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Bucky Gleason: Diehard Buffalo fan has roadie to remember, thanks to Bills and Sabres

Watching over him on the wall above his bed is a large banner emblazoned of the Buffalo Bills. Keeping him warm while he sleeps is a Sabres blanket adorned with their emblem from when they had the NHL's best record. On a table next to his bed rests a stuffed buffalo in a UB uniform.

Two boxes of Flutie Flakes sit on a shelf. He has a box of TO's cereal in honor of Terrell Owens' brief stay in Buffalo, an autographed football from Jim Kelly, figurines depicting Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith, a stuffed bison dressed in a Bills uniform, cups, hats, pucks, pictures, posters and heaven knows what else.

Josh Pretko has turned Room 429 inside the Virginia Home for disabled adults in Richmond, Va., into a Buffalo sports museum, a tribute to his favorite teams and native city. For years, the keepsakes fueled his imagination and soul, taking the 32-year-old beyond his four walls while cerebral palsy imprisoned his body.

He's all Bills, all Sabres, all Buffalo – all of the time.

"It has always been Buffalo Bills or Buffalo Sabres, nonstop," said his father, Rodney Pretko. "If you were in a jam and didn't know what to get him for Christmas or whatever, and you got him something with the Buffalo Bills or Buffalo Sabres emblem, you were gold."

You wonder how people so far away can fall so deeply for Buffalo teams, but his story comes with a familiar ring: He was born at South Buffalo Mercy, and his heart remained here longer than he did. He once lived steps from Rich Stadium, the cruelest of ironies for a diehard Bills fan who never was able to walk.

He moved with his family to Virginia when he was 3 years old, and he was raised (see: brainwashed) on the Bills and Sabres by parents who were born and raised in Western New York. His father grew up in Lackawanna and is now a retired Chesterfield, Va., police corporal. His mother, the former Kathy Wolins, is from Orchard Park.

"We took the boy out of Buffalo, but we couldn’t take Buffalo out of the boy," his mother said. "It was always, 'Buffalo is going to win.' It was Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo. He's our only child that has never wavered – never. He takes a ribbing all the time, and he gives it right back."

You can imagine the anticipation that accompanied the nine-hour drive after his father grabbed Josh and rounded up his three brothers – Jacob, 33; Jeremy, 24, and Joe, 15 – for a road trip for the ages. Two vehicles were required for them to take Josh to see the Sabres and Bills each play for the first time in the regular season.

Josh and his father rode together in Rodney's pickup, leaving Richmond on Thursday afternoon and pulling off Route 219 in Orchard Park in the wee hours Friday morning. To the surprise of nobody, Josh insisted they drive past New Era Field for a quick photo with the Bills' logo lit in the background.

"Josh, he would be out of control if the boy could walk," Rodney said. "He's nonstop now, but he's confined to his area. If he could get up and go, I don't know how many sports he would have played."

Surely, their boys' weekend would have been complete with a picture of Josh sitting outside the stadium, hanging with his brothers and father while the Sabres played the Canucks on Friday, spending Saturday grabbing merchandise for his room and catching the Bills-Buccaneers game on Sunday.

"i get 2 see Jack Eichel play then how about a stop at new era field for my 1st home reg season bills game vs tampa bucs," he announced last week on Facebook, "and my first time seeing shady mccoy and tyrod taylor play. … thanks Rodney and Kathy Pretko for getting us tickets 2 both games."

For years, from his 15-by-20-foot universe in the Virginia Home, he has listened to every Bills game on his computer. He keeps up with the daily minutia during the week. His teams in Yahoo! fantasy leagues are loaded with Bills and Sabres. He picks only the Bills and Sabres when playing video games.

Pretko's mind has always been sharp. He graduated from high school and still keeps in touch with his friends. Some might suspect his parents placed him in the Virginia Home when he became older, but he made the decision to move out. He wanted his own space and a life of relative independence.

