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Kyle Orton: The Bills' silent laborer

Of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks, none is known less by his fan base than Kyle Orton.

Orton joined the Buffalo Bills eight days before the season began. As a backup the first four games, he wasn’t interviewed much. He hasn’t been too talkative since he took over for EJ Manuel three weeks ago either.

We can look at Orton’s statistics over the past decade to gain insight into the type of player he is. Bills fans have watched him turn the ball over too much, but also lead the offense on last-second victory drives in two of his three starts.

But what is he like as a person? What drives him? How is he wired? What matters to him?

Turns out he’s uninterested in discussing himself that way. He respectfully declined two interview requests this week. His father also declined to chat – as Orton predicted he would – but did recommend other people to contact. Orton’s marketing representative didn’t respond to an email.

When the man’s marketing agent doesn’t have anything to tell the media, then maybe there’s just not much to say.

“He’s a low-key guy,” said Joe Tiller, Orton’s coach at Purdue. “Some guys know where the camera is at all times. He couldn’t care less about that. He wants to play the game of football.”

That, however, is not what Orton is all about. Tiller also called him “an unusual cat” because of a philosophical mind rarely encountered in a locker room.

Anyone who has interacted with Orton on a significant level can attest he is a man of passionate convictions away from the field. He’s known as erudite, cultured and politically inspired. He’s an advocate for social causes and worker’s rights. He’s a deep thinker.

“I didn’t know what he was talking about half the time,” said Ron Turner, his offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears.

That’s where Orton is a paradox. He’s an unassuming athlete who’s tough for fans or the media to know, the opposite of former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Yet there are few athletes whose positions on the death penalty, abortion, the environment and labor are known and fewer yet who aspire to run for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, like former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp.

Orton learned from his father. Byron Orton worked in Iowa state government for 30 years and served as its labor commissioner. Byron Orton enforced child labor laws, minimum wage and workplace safety.

Every night, the Orton family would watch Dan Rather anchor the “CBS Evening News” and discuss current events.

Now he’s the starting quarterback in one of America’s most unionized cities. Last year, 22.4 percent of Western New York’s workforce belonged to a union.

“His life is not just about football,” said Turner, now the head coach at Florida International University. “He’s a professional, so he works at his craft. He’ll work his butt off for it. He prepares. He makes everyone around him better.

“But he’s got other interests. He had some very strong opinions, well-founded opinions. Some guys say, ‘I think this.’ Well, why do you think so? ‘I don’t know. I just do.’

“That wasn’t Kyle. He would have reasons why he had his opinions and wasn’t shy to discuss them.”

The deep thinker

In many ways, Kyle Raymond Orton is no different than the average 31-year-old Midwesterner.

He has simpler interests such as trout fishing, golf and “Seinfeld.” He wouldn’t mind if his wardrobe consisted of nothing but classic rock ’n’ roll T-shirts, jeans and boots. He regrets the Purdue Pete mascot on his left shoulder because it was a waste of $100.

Google searches turn up photos of Orton enjoying nightlife and jokes about how much he resembles Uncle Rico, the pathetic quarterback wannabe from the film “Napoleon Dynamite.”

“He’s a regular guy,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “You can go in Buffalo and meet a guy with his personality anywhere, in a bar, in a bowling alley, in a poolroom or in a place where your family is.”

Orton clearly doesn’t like to talk about himself. He submits to the news conferences mandated by NFL media guidelines, his answers delivered in staccato style.

Teammates and coaches have raved about Orton’s professional drive since his college years.

“He’s extremely hard working,” Bills center and captain Eric Wood said. “There’s no player that puts in more hours at the facility than him, and it shows in his preparation and his play.

“He’s a fun guy to be around, cracks jokes from time to time. But he’s about the business and working hard, and he holds people accountable.”

Then there’s that other side of Orton, the one that orbits on a different plane than his peers.

He majored in history at Purdue and designed his own independent study on postwar liberalism. The framework for his coursework included 15 books about Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy.

The last time Orton spoke so readily about his political beliefs and goals was in 2004, when Purdue mounted a modest Heisman Trophy campaign for him. A New York Times headline called him “the thinking man’s passer.” The Chicago Tribune headline declared “Orton wants your vote” for Congress more than for the Heisman.

Congress “is definitely something that I want to do when I get older,” Orton told the New York Times. “I think I’d be good at it for the sole fact that I wouldn’t be a career politician.”

The 21-year-old Orton also addressed his unwillingness to seek the spotlight or to use his celebrity to push an agenda.

“I don’t think there’s any reason why a politician has to be fake,” Orton told the Chicago Tribune. “This is who I am. People have tried to change me, to make me more attractive to media, but this is how I’m going to say it.”

Asked on Thursday if remains as passionate about politics as he was back then, Orton replied, “Definitely.”

Then he walked away.

A man of convictions

In his 44 years of coaching, Tiller never had met a player like Orton before. In spite of their 40-year age difference, they became close. They connected on so many levels.

