As a former standout linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, Lorenzo Alexander knows first-hand about the unique relationship between the team’s fans and its players.
The “Bills Mafia” is arguably the league’s most passionate fan base, and it rallies around players in time of need. Alexander expects nothing less of the Bills’ supporters as the organization and community await word about the health of safety Damar Hamlin, who had his heartbeat restored on the field after suffering cardiac arrest during the team’s game Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.
With Hamlin in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital, Alexander’s thoughts turned first to the young player and his family, then to a community that embraces all Bills players.
“The first thing is, I’m hurting for the young man and his family,” Alexander said by phone Tuesday morning. “Anytime you step on the field as a football player, you know you’re putting yourself on the line, though you never think about those things [the threat of serious injury] happening. What happened last night brings back a sobering reality of just how violent our game is.
“But the other thing I think about is Buffalo, because it’s more than just about football with the fans there. There’s kind of this slogan in Buffalo – “Football and Family” – and it’s like a real living, breathing thing in Buffalo. There’s really this bond with the community and the team. A lot of teams have great fan bases that really come out to support their teams. But in Buffalo, it’s more than that. It’s different than any organization I’ve been a part of. And if a player is hurting, the Buffalo community is, too.”
Formerly a defensive tackle and outside linebacker, Alexander spent 13 seasons in the league with the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo, the-then Oakland Raiders and the Washington Commanders. He enjoyed his greatest success with Buffalo during his final four seasons. In 2016, Alexander was selected to the Pro Bowl and as a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press after finishing third in the NFL with a career-high 12.5 sacks.
From the moment he signed with Buffalo, Alexander recalls, he was welcomed by the Bills Mafia, the nickname of the team’s supporters in Western New York and throughout the nation. The group bonded in disappointment, having experienced the club’s four consecutive Super Bowl defeats in the early 1990s.
And for the Bills Mafia, it’s all about backing the team’s players.
“You see the pictures on TV of fans helping players dig out of the snow to get to the stadium or to get home, and that’s real,” Alexander said. “I’ve had fans help me in that situation. They just come out to help, but that’s only part of it.
“When I would do [charitable events], I would never have to search for volunteers. There were just so many people who wanted to come out and do something to contribute. People there really feel like they’re a part of the organization. There’s an intimacy and closeness that is just unique there.”
Moreover, the mafia travels.
Many teams have fans outside of the cities in which they’re based. On NFL game days, those fans often gather to watch their favorite teams on television. Again, though, there’s something different about the Bills’ backers, Alexander said.
“I live in Phoenix now, and there are a significant number of people from Buffalo here who still go as hard for the Bills,” he said. “It’s like you can take the person out of the community, but you can’t take the community out of the person. Who they are at their core travels with them no matter where they go.
“Even though I’m not in Buffalo now, I still get to participate in the support, which is really cool. I played for Washington longer than I played for Buffalo, and this isn’t in any way a slight on that fan base, but the way I engage with [Bills fans] even out here in Phoenix at sporting events or just in the community … it’s unlike anything else. The appreciation and the gratitude is just on another level.”
Although Alexander, who retired after the 2019 season, and Hamlin were not teammates on the Bills, Alexander said he has heard nothing but good things about the second-year safety, who was a sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Pittsburgh in 2021.
Alexander remains close with some Bills coaches and players, “and they all say great things about the young man,” he said. “They all really like him. Everyone is just thinking about him and praying for him, and I know that includes Bills fans. Whether it’s in Buffalo or anywhere else in the country where they are, he has a strong community out here for him. I know that for a fact.”
For the Bills Mafia, it’s always about family. And Hamlin is a big part of it.