BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–Five years ago, Chrissy Reid was visiting New York City with her daughters and sister-in-law when she got the phone call. It was her husband, Del, informing Chrissy that he was out of a job.
Del said his position as a web developer had been eliminated by Roswell Park. He told his wife he could apply through the union for another position at the hospital, but he was leaning against it.
“I want to make a go of it full-time with this 26 Shirts thing,” he said.
Chrissy didn’t say much on the phone that day. She was in a bit of shock. After 15 years at Roswell, Del was going to sell tee shirts for a living? She talked to her sister-in-law. She prayed for guidance.
“I realize that I could either get behind him and help make this great, or I could fight about it,” she said Tuesday. “I knew it was the right thing to do to get behind him.”
Del had created 26 Shirts in 2013, as a way to raise money for charity. Every two weeks (26 a year, thus the name), he would create a themed shirt, generally about the Bills or some other local sports entity, and give $8 of every sale to a family in need of assistance.
He worked on 26 Shirts on nights and weekends when he was at Roswell. It went well. The hospital people were a good resource. There was certainly enough interest to go full-time.
Chrissy worked as a substitute teacher in the Ken-Ton district. The job was flexible, so she’d have time to help Del with the business and raising their daughters, who were then 12 and 9. Del’s heart was in it. The thing is, she believed in 26 Shirts, too. She said ‘Let’s do it.’
“She knew this was something I was kind of called to do,” Del Reid said. “We’re enthusiastic about our faith. We both believe things are meant to be, and we felt this was a path that God was laying out.”
“I told her, ‘Let’s give it a year.’ After a year, if it’s obvious this isn’t meant to be, or to be a full-time thing, I’ll go back to being a web developer.”
He never went back. The 26 Shirts thing, which Reid began as a one-time effort in 2013, took off. Dan Gigante, whose company You and Who had been printing the shirts for Reid, took him on as a 50 percent owner and the 26 Shirts brand became the sole focus of the company from then on.
Six months later, they were so swamped with orders they had to bring on another employee. As it turned out, 26 Shirts was more than a full-time job for one person. A year ago, they hired a woman to work in communications and marketing. They brought on a part-timer two months ago and next week, another operational worker joins the staff.
Reid is perhaps better known as co-founder of Bills Mafia, a far-flung community of Bills fans that has taken off in recent years. It’s no coincidence that the ascent of 26 Shirts has paralleled the rise of the Bills into an NFL contender under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane.
This past Monday, two days after the Bills clinched their first AFC East championship in 25 years, 26 Shirts announced that it had surpassed the $1 million career mark in charitable donations. Josh Allen got to exactly 4,000 yards on Saturday. Stefon Diggs reached 100 catches. It was a happy confluence of milestones for Reid’s company and beloved team.
“I’ve spent a lot of hours lately away from home,” Reid said Tuesday while driving to the company offices in the Tri-Main Building on Main Street. “But it’s that time of year. That’s what comes with this. Yeah, it’s been really busy. It was a crazy day for us yesterday.
“It’s a snowball effect,” he said. “Obviously, when the Bills do well, or anything exciting is going on in the community — like the Blue Jays playing in Buffalo (which led to a record sales period) — we try to reflect that and give people a chance to wear something and do good at the same time.”
Reid has become the face of the Bills fan base. There’s a stereotype of the drunken fan in the parking lot, diving through a table (and they do have a shirt with a buffalo table-diving). But in recent times, the world has come to see Bills fans as passionate and loyal, a bit crazy but with a big, charitable heart. Reid and 26 Shirts combine all those things.
Somewhere along the line, Bills fans took the image of chronic loser and infused it with a civic humanity. There were donations to Andy Dalton’s charity when he threw the pass that broke the playoff drought; the outpouring of love for the late Pancho Billa; more recently, the fundraising in the memory of Josh Allen’s grandmother.
The 26 Shirts idea fit right in. Reid and Gigante help families in need. They get to sell cool, creative tee shirts to Western New Yorkers. The latest is a “How Buffalo Took the Division” shirt, a takeoff on the Grinch theme for Christmas week. There’s also a “Home Allen” tee shirt based on the “Home Alone” movies.
“Look, I’m not introducing anything new,” Reid said. “I am a product of Western New York. I’m a product of the City of Good Neighbors. Whatever qualities I have come from the region that I was raised in. I’m reflecting what’s in the community around me.”
Del, who turned 45 last week, grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and went two years of high school at Kenmore East and two years at Kenmore West. Chrissy is from Kenmore. “I got her as far out of Kenmore as I was going to get her,” he said.