“We had great conversations, everything from life to romance to politics,” Tiller said from his home in Buffalo, Wyo., “They were the conversations you would have if he was your own son.

“I miss him. But, to tell you the truth, I miss the conversations also.”

Their relationship began in Tiller’s office. As the years passed, their chats would occur at their homes, sometimes “over a beverage for medicinal purposes,” as the retired coach put it.

Orton was vehemently against the Iraq war. Tiller, a staunch Republican and Bush supporter, said “I tried to turn him from the dark side.”

“Most young people are not that interested in politics,” Tiller said. “They want to know what microbrewery is opening in town and ‘How quickly can I get there?’ They grab a hold of a political cause, but it’s a fashionable thing for most young people.

“For him, it was serious. He’s the only player I’d have a conversation like that with. I’d occasionally have conversations about conservatism and liberalism and progressivism and any other kind of ism you’d want from socialism to communism.

“They’ve always been short conversations with a guy here or a guy there. For Kyle, it became a running dialogue between he and I.”

Put me in, coach

Orton naturally has been an influential member of the NFL Players Association. He was the Denver Broncos’ union steward and a strong league-wide voice during the 2011 lockout.

Orton’s late arrival didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the Bills’ three alternate union representatives.

“He was a union rep at the most pivotal time,” Wood said. “He played a big role.”

When NFL owners opted out of the previous collective-bargaining agreement, Orton was among those most affected.

He was about to become an unrestricted free agent, but a clause reduced his rights to restricted free agency. Rather than hit the open market, the Broncos retained him for a $2.62 million qualifying offer. Bills running back Fred Jackson was similarly affected.

So Orton likely felt no sympathy for management when he maneuvered his way off the Dallas Cowboys roster this summer.

Orton signed there in 2012 because he anticipated having a chance to start. Tony Romo had trouble staying healthy and battled inconsistency. But in Orton’s two seasons, Romo missed only one game, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones repeatedly backed Romo as the no-doubt starter.

“He’s competitive, and he wants to be on the field,” Tiller said. “If there’s anything that is not low-key about him, is he gets emotional when it comes to playing the game, which I think is a good quality.

“I always wondered about the guys that weren’t playing and didn’t care that they weren’t playing. That’s not him.”

Orton didn’t show up for offseason workouts, incurring $70,000 in fines. He suggested he might retire, a decision that would let the Cowboys recoup $3.25 million of his prorated signing bonus.

Right before Cowboys training camp was to begin, Orton announced he was going to show up. Now the Cowboys had a decision to make: Welcome back a quarterback who doesn’t want to be there and pay him a $3.25 million base salary in addition to any other bonuses, or release him.

Labor got what it wanted out of management.

Glowing record with Bears

Orton waited until training camp and all five preseason games were over before he signed a two-year contract with the Bills. They gave him a $3 million signing bonus, a $2.5 million base salary this season and $5.4 million next season.

The numbers belied that of a clear-cut backup. But the Bills reiterated their commitment to Manuel until it became clear they couldn’t compete effectively with the second-year quarterback.

When the Bills promoted Orton for their Week Five game against the undefeated Detroit Lions, it was just another example of Orton’s ability to survive.

“He just kind of hangs around with his blue-collar work ethic,” Tiller said. “He’s not supposed to be the guy, but he ends up being the guy.”

Orton shouldn’t have been Chicago’s starter as a 2005 rookie. He was a fourth-round draft choice, but Rex Grossman was injured and Chad Hutchinson wasn’t any good.

The Bears featured the NFL’s stingiest scoring defense, and Orton managed them to a 10-5 record and a first-round playoff bye as their starter. He went 21-12 in his three years as Bears starter.

“He’s a winner,” Turner said. “It’s his intelligence and his willingness to work. He’ll study the game. He’ll know.

“When he started as a rookie, the guys in the locker room had a tremendous amount of respect for him because they saw how hard he worked. They saw him get in the huddle poised and calm, and he knew what he was doing.

“He earned his respect by being focused and doing his job.”

Perhaps Orton was too workmanlike.

Turner admitted that without flash, there always was a temptation to improve on Orton. The Bears traded him, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Broncos for Jay Cutler in April 2009.

“People are always looking for more,” Turner said. “In Chicago, we tried to get somebody bigger, stronger, more talented or whatever.”

Orton went 8-7 his first season in Denver, but 3-10 the next. With so much money tied up in Tim Tebow, the club made a change in 2011. Orton asked for his release and eventually got his wish in November.

The Kansas City Chiefs snagged him off waivers. He started their last three games, winning two. He led them to a victory over the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers and then beat Tebow and the Broncos to finish the year.

Orton signed with the Cowboys that offseason. He didn’t play a snap in 2012 and waited until last year’s regular-season finale to finally start for an injured Romo.

Orton completed 66 percent of his throws for 358 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in a 24-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then it was time to move on.

“He’s never bitched about things,” Tiller said. “He just rolls his sleeves up and goes to work again.”

A worker’s mentality is what Orton wants to focus on.

And he’s satisfied to let his work speak for him.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com

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