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.
I know you've said before you're tired of it. Have you missed it this year?
No, I haven't missed it at all. But I still did it because everyone was clamoring for it then.
Do you ruin a shirt every time you do that?
No, I don't. I have about eight or nine shirts somebody gave me a couple of years ago, and I use one each week. Believe it or not, what I do then is I take it and throw it in the freezer until March, and clean them all at once. But it takes me a while. I spend about four hours. I can bleach most of it out. And I can do that probably five or six times for a T-shirt before it starts falling apart. I'm on the third year for the current set of T-shirts.
Why the freezer?
Because if I just leave it laying around, it turns moldy and ruins it. And I'm too lazy to do it at the time, because I'm too busy traveling around the country. So I just throw it in the freezer to keep it from turning into mold, until I get to it after the season's over.
So have you been bringing the bowling ball with you around to these tailgates that you've been traveling to?
I haven't, because even though that bowling ball is probably the safest thing at any tailgate party because the alcohol I serve in it is 100 proof, and that's only a couple percent less than what you're using for disinfectant, the optics are horrible. The optics are just bad. You'll get crucified. We should just pour a little cold Wiśniówka, spread it on our hands. I should just give everyone instead of disinfectant. It's that powerful.
How did you decide on the cherry liqueur?
It goes back about 30 years. Somebody brought a bottle of that stuff to a tailgate. That's when we had a small tailgate. And they brought it because it was the worst tasting stuff known to mankind. It tastes like NyQuil with a kick. So we all tossed it... No, they took me to a bar. That's right. And I drank it there. So I brought about a bottle of that to the next tailgate. My intention was we were all going to pass the bottle, be horrified at how bad this stuff is, and then throw the bottle into the woods and that'd be the end of it.
But we started getting into this little ritual where we had to have our shots every week, and it had to be that horrible, god-awful stuff. We had a special shot glass for it. One day somebody broke the shot glass. And we're obsessive compulsive people. We got to do it. So I'm looking around in the car for another shot glass, nobody around us had a shot glass. I was thinking of using a little paper cup. But then somebody saw my bowling ball and said, "Hey look, we could just pour in it into that hole." And it's like, "Yeah, okay." I said, "I'll have the new shot glass next week."
I guess I didn't bring a new shot glass next week and the next thing you know, we're using the bowling ball every week. And the joke's on me now, because last year I went through 144 bottles of that stuff.
Are you more sick of that or the ketchup and mustard?
Oh no, the bowling ball is great. I don't have hardly any of [those shots] at all. I'm not an idiot. I have to have one or two shots during a tailgate, but it's usually a really public thing where there's a couple hundred people around there, and they see me heading in the bowling ball shot and they get all excited. "Look, Kenny's going to do his bowling ball shot." But outside of that, I don't drink too much of it.
What’s your drink of choice?
I don't really have a drink of choice. Usually I carry a can of beer around with me, but it's more of a prop. Because during the course of, say, a six-hour tailgate, I'll have lots of people offer me a shot of this or shot of that.
Why did you have a bowling ball in your car?
Okay, that bowling ball was for a different ritual we had, which you definitely can't do today. We used to all come with beer bottles. Not cans. Bottles were more popular back then. So before we went into the game, we'd all line up on our empty beer bottles like bowling pins, and we'd start bowling them down until they were smashed all over the place.
I know you guys have a lot of unconventional cooking techniques going on at your tailgate. But what strikes me is that you must've tried a bunch of things over the years that didn't work. So I'm curious what cooking experiments you tried that didn't pan out so well.
I tried to make daiquiris. I called them hotdog daiquiris. So we'd have the daiquiri mix, rum, but then I’d throw three or four hot dogs in there and tried to chop it all up. Instead of having your hot dog in a bun, you're drinking it in your daiquiri. And it actually worked. It atomized it to little tiny pieces that you can't see. But the problem is if somebody knew that I chopped up a couple hot dogs in what they were drinking, then they would throw up. So I had to discontinue that really quick.
Another attempt was before we were making the pizzas [in a filing cabinet]—we got a guy that does that, his name's Pizza Pete—I brought that filing cabinet with the intention of it being a dessert oven. I tried to bake a pie in it, and that didn't work at all. Then I tried to do brownies, and all I kept doing was either burning them or they'd be raw. And then Pizza Pete came up with the idea of doing the pizzas, and he actually pulled it off. So it works.
In a filing cabinet?
Yeah, in a filing cabinet, right. I also used a garbage can and I tried to rig it up to be a popcorn maker. And that didn't work out too well, either. My intention was to put all kinds of stuff in the little thing I constructed at the top of the garbage can, put the lid on, and then when I opened it up later, it'd be full of popcorn, just like at the movie theater. But it wasn't making popcorn as fast as I wanted it to. And people kept burning themselves, wondering what was in it. They see the garbage can, they'd pick it up and burn their hands.
What do you think is the oddest thing you have in that Pinto?
I've got milk from 1992. I've got a bunch of relics and stuff like that. Somebody left a jug of milk in here in 1992 and I just left it there and it's still there.
Doesn't it smell horrific?
It smelled horrific for a while if you opened it up—for about 20 years—but somewhere about five years ago, it stopped smelling. So all the organic stuff must have burnt off. It just looks like some sludgy, buttery stuff right now.
