How the Buffalo Bills, tailgate ribs, chefs hats and the warmth of the fans cemented a high school friendship, opened hearts and landed a Pepsi commercial
An intrepid game day move to wear their goofy chef hats into the stadium brought two old friends closer together and led to local fame as two of the craziest Bills boosters in a city full of them. For Richard Peterson and Derrick Norman, the serendipitous decision changed their lives soon after a TV camera broadcast Peterson and his “Who we with?” hat. Standing next to him was Norman wearing the reply: “The Bills.”
The rest is history — 23 years long — that led to their current stature: Everyone knows them as the Bills Chefs. They get recognized by strangers at the grocery store, serve up a tailgate rib feast with a secret sauce for 200 in the stadium lot, have a billboard-photo by one of the entry gates, and starred in a Pepsi commercial.
“We didn’t expect it. We’re just a couple guys having fun and the thing just kind of grew by leaps and bounds,” said Peterson. “We were just doing typical tailgate stuff like everybody else. For whatever reason, it just kind of took off on us.”
In Pepsi’s 2021 “Bills Mafia” commercial, the chefs joined other fans with idiosyncratic ways of cheering the team on to victory – from a tailgater who has his face squirted with ketchup and mustard to the woman who brings fans together for charitable causes and a man who gives away Pepsi by the case.
The ad shows Peterson and Norman arriving in the RV parking lot at 6 a.m.
“This many Bills fans? Trusting us with their barbeque?” Norman says in the ad.
“Man, that feels good,” Peterson replies.
Their surprise Bills journey has meant better football, and friendship and merrymaking, in unique Buffalo style.
Peterson and Norman couldn’t have predicted any of this. They were friendly but not close after their years on the Seneca Vocational High School football and track teams. It wasn’t until they went to a few Bills games together buying high-priced, last-minute tickets from scalpers that they decided on season tickets.
For that first 1999 game as season ticket holders, they grilled for their game-day parking lot tailgate. They had to turn the hot dogs with their fingers because Peterson forgot utensils. He had not, however, forgotten the chefs hats. The artist at the mall who he paid to airbrush them now insists on painting the new season hats – last year’s was the receiver and quarterback duo Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen — for free.
For both men, known to many by their nicknames Chefs Poo and Norm, the experience has been a lesson in community and becoming a little more extroverted.
“I’m kind of a quiet person. Now it’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t think I had that in me.’ I’m more outgoing,” said Peterson, who builds and repairs bus shelters for the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority. “It’s kind of opened me up a little bit more to get out and experience things.”
His highlight: When Bills players recognize them at their seats in the first row by the end zone. A few years ago, tight end Lee Smith made a touchdown and then pointed at Peterson and Norman. He was signaling that he was aiming his celebratory “Lambeau Leap” over them. Then the 6-foot-six, 265-pound player cleared the wall and tumbled into the fans. The move, with Peterson and Norman looking on, made ESPN’s ‘C’Mon Man!’ blooper highlights.
“You could see our faces real good,” said Peterson. “It was pretty hilarious. Everybody was giving us the business because we let him fall down.”
One of Norman’s favorite moments was the time a Bills camera crew came to Peterson’s house for what they thought was an interview. When asked, “Who do you think was the Buffalo Bills best, all-time running back?” Norman and Peterson answered, “Thurman Thomas.”
Then they felt a tap on their shoulders.
“We’re sitting on the couch and he put his arms around us. We look behind our shoulders and it was him. We jump up off the couch. ‘Oh, my God, it’s Thurman Thomas!’” said Norman, a retired Buffalo firefighter.
The Football Hall of Famer had come by to personally deliver their season tickets. “So now every time he sees us, he knows us as ‘The Chefs,’” Norman said. “He remembers that. He always brings it up.”
As their fame has grown, their roles as celebrity members of the Buffalo Bills community have been a lot of fun and, perhaps, life changing.
Norman is more community minded. He uses his status to be thoughtful and kind and set a good example for young people who he knows look up to him. “I’m the same person,” Norman said, “but with a bigger heart.”
Peterson also learned something about the fans in his hometown. “All the people that we’ve met and the places that we’ve been, the opportunities that were bestowed upon us, it just shows that Buffalo really is the ‘City of Good Neighbors’ … We hear it all the time. Now we just really experienced it. They’re calling us ‘The Chefs.’ They want our autographs. I’m just amazed,” he said. “The Buffalo fans are just rabid fans. They like to have a good time. You never know what’s going to happen.”