the full ketchup opening ceremony.