Has anybody ever tried to drink it?
Oh yeah. At first, we used to take a little slug out of it through the first year. Then you started gagging and stuff and you have to stop that after a year or so. I got a lot of relics like that. I got my tofu collection, my opening day bacon fat collection, stuff like that. But the milk always gets people.
A tofu collection?
Yeah, we had a player who left the team when he was a popular, and he went out to San Francisco. The next year he came back and played for Boston. He said he just wasn't a California kind of guy, because they're all wine and tofu and I'm beer and chicken wings. I didn't really know what tofu was, so I went out and got some tofu and left it on the windshield, for display—to show people with tofu was. And I just kept it there the whole season. And the next season, it looked pretty bad. Never took it out of that plastic wrapper they put it in. So I got another one for the next year. For the next five years, I was getting a new one each year. So I still have all five of them in the back of the car.
Do you have to keep the car under security?
I do have to hide it between games, yeah. It stays in Buffalo, but it's behind a building and it's got a car cover on it.
Did the NFL really shut down the bowling ball ritual for a while?
No, they didn't do that at all. I shut it down for a little while. What happened was there was a consultant for the National Football League coming through the parking lot one day. And I was already ready to move to another parking lot, on account of the fact the Bills had said they're going to start what's called Disney-style parking. You can't park wherever you want. They just line you up. And so I was going to move to a lot on the other side where they weren't going to do that. I'd already arranged to have our parking passes moved.
So then this consultant comes by and he didn't like my tailgate party at all. He called it an event. He said, "There's only one event here, and that's the Bills game.” He had no real relation to the NFL, except he was a consultant that was supposed to make recommendations on parking lot stuff, but he tried to get the police to shut me down, and they wouldn't do it. They're just basically like, "Leave Kenny alone." And then he saw the bowling ball and he said, "Look, that guy's giving away alcohol. That's illegal." The cops go, "No he's giving it away for free. He's not selling that stuff." The guy goes stomping off, saying, "I'm coming back in a half hour with real cops. And if you don't have a liquor license, we're arresting all of you."
So then an Associated Press guy gives me a call. I knew him, I had beers with him at a lot of these road games. So I'm talking to him, and I noticed there was lots of pausing when he was talking to me. I said, "John, you're not writing this down, are you?" He goes, "Well yeah, this is a good story." It's like, "Ah, geez.” The headline was "Famous Tailgater Forced From Lot." Nobody asked me, and I'd already arranged to go to the other lot.
It was such a media disaster for the Bills that they called me up Friday and they told me they don't want me to go anywhere. He goes, "We'll make an exception for you. You can have like 50 spots. Park wherever you want." I stayed there for the rest of the year.
Why do you think it is that Bills fans are so loyal and so wild?
To tell you the truth, it's not just Bills fans. Pittsburgh is like that. Cleveland is like that. A lot of the Northeast teams are like that. It's just that we got a cool nickname. “Bills Mafia.” And so it gets a lot of press.
I mean, the table smashing got a lot of press, too.
Oh yeah, that got a lot of press. That started about five years ago, yeah. That's what Bills Mafia means. You have to do the following activities: smash tables, consume lots of ketchup—on you.
How do you feel about the table smashing?
I'm older, so I would never do that right now. And I'm kind of ambivalent about it. A lot of people could get hurt doing that, but on the other hand, when I was at age, I was engaging in some pretty outrageous behavior, too. So how can I criticize anyone for doing outrageous stuff that I used to do when I was their age?
Do your coworkers know about your tailgate?
Oh yeah. It's impossible not to know. I'm in the press all the time.
Is that weird for you?
No, because it was a slow process over 30 years. There was no point where one year felt any different than the other year.
You met your wife through the Bills, is that right?
No, but our first date was to a Bills game. I didn't know it was a date at the time, but I've declared it a date since then. I organized a convoy to the Bills game from Brockport, probably about 60 miles away. And I had three cars of people going. Over the course of the three days leading to the game, everyone kept coming up to me one at a time, saying, "I can't go." But she didn't say that. So she was the only one going. So for the whole trip up there, I'm trying to wonder if this was a date or if she was just driving with me. I couldn't figure it out.
What's the enduring lesson of all your years of Bills fandom and Bills tailgating?
Tthe thing that I most get out of all of what I do is how many people I've met. And I know literally hundreds of people that are really good friends that I only see once a year on road trips. I know there's a ton of people that I only know from Bills games. And it's like becoming a family. What I've learned, it's not just a football game. It's not just a tailgate party. It's a community getting together.
Do you have a favorite memory from all the years?
My favorite memory is the first AFC Championship game we went to, which led to the first Bills Super Bowl. You'd have to fact check this. I think we're winning something like 42 to 3 at halftime. [Ed: It was 41-3.] With an entire half of football to go, you know you were going to win the football game, and we were just running all over the stadium, having a giant party. That's the funnest time I've ever had.
What is your prediction for the Bills here, with the playoffs?
Well, I'll never go to a game I think they're going to lose, and I plan on going to all of them. So that's pretty much it.
And what will you do if they win the Super Bowl?
Geez. I don't know. That's one of the things I've never done before, so I haven't figured it out. I have no notes on that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