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Where are they now? The four Wellsville kids who made national front pages at the then-coldest Buffalo Bills game in history

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By JOHN ANDERSON

A lot was made about one of the coldest games in Buffalo Bills’ history on Saturday night when the Bills stunned the New England Patriots, 47-17 and the game time temperature was 7 degrees with a calm wind chill for the playoff game.

On Dec. 26, 1993, a record was set for a coldest game, 9 degrees with a wind chill of -28 when the Bills defeated the visiting New York Jets, 16-14.

Minus 28. A game so cold, five kids, just a year or two out of high school, were able to score incredible tickets for free and go see the Bills clinch the AFC East title on the way to another Super Bowl appearance.

They went to the game, they did something crazy and 24 hours after arriving at the stadium, they woke up to find out they were famous.

To set the stage for that day and how things were different, you had to have lived it.

There was a huge snowstorm on Christmas Eve in 1993. The Bills hired people to shovel 20 inches of snow on Christmas at the former Rich Stadium.

The day after Christmas, 70,817 fans showed up. This past Saturday night, 69,188 fans watched the Bills defeat the Patriots, a difference of 1,629 for those who think fans in the Super Bowl years showed up in greater numbers each game. I will admit, there are more box seats and the heated section in the 200’s.

Photos went viral of Kyle Brandt from the NFL Network’s Good Morning Football pre-game with fans, Jim Kelly and Steve Tasker. The same with videos and photos of former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick sitting with fans, taking his shirt off and cheering. 

Those moments are shared during the game.

In 1993, things were different.

On Monday, Dec. 27, 1993 the newspapers arrived at homes and newsstands across the country. Almost every village, town and city in America had a newsstand and carried multiple papers.

One photo dominated them all, from the the New York Times, a newspaper in Ireland to the front page of the USA Today and the Buffalo News: Four fans with no shirts on in the -28 wind chill with their chests painted, “C-O-L-D.”

Harry Scull’s photo was on the Associated Press wire and James P. McCoy of the Buffalo News also had a great shot of the four shirtless lads in the paper. At -28 degrees in the wind, there was no way Scull or McCoy were able to get in the stands to get names for a cutline.

The photo was fun and brought a lot of smiles to fans. It was featured on the front of the Buffalo News sports section with the headline, “Chilly Thrills” as the Bills clinched the AFC East title that day. One newspaper captioned, “Four Cold Ones” and of course, pointing out the lack of judgment, one said, “At Least They Can Spell.”

A lot of newspapers in those days were afternoon papers. I covered the Buffalo Bills for the now-defunct Wellsville Daily Reporter and was typing up my column that morning after a late night transcribing quotes from my tape recorder to write a game story. I had until 10 a.m. to get the story done and the paragraphs were run through a wax machine and placed on the cardboard flats to make up a page. It was like Tetris.

In the Wellsville office, Bob and Faith Perkins would sit in the front office in the morning until the pages were done. Bob would put them into a black carrying case that was so old, the zipper fell off. But the pages (much larger in size those days) on those heavy cardboard backings fit in his bag and he would drive them to Hornell. The Wellsville press was dismantled in 1986. It’s amazing he never got in a car accident that would have prevented the paper from being printed.

Those “flats” were then shot, made into a metal plate and loaded onto the press.

Sports was usually the only local news for the Monday paper. We had six stories planned for Page 1 and only one was local, a quick story on near-record lows.

Suddenly, someone came through the front door of the office on Main Street. From my desk in the back, I could see everyone who came in the door. You could also just walk right down that same hallway and turn left into the publishers office without anyone stopping you. And they did. No paper? Pay a bill? Have a question on coverage? Readers would pass right by the receptionist and bothered our publisher, Oak Duke.

The man was waving a national paper he had purchased at Searle’s Newsstand and yelled, “Hey Oakie, your son Ethan is on the front page all over the country with his shirt off!”

We had no idea. There was no Facebook or Twitter to share the photos as they were taken by Scull and McCoy. Today, as soon as a photo is shot, the camera has WiFi and you can send the photo right to a social media team or a photo desk to be online in minutes.

There were no fans with cell phones posting videos on Snapchat or Tik Tok or Instagram. In fact, there were many games I shot in those years where my batteries would be dead from the cold at halftime and I was charging at halftime well into the third quarter.

This game, I opted for the warm press box.

“Did you see this?” Oak asked me. Nope. I didn’t notice it during the game. The press box at that time took up a ridiculously huge space at the 50-yard-line. I never understood why we had prime real estate. We don’t today, the press box is in the corner of the end zone near the tunnel. But that day, they were below me.

The only way I could see fans was to borrow the binoculars from the man next to me. That man would become one of my mentors the next year at my next job, Olean Times Herald Sports Editor Chuck Pollock.

