Many diehard fans live and die with their favorite team. For Bart Upchurch, ‘die hard’ is both a literal definition and an understatement.
Bart’s story of passion, survival and redemption netted him one of 10 finalist spots to be inducted into the ESPN/StubHub ‘Hall of Fans.’ Selection is determined by vote, which runs through Friday, August 31 at 11:59pm EST.
A North Carolina Native born and raised in Greenville, Bart became a Buffalo Bills fan in 6th grade after the team drafted WR Don Beebe in 1989. He fell in love with the Bills and their wildly entertaining and fast-paced K-Gun Offense.
“Go Bills: 25 hours a day, 8 days a week,” Bart would chant. All the time in the world wasn’t enough to cheer on his beloved Bills, so he “added an extra hour and an extra day.” The phrase would become his mantra.
Bart needed that extra hour and day to support his celebratory nature.
The founder of the Greenville, NC “Bills Backers” chapter was an avid drinker and All-Pro thrill-seeker. His weekend stories were legendary, so much so that while attending college at East Carolina University, Upchurch began penning an autobiographical paper chronicling his hard-partying lifestyle. He kept a journal in vivid detail. “It was very real, honest, true and vulgar,” Bart described to me. A college professor instructed him to make it into a book – but his story took an unexpected turn.
In 2007, a horrific car accident caused by a drunk driver left Bart on the brink of death. He was ejected from the vehicle and another passenger was left dead. Bart, unconscious, was transported to a nearby hospital with 27 broken bones, facial paralysis and a complete loss of vision in his right eye.
After the accident, Bart remained comatose. Doctors, medical staff, family and friends could only wait and pray.
“After being in a coma with breathing assistance, they told my family that if I did not start breathing on my own, they were going to have to make a decision,” said Bart to BuffaloBills.com.
After a month in a coma, Bart miraculously regained consciousness – but had no recollection of the life he once knew. He had no memory of events before the accident, and didn’t recognize friends or family.
“I didn’t know who anyone was,” Bart explains. “I didn’t know what year it was, and everyone was quizzing me each day. I was out of it.”
The mental tests and struggles continued:
“Who am I?”
“Who are you?”
“Where are you?”
“What day is today?”
Still unable to speak, Bart could only mouth incorrect answers to strangers in a strange place. His family and caretakers continued to come and go, helpless but not hopeless.
A breakthrough was achieved unwittingly after two agonizing weeks.
“One day my brother comes in wearing a Bills jersey of mine,” Bart recalls. He fixated on the logo, that familiar red, white and blue charging Buffalo. As if it were a beckoning from his subconscious, Bart mouthed, “Go Bills: 25 hours a day, 8 days a week.”
“As soon as I recognized the logo, my brother ran to the doctors to tell them what I knew,” Bart told BuffaloBills.com‘s Hannah Buehler. “My family brought to the hospital all of my Bills jerseys and memorabilia. My friends and family decorated my hospital room with Bills posters, pictures and jerseys.”
Bart’s brother remained by his bedside in the coming weeks, gradually rebuilding Bart’s memory, and with it his identity and his personality.
“Who was No. 37?”
[Former Buffalo Bills safety] “Nate Odomes.”
“Who was No. 34?”
“Who is that to your left?”
“That’s my Uncle Larry.”
“Where did you go to college?”
While recovering in the hospital, Don Beebe sent him an autographed photo of the play when Beebe chased Leon Lett down from behind and forced a fumble in Super Bowl XXVII. The Bills, of course, would go on to lose that game 52-17, but Beebe’s hustle was a testament to never giving up even when the odds are stacked impossibly against you. This inspired Bart further.
When the 2007 football season came around again, Bart returned to watching Buffalo football. The first game he watched after the accident was the Bills’ season opener against the Denver Broncos, which they lost on a heartbreaking madcap last-second field goal. The result was immaterial, however, as that game will forever be remembered for what happened on the second-half kickoff: the play that left Buffalo Bills TE Kevin Everett paralyzed.
Everett’s recovery from paralysis further pushed Bart to continue his rehab. He trained his way back into physical shape, methodically working up to bench-pressing 350 pounds and running two miles each day.
As his body strengthened, so did his affiliation with the Bills. In October 2010, despite knowing no one in the 716 area code, Bart moved to the Buffalo area to be closer to his favorite team.
Inspired, he finished and published his autobiography, “Barty the Party.” The books recounts not just his hard-partying lifestyle from his ECU days, but also about his long road to recovery and how the accident changed him personally.
Today, Bart is the proud owner of over 200 Bills jerseys. The patch over his still-blind right eye sports the charging Buffalo logo – a style statement, a vision aide, and a reminder of where he’s been, how far he’s come and how he got this far.
“Who would’ve thought that the Buffalo Bills would literally bring me back to life?” He proudly proclaims. And what a furious, frenetic life it is once again.
“Barty the Party” may not be the brash wild-child of his younger days, and he certainly knows he’s not invincible, but Bart’s frenzied passion for life and the team which gave it back to him could not hum along at a more feverish pitch. Even his ride is a (I kid you not) white Ford Bronco with a “Juice32″ license plate – with no hint of irony.
His Facebook page is flooded with enthusiasm for the Buffalo Bills and his unabashed passion for them, and now includes unsolicited stories from friends and fellow fans inspired by his story.
When I first approached Bart about telling his tale, he told me he didn’t care about whether or not he was inducted into the Hall of Fans, that his main mission is merely to “cause Buffalo Bills mania all over the world.”
Marv Levy was famous for asking his players in pre-game huddles, “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?”
My guess is Bart Upchurch: Bills fan, Buffalo resident, published author, death-cheater, brother, son and inspiration to many, will never struggle to answer that question.
“Go Bills: 25 hours a day, 8 days a week” means something new now. Something transcendent. All the time in the world, all the life Bart lived so vivaciously before nearly leaving this Earth, wasn’t enough to cheer on his beloved Bills – nowhere close.
No, he’s added an endless stream of extra hours and extra days to a life he couldn’t imagine living anywhere but right here, right now.