The newest members of the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday got a chance to see there’s a lot more to Western New York than just the facilities at the team’s Orchard Park headquarters.
The 18-member rookie class of 2014 took a guided tour of the region, led by JoAnne Hudecki and Danielle Shainbrown of the McGuire Development Co.
“We want to show what a wonderful place Buffalo is to live,” Hudecki said. “We have a short period of time to show them as much as we possibly can.”
The tour, which is the brainchild of Chris Jenkins, the team’s executive director of media relations, is in its seventh year. It started Wednesday with a trip to Niagara Falls, then continued to New Era’s flagship store on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo before continuing on to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park along the waterfront. It wrapped up with a visit to Pierce-Arrow Museum on Michigan Avenue.
“We bring them on this tour so they can get a feel for Buffalo and what the city’s really about,” said Paul Lancaster, the Bills’ director of player engagement. “We’re trying to help these guys understand where they’re coming to.”
Hudecki heard nothing but good things from the players on the trip.
“On the bus, we asked them, ‘what do you think of Buffalo?’ ” she said. “They say, ‘everybody’s so friendly. Everybody’s so nice and wants to help us.’ That’s the best thing we have in Buffalo. It really is the City of Good Neighbors, and it shows. I think they’re thrilled to be here.”
Each year, the Bills try to incorporate a new element into the tour. On Wednesday, that meant a visit at the naval park with Jim Lazaros, a 53-year-old retired and disabled U.S. Army veteran. Lazaros served from 1980 to 2004, and participated in Operation Desert Storm, as well as three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
He has received three meritorious service medals and nine Army commendation medals. The Bills presented him and his wife, Beverly, with a signed helmet from the rookies, and signed autographs and took pictures with the couple’s 6-year-old triplets, Patrick, Nicholas and Aaron.
“They had no idea. They thought they were going to the doctor,” Lazaros said of the surprise his sons received.
“That’s real cool that they support the vets like that,” said Cyril Richardson, a fifth-round draft pick from Baylor who is a native of Fort Worth, Texas. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff around Buffalo. Going to see Niagara Falls, that it’s that close, was really cool.”
The thrill of being drafted into or signing as a free agent with an NFL team will last a lifetime. But it’s not a stretch to say Buffalo probably wouldn’t have landed in the top spot if the 18 rookies provided an honest ranking of which of the 31 NFL cities they’d most like to have landed in.
Richardson, though, said he had no worries about being in a smaller market.
“The smaller the community, the more they’re into your team and the more support you get,” he said.
“I love it,” said Cyrus Kouandjio, the team’s second-round pick out of Alabama. “It’s a nice city. I love the people the most. They seem to be nice folks, so I’m really enjoying my time here.”
Of course, the sights on Wednesday’s tour weren’t entirely new for all the players. Western New York natives Jimmy Gaines and Derek Brim, both products of Canisius High School, got a chance to point out their alma mater when the chartered bus drove past.
“Some of the guys are talking a little junk because they say we don’t play too much football up here, but it’s all good,” said Gaines, who played collegiately at the University of Miami. “It’s been exciting. I’m waking up every day thankful for the opportunity to be with these guys.”
Lancaster’s primary role with the team on a day-to-day basis is helping with transition – whether it is with rookies coming into the NFL, veterans working on their second contracts, or players preparing to exit the league. “I’m primarily helping my guys with education, helping them find internships or job shadows – a lot of the off-the-field things that people don’t know about,” he said. “We try to get our guys prepared for life after football, because even if they play 10 years, they’re going to have a lot of time left in life, so we want to make sure they’re prepared to enter into society and a normal working environment.”
With rookies, Lancaster said the toughest transition is getting them to “really understand that this is now a job and taking it as such.”
“Committing themselves to this 24/7. That’s hard,” he said. “We have veterans that … understand that. They’re fighting for positions. Every year new guys come in, and they’re tying to take those positions, so it’s that type of competition. Helping them understand that is very important.” Wednesday’s tour is one way in which the team tries to help its newest members understand their new professional home.