During his post-game press conference at the podium, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly mentioned the four fans with their shirts off behind the Bills bench. I had no idea they were from Wellsville.

The clock was ticking now on deadline. This is where technology really gets tricky. The Wellsville office did not have an Associated Press Photo machine. The photos came into the Hornell office and the staff at the Tribune would put together a wire sports page and a wire news page each day for both papers. The rest of the Reporter had to be local news photos.

Our newspapers at the time paid for the lowest level AP content. This meant that photo of the Wellsville kids only went out to the larger publications. We called the New York office of the Associated Press (the Buffalo office was for stories only) and they were able to send the photo electronically to Hornell.

We told them to have the Hornell darkroom make a four-column across, five inches deep photo. We wrote the cutline, and taped a kicker in black on the top saying, “The ‘coolest’ people in Buffalo are from Wellsville.” The front page went over to Hornell with a blank spot for the photo.

When the pages arrived, 11 pages went to the press and one went upstairs to the newsroom for the photo to be waxed and slapped on the page. It fit perfectly. Oak Duke was proud of the fact we were the only paper in America to have the names of fans.

For almost 30 years, I’ve wondered how they got those tickets, who came up with the idea and how did they know they went viral. And of course, I wanted to know what do these four guys do for a living today?

It turns out, there were actually five people who were part of the story. One of them started in those seats and traded with another and never made the papers. The youngest one of the five made his way down and had the letter “O” painted on his chest.

I texted the letter “O” for the story and he said he didn’t want to do the interview. He has two children, 7 and 9, who don’t know about the game. The photo sat proudly framed in his dorm room at Fredonia State for four years. Today, it’s hiding under his bed with the ticket stub from that day. When I told him I had contacted everyone else who was a part of that day, he consented to the interview.

So I made the call. Mt. Morris Central School Superintendent Greg Bump answered.

“We all wanted to get on TV. No offense, John,” Bump said to me. “We weren’t thinking about print media! It was a fun, innocent trip. It was great. But we didn’t think anyone on the field saw us.”

SCORING THE TICKETS

Ethan Duke was making decent money pumping gas at the Kwik Fill on Main Street, but he wanted something more. At the old Sinclair Oil buildings off Brooklyn Avenue near the Wellsville campus of Alfred State, there was Otis Eastern Services. But he wanted a job doing anything for the gas pipeline company.

“I really wanted to work for Otis. I would go in every day and beg Charlie Joyce for a job,” Ethan said. “Finally, he let me clean the trucks in the winter. I’d pull them in the garage and clean them top to bottom.

“On Friday, Dec. 23, Charlie said he had five tickets for the game. It was so cold and no one with a brain wanted to go,” he continued. “I guess that’s why he thought of me!”

Ethan Duke, Mike Chaffee, Jamie Jones and Erin O’Connor were in. All were two years out of high school. There was a fifth ticket, but it was higher up. They all liked Greg Bump even though he was a year behind them in school and asked him to go.

LET’S PAINT O.J. ON OUR CHEST

Erin and Jamie knew they had the tickets and now had a plan.

“Jamie Jones and I were sitting up on a hill on Christmas Eve near his house and we remembered a couple guys like Steve Harris and Marty Benz took their shirts off at a preseason game and got in the Buffalo News, so we had to one-up them,” O’Connor said. “Our idea was ‘Hey O.J.’ because OJ Simpson was the sideline reporter and we wanted to get on the NBC broadcast.”

On June 17, 1994, the country would be glued to the TV as O.J. Simpson in the back of his white Ford Bronco was part of a low-speed chase. He would later be charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.

“This story might be a little different if we went with the O.J. idea,” O’Connor joked from his Colorado home.

O’Connor added, “Depending on who tells the story, someone came up with the idea to paint cold on our chests.”

From his home outside of Philadelphia, Jones was the only one who had a clear answer.

“I think it was my brother Patrick who came up with ‘Cold.’ So we went with it,” Jones said. “We just wanted to get on TV so everyone could see us.”

A LIMO WAS MAPQUEST

The five also did something quite interesting. They tailgated together on Saturday. They woke up Sunday morning with hangovers and went to the game. They did not drink alcohol that day.

They also forgot the paint.

“We drove up in Erin O’Connor’s dad’s 1990 Chevy Blazer. We stopped at a small store in Caneadea on Route 19 at the base of the hill turning onto 243 in Rushford. It had a lot of hunting supplies and we bought camouflage paint,”

Ethan Duke said. “Security was a lot different at the stadium then. They just made sure you didn’t bring in food and six packs. We were able to carry in the packs of paint sticks!”

