ARLINGTON, Va. — Columnists, as a rule, go looking for their stories. Every once in a while, though, their stories come looking for them.
I was raking the front lawn of our home in northern Virginia on an unseasonably warm afternoon a few days after Christmas. A white Nissan Sentra drove past. Then it stopped. I noticed the car backing up ever so slowly. It stopped again, this time right in front of me. The passenger side window slowly scrolled down.
A woman in the passenger seat smiled brightly. Then the man in the driver’s seat leaned forward, so that he could see around her, and shouted out: “Go Bills!”
Turned out he had spotted the Bills ball cap I was wearing and he just had to stop and say hello. Strangers don’t often pull over out of the blue to chat around these parts, but it turns out a blue bison with a red streak on a New Era 59Fifty cap will make people do that sometimes.
The man introduced himself as Daniel Liberto. He is coach of the men’s volleyball team at Marymount University, a Catholic school in Arlington not far from where we were talking. (Marymount’s main campus is on the former estate of Admiral Presley Marion Rixey, who had been the personal physician to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, familiar presidential names around Buffalo.)
Liberto quickly introduced his fiancée, Emily Wade, who lives on our little stub of a street that dead ends at the county line. Wade proudly showed me that she was wearing a Bills T-shirt — a brand-new Christmas gift.
“His family welcomed me with open arms,” she said, “and Bills gear.”
Liberto, 31, is from Rush, south of Rochester, where he graduated from Rush-Henrietta Senior High School. Wade, 33, is from Lynchburg, Va., where she graduated from E.C. Glass High School. (Buffalo connection: That’s the alma mater of noted Bills alumnus Ruben Brown.)
Liberto’s father grew up in Buffalo, on Richmond Avenue, and his mother grew up in Blasdell. Liberto says he is a fanatical Bills fan because, in his family, he has to be.
“My mother’s side of the family is really passionate,” he said. “Her father had season tickets going back to the Rockpile. They’d go to every home game and some years fly to Miami for the Dolphin games.”
[Gallery: Remembering the Rockpile]
Liberto has a pair of players on his Division III volleyball team who root for the Bills, too: Senior Joseph Zanelotti, who played at Williamsville South, and sophomore Ervin Harrell, who played at Cheektowaga.
“Western New York is a good place for recruiting in volleyball,” Liberto said.
Zanelotti made The Buffalo News’ All-Western New York second team in 2014 and Harrell made it in 2017. Zanelotti also played for the Southtowns Volleyball Club and Harrell for Niagara Frontier 18 Gold.
“They’re great kids,” Liberto said. “We talk about the Bills all the time.”
He can talk Bills with Wade, too. She watches games with him. Was it a simple case of love me, love my team?
“No, nothing like that,” he said, laughing. “She was unaffiliated, so she didn’t have a team. She just realizes that the Bills are an important part of my life.”
Wade, who studied art history at the University of Virginia, teaches art at an elementary school in Arlington. She and Liberto met a year ago on a dating app called Bumble. They got engaged at Letchworth State Park in August and they’ll be married in Lynchburg in July.
“My Aunt Roseanne, when I told her I got engaged, the first thing she said was, ‘You have to take her to a Bills game,’ ” Liberto said. “My aunt lives in Hamburg and her family has four season tickets since forever.”
Liberto hasn’t taken Wade to that Bills game yet, but it will happen. As it is, he comes back to Buffalo every year to go to a Bills or Sabres game — sometimes both — with old high school pals.
“It’s like the Bills are a part of Dan’s family,” Wade said. “The joke going around is the inside of my wedding ring will be inscribed with, ‘Go Bills.’ ”
Liberto drives a 2010 Sentra with more than 130,000 miles on it. More than 1,000 of them came over the holidays when he and Wade visited his family in Rush, his grandmother in Buffalo on Christmas Day, and then Wade’s family in Lynchburg after that. They were just getting back from their tripartite journey when they spotted the old guy raking his lawn.
“I said to Emily, ‘Bills hat!’ ” Liberto said. “And then I put it in reverse.”
Some columns you find at the far corners of the world. And some find you on your own front lawn.