“We live in Kenmore.”
It’s quite a busy time for Reid, as a Bills fan and philanthropist, and during a pandemic, no less. Dealing with people’s illness, especially little kids, can be emotionally trying. He gets countless requests for tee shirt campaigns. Every two weeks, he meets another suffering family, raises money for them, and moves on to the next case.
The work must be very emotional around Christmas, he was told.
“It’s hard all the time, not just at Christmas,” he said. “For a couple of years into it, it was starting to really weigh on me, dealing with the families. Sometimes, a kid would pass away in the middle of the campaign. One time we did one and the kid passed away the night before we launched the campaign.
“Or afterwards, you’d hear the news. After a few years, I started subconsciously almost turning it into a businesslike thing, not about money but like a transaction. Subconsciously, I think I was protecting my heart.”
Go to 26shirts.com and scroll down to “Clare’s Story”, where a 7-year-old girl talks about her father’s illness and thanks the company. Bring a box of tissues, though. Imagine dealing with these sad stories dozens of times a year. But Del came to understand he was born to it.
“At times, he called me and said, ‘I want to help this kid, here’s the situation’,” Chrissy recalled. “And I said, ‘No, no, no, you can’t tell me that right now. I have to teach kids in 10 minutes and I can’t be crying on the phone.’
“It really does break you, to see these families, these sick kids, these parents that can’t go to work anymore or provide for their families,” she said. “It’s been hard, but he’s got this amazing brain, the kind that remembers what Bills players played in 1992 and 1987 and what their stats were. He has that same brain that he applies to the families.”
“I can’t remember people I met last week. He remembers these families; he remembers their names, their parents’ names, their kids’ names. He greets them and it’s like this catalogue he has. Once they’re part of the 26Shirts family, they stay there and he embraces it.”
The concept of 26 Shirts was “limited edition designs that do good.” They’d sell a certain number and move on. You couldn’t get most of the shirts once the sale ended. But demand became so great that Reid and Gigante began launching a new shirt every week, rather than every two weeks (and no, there’s no plan to change the name to ’52 Shirts).
“It still lasts for two weeks,” Reid explained, “but now they kind of overlap with each other. The requests were overwhelming. I felt bad telling people, ‘We’ll get to you, but give us five months, give us six months, and we’ll get a shirt campaign done for you.
“We’re not in this for the money. We’re in this to help. Last summer, I was getting frustrated that we couldn’t help people fast enough. Dan said, ‘Why don’t we have campaigns overlap?’ I actually got nervous, it was such a good idea. We’re both married and I think our wives’ biggest fear is that whenever one of us has an idea, the only reply we have for each other is, ‘That’s a great idea!’”
The couples had a socially distanced “board meeting” around the campfire and decided a shirt a week would work. Reid had his concerns. Maybe sales wouldn’t keep up, or they’d flood their own market and cut into the proceeds for the family beneficiaries.
“But that hasn’t been the case,” Del said. “We have been on an upward trend this entire time. We’ll see if this has to do with the football team doing so well.”
Oh, yeah, that football team. Don’t get Del started on the Bills. He says the roster is the best it’s been since the Super Bowl years, at least since the 1999 team. He utters the words “Lombardi Trophy” and doesn’t expect people to laugh in his face anymore.
Sure, it can move more shirts. But Del points out that 26 Shirts began in 2013, deep in the playoff drought, and Buffalo fans bought in just the same. He feels the Buffalo fans have a hard-earned resilience, forged from years of struggle. That community ethos blended well with the cause.
“My daughter used to ask when she was little, ‘Why do you watch these games when they lose all the time?’ I told her, “When they win, everything is different, and if you’re going to be there when they win, you have to be there when they lose’.”
This Bills team seems like a reward, to the fans who never lost faith, and to the man who helped turn Bills Mafia into a fan identity. The Bills trademarked “Bills Mafia” last summer. Some of Reid’s supporters were up in arms, but he made it clear he had no resentments. He had, in fact, been working with the team behind the scenes.
“Bills Mafia doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “It belongs to everybody. The Bills can register a trademark and do what they want. But it’s about the fans, and they know that. I really think they get it.
“Bills Mafia basically gave me this opportunity to do what I’m doing now. It provided the platform to be able to help these families and to do whatever I can to make a difference.”
Del says none of it could have happened without Chrissy’s support. She believed in him, and in the 26 Shirts idea. And that’s what the whole Bills thing is about, an unwavering belief in the face of great challenges, the faith that it will all, somehow, work out in the end.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.