The snow and ice was brutal on 243. The Blazer spun out between Rushford and Arcade. They almost didn’t make it, stuck at the Allegany-Cattaraugus county border. They continued on to the 400 and then had no idea where to go.

“We were driving up, just got on the 400 and someone asked, ‘Who knows how to get to the stadium?’ None of us did,” Bump said. “There were no phones, no Mapquest. We saw a limousine.”

Mike Chaffee said, “It’s probably going to the game.’ And it was! That’s how we got the game!”

A ticket from that game.

PAINT, SNOWBALLS AND FROZEN NACHOS

Chaffee, Duke, O’Connor and Jones settle in their seats.

Ethan Duke said that’s when it hit Chaffee.

“He is a die-hard Steelers fan and there was no way he was standing up without his shirt on and cheering for the Bills,” Duke said.

Chaffee laughs, “Yea, that’s probably accurate.”

Bump was settling in his seat.

“Mike Chaffee decided not to do it. I was the underclassman. They all graduated in 1992 so I had the seat alone,” Bump said. “Chaffee came up and said, ‘You are going down’ and I was going down!”

The four raced up to the concourse and went into the bathroom where they took their shirts off and painted the large letters on their chests.

“We came out into the main concourse, no shirts on shouting “we are going to be famous!’ We were so full of ourselves!” O’Connor said. “Parents were walking with their children and they just rushed them by us.”

The four walked down to their seats, about the 25th row behind the Bills bench and waved, thinking they would get a heroes welcome.

Instead, they became target practice for snowballs.

“They wanted to take off their shirts. There is no way I was doing that. I sat up there and everyone around me were talking about how these idiots had their shirts off and people were throwing snowballs at them,” Chaffee said. “And I admitted, ‘Yea, I might know them.’ The fans around me were amazed they would take their shirts off.

“I remember I bought nachos and they were frozen solid by the time I got back to the seats, that’s how cold it was,” Chaffee added.

Ethan Duke remembered, “We definitely wanted attention. This was before the internet age. How were we going to get that one camera to turn around and get us? We were getting pretty cold in the second quarter. This was a record-breaking cold. And we had to wait for photographers. We took our shirts off and only had hats and gloves off and were like that for a long, long time!”

Duke remembered they thought someone took their photos in the second quarter. They put their shirts on at halftime. Was it over?

“Nope. We kept them off most of the game,” Duke said. “Everybody around us was happy. People in front of us kept turning around. This was the precursor to the Bills Mafia. We were die-hard crazies before Bills Mafia. People were happy because it was such a wild, tribal thing.”

Jones was comfortably numb.

“I just remember tailgating the night before. I was fairly numb on the way up there,” Jones said. “It was crazy, when we came out of the restrooms with our shirts off we were getting pelted with snowballs!”

O’Connor remembered, “The Bills had cheerleaders at the time, and the Jills were pointing at us and we were like, ‘Yea, see the Jills are pointing at us!’ But they were probably laughing at us!”

“We put our jackets on at halftime. The two guys next to us wanted to be ‘E-R’ to spell colder and I said no, it’s our fame! He was sour with me, I was so full of myself!” O’Connor said. “So the fourth quarter was the coldest point and we took our shirts off again.”

THERE WAS A GAME THAT DAY

The referee was Ed Hochuli. The game was hyped as a battle between superstar quarterback Jim Kelly and Boomer Esiason of the Jets. While Esiason threw two touchdowns, the Jets kicker missed three field goals in the brutal wind and the Bills won, 16-14. The last kick by the Jets started wide right, looked right down the middle, then went left and missed the goal posts all together.

Kelly somehow threw for 256 yards and Thurman Thomas ran for 61 yards and a touchdown. This team was loaded with wide receivers (same with 2021) like Andre Reed, but the leading receiver that day was Bill Brooks with five catches for 75 yards. On Defense, Darryl Talley had a game-high eight tackles and recovered a fumble.

“We had great seats and what a game! I remember right in front of us, Ronnie Lott had a huge hit on Billy Brooks,” O’Connor said. “But I remember getting pelted all game with snowballs. People asked, ‘What is WRONG with you guys?’ We said, ‘We’re going to be famous!’ The Bills win, they clinch the AFC East and we had an uneventful trip home.”

FAME AND A NEWSPAPER SLAP

The five returned to Wellsville, sober and tired. They all went to bed and slept on Monday.

Except for Ethan Duke.

“I had to work at Otis on Monday morning,” Duke said. “I was in the shop and I saw Charlie come walking out of his office toward the shop. He never came over to where I worked, so I thought I was in trouble. He had a newspaper wrapped up in his hand. He slapped my arm with it and unrolled it. There we were in full color.”

Joyce remembers the day well and laughs when I remind him about the story. He told Ethan, “THIS is what you used my tickets for?”

