They didn’t seem to mind the gloomy gray skies, the near-constant drizzle or the occasional downpours. And nobody was complaining about having to get up on a day off during their week-off respite.
More than 25 Buffalo Bills, almost half the roster, flocked Tuesday to the shadows of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna to help build a playground for young kids in the community.
Wearing their game jerseys and Bills construction hats, the players pounded nails, pushed wheelbarrows full of mulch, assembled and carried heavy equipment, and even sloshed around in the mud outside Our Lady of Victory School.
The players, along with most Bills employees, were part of a group of more than 200 volunteers involved in the eight-hour construction project to assemble a playground for children ages 2 to 5.
Why such a strong showing from Bills players on their day off?
“I came out here to play on the playground, but it wasn’t built yet,” rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham said with a poker face before breaking into a big grin. “They told me I had to help build it to play on it.”
Then Graham got serious, talking about the contribution he and his teammates could make to the community.
“People are going to use this playground for a long time,” he said. “We’re going to impact kids who aren’t even born yet. You have to find a way to leave your stamp on the community.”
About a dozen Bills rookies and young players went to the morning session, and interviews with a handful of them touched on the same themes. A few loved the chance to revisit their own childhoods, to play in the mud once more. Several talked about how fortunate or blessed they are to be pro football players. Some mentioned the pay-it-forward principle, helping out a kid the same way someone once helped them.
And they loved talking about the kids.
Defensive linemen Alex Carrington and Kyle Moore, along with kicker John Potter, were picking up 3- to 5-year-olds from the Monarch Little Learners Academy and helping them dunk a football in the American Dairy Association’s Fuel Up With Milk football toss. Some of the kids weren’t much bigger than a bag of footballs.
“Being a parent of two little boys, I know how kids’ eyes light up when they see a playground or new toys,” Carrington said. “I got a lot of high-fives today.”
To set the record straight, Carrington had to reach way down – with the same hand he used to block a potential game-winning field goal in the Oct. 14 game against the Arizona Cardinals – to connect with the children’s raised hands.
“If I didn’t come here today, I’d still be in bed,” Carrington said. “It’s my day off. But it’s a perfect opportunity to help somebody else. I’m blessed with my career, and [I’m thrilled] I can come out here for an hour and help people in the community, especially the children.”
The players’ boss, Bills Chief Executive Officer Russ Brandon, also got into the act, pushing mulch-filled wheelbarrows through the muck.
“I love the fact that it brings our organization together,” Brandon said. “We have every department and almost every Bills employee out here today. It speaks to the character of our team and the commitment to service, from the top down. … It is an area of emphasis with every player who comes through One Bills Drive.”
That included Bills alumni, like Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, who talked about the connection between the players and this blue-collar community, and rookies like punter Shawn Powell, who remembered doing other United Way projects with his father back in Rome, Ga. Several players talked about their ability to connect with the fans in Buffalo, a slower-paced community than some of the larger NFL cities.
Tuesday’s eight-hour playground project was a joint effort among the Bills, the American Dairy Association, Baker Victory Services Child-Pro, KaBOOM, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, and the NFL-United Way Hometown Huddle.
“Baker Victory Services is just overwhelmed with gratitude for all of these organizations coming in to support our children,” said Sheila Walier, the organization’s public relations director. “We’re humbled to be part of something so much bigger than ourselves.”
The 60-by-60-foot, state-of-the-art playground – featuring a small climbing wall, a fire truck, a playhouse, jumping equipment and a triple-shot basketball hoop – will be used by the OLV School and Lackawanna youngsters.
“For the community, it’s extremely important,” said Walter Iwanenko, who served as project manager along with his wife, Mary. “It’s nice to see the people in the community support the Bills, and it’s nice to see the Bills support us. I don’t think people realize the impact the Bills have on this community.”
Iwanenko was asked what he thought about the almost 200 people sloshing around in the mud and rain Tuesday morning. “I’ve been shoveling mud, so I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “But I’m speechless that all these people came out today.”