Ethan remembers, “After the game, we didn’t know if we would get any press. I didn’t know until Charlie walked across the yard the next day. The newspaper was the only thing in those days to let anybody know. But Charlie was tickled by it.”

One-by-one, the others started to find out.

O’Connor’s parents told him he had a phone call and woke him up.

“Eric Stein was on the phone. He worked at the Quik Fill (filling Ethan’s old job). He said we were on the front page of the USA Today and they said at least we can spell!,” O’Connor said. “At least we were celebrities for a week.”

Later that day when the Daily Reporter finally arrived, Patrick Jones showed his brother.

“After that, I remember getting a bunch of papers and I still have them at my parents house in Wellsville,” Jamie Jones said. “The memories of the game started coming back to me. Jim Kelly actually turned around and waved at us!

“Erin and I were talking this past Saturday when they showed our game as the coldest at the time in the graphic on TV,” he said. “You don’t get that with a dome.”

O’Connor called Bump.

“It ended up on the front page of the Wellsville paper. I certainly got in trouble,” Bump said. “My mom did not think I showed great judgment.”

Jamie then called Mike Chaffee.

“I checked my newspaper and there it was,” Chaffee said. “Then, I turn on ESPN’s SportsCenter and they made it on the Monday broadcast.”

Ethan laughs about being on TV a day later.

“Ed Kilgore on Ch. 2 said “these guys had a few cocktails before the game.’ I remember yelling at the TV, ‘We didn’t party that day, we partied the night before!’ “

Bump added, “It was a fun, innocent trip. It was great.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

This is the fun part. Three are educators. One builds houses and one runs a successful non-profit.

Erin O’Connor is in his 19th year teaching school. He is in Colorado in the Pouder School District at Ft. Collins High School teaching 9th and 12th grade English. Over the years, he also took on teaching at-risk students. He said that’s the most enjoyable and rewarding part of his job as those students graduate and are no longer carrying an “at-risk” label.

O’Connor, who is married with a family, has been in Colorado since 1997.

“I’ve told the C-O-L-D story a hundred times. Each new school year I work the story in during my teaching career. When I first started teaching, I had the overhead transparency. Now, I show them the hard-copy of the newspapers,” O’Connor said. “When I tell them Jim Kelly talked about us in his press conference, the kids say ‘who is Jim Kelly?’ And I’m like, ‘kids don’t know anything important anymore.’ But wife had a shirt made of the photo and coffee mugs!”

Bump went to Brockport State University where he received his Masters Degree. As a superintendent and a parent, he admits he just hasn’t brought it up. He thinks right now his kids are too young and wouldn’t care.

But he does think having media is a good thing.

“We were so fortunate to have a daily paper in such a small village all of those years,” said Bump. “When that went away, the community needed something. So this Wellsville Sun website is so good to keep people connected, even if this story is on there! But I check the site each day and just hope the new owners of Giant will keep selling salt rising toast.”

Ethan Duke lives in Marshall, Missouri, runs a conservation non-profit with his wife. He spent a little time after college at the Daily Reporter and set up one of the first “Main Street Web Cams.” It was set up to simply show Main Street 24 hours a day from the office. However, it was also pointed at the most popular bar in town at the time, Better Days. After one weekend of numbers spiking with viewers watching who left at 2 a.m. and a Monday of angry customers and advertisers, that was unplugged.

Jamie Jones moved to Colorado in 1994. He owned a construction company and now lives outside of Philadelphia with his family

“We moved back East two-and-a-half years ago to be closer to family,” Jones said. “It’s good to be back East.”

Jones builds houses and does trim work. He also recently bought a house outside of Wellsville in Willing.

“We have 117 acres. I do a lot of hunting and ride the trails,” Jones said. “It’s been great to get back. I was stuck in the middle of Denver for too long with a house on a quarter of an acre, a six-foot fence and every house looked the same.”

I joked with Mike Chaffee he is the 5th Beatle. But an important part of the story.

Chaffee is the only one who lives in Wellsville and is a  7th and 8th-grade Social Studies teacher at Andover Central School.

Like Bump, he never told the story. His wife knows, but his kids had no idea. Until Saturday.

“My daughter and her boyfriend went to the game and I told them the story right before they left for the game,” Chaffee said. “I was at the coldest game in history and they now can say they were at the coldest game in history.”

JUST THE FACTS

As I went through old newspapers, stories on the game and called almost a dozen people to get the facts, dates and information correct, there is something I have to admit.

As proud as Oak Duke was about being the only publication with the names on the cutline, there was an error.

I spelled Erin’s name wrong.

And for good measure, I spelled his last name incorrectly as well.

I should’ve worked with my shirt off.

(John Anderson can be reached at [email protected])

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