"If I could give him my legs, I would. If I could give him my arms, I would," Kathy Pretko said. "He's happy, and that’s all I could wish for him."

The world needs more people like Pretko, people who require so much help but demand so little. The other residents and staff at the Virginia Home adore his upbeat personality and treat him like the mayor – when they're not teasing him about Buffalo sports teams, of course. But he never asked for much from them, either.

"I just want the Bills to make the playoffs before I die," Pretko said a few weeks ago before breaking into his contagious laugh.

Last year, he almost did.

He had been feeling particularly lousy and believed he might be coming down with pneumonia. He ended up being rushed to Virginia Medical Center, where doctors inserted a chest tube and drained nearly two liters of fluid from his lungs – "blood and gunk," his father said – before nursing him back to health.

The scare was among several reasons his family decided a trip to Buffalo was in order. Pretko had no idea it would turn into much more than he expected, that a family weekend would evolve into a dream vacation and take him inside the two teams he had held dear for so many years.

The Sabres gave him tickets to the game and passes to greet the players outside their dressing room, allowing him to fist-bump them on their way to the ice. He wore his No. 85 sweater, honoring his birth year, as certain players do. He was beside himself when meeting play-by-play legend Rick Jeanneret after years of listening to him call the action.

Josh Pretko shakes hands with Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe (19) during periods outside the Sabres dressing room at KeyBank Center in Buffalo on Oct. 20, 2017. (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Rodney promised Josh he would take him Saturday to the Bills' merchandise store connected to the ADPRO Training Facility. Josh didn't know Meghan Hess, community relations manager for the Bills, would be waiting for them when they arrived.

Minutes later, he was getting a tour of the weight room and indoor practice facility. The next thing he knew, he was sitting along the sidelines while the Bills held a light workout in preparation for the Bucs.

"It's hard for me to describe," Rodney said. "It makes me want to cry. Look at him. He's glowing. All the boys are glowing. This was totally unexpected for him."

When practice ended around noon, Eric Wood led a parade of players who took the time to greet him before they hit the showers. In less than a minute, he was surrounded by hulking men with soft hearts who placed him at the center of an impromptu huddle and made him feel like one of them.

Micah Hyde took off his baseball cap, added his signature, and handed it to Pretko. Jordan Poyer did the same with his bucket hat. The Bills passed around two footballs for autographs before presenting him with both. Pretko sat in the middle, stunned by their response, and soaked up the attention.

"Great to meet you, Josh," one player said.

"Take care, Josh," another said.

Pretko wasn't just a fan. Suddenly, he was a friend. He was practically speechless.

"He won't sleep for a month," his father said.

Josh Pretko holds a painting he made that Bills players signed for him. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

Pretko must have thanked his newfound blood brothers a thousand times, never realizing that they were thanking him. He reminded men who were much bigger and infinitely stronger than him – but certainly no tougher – of the importance of overcoming adversity, how love and loyalty can make a difference for a fan and his football team.

Bills coach Sean McDermott told his players as much on the field, too, before he crouched in front of Pretko's chair and talked with his new friend for several minutes. McDermott is more than a football coach. He's a good person who fully understands the real world extends beyond what happens on a given Sunday.

"I hope we can win for you," McDermott told him. "We're going to do everything we can, OK? You stay strong and keep cheering for us. Can you do that for us?"

"Of course I can," Pretko said. "I do it every week."

The Pretko boys left with an autographed Bills helmet and two footballs for Josh's room, pennants, caps, towels, keychains and one heck of a story for the people back home. Josh promised to make room for everything the Bills had given him when he returned to Richmond after the absolute best three days of his life.

Most players had left the field Saturday when Pretko made a small request: He asked his father to lift him from his chair and place him on the practice field. For about a minute, he remained on his back with his arms and legs scrunched into a fetal position, and felt the comfort of the grass.

He just stared toward the sky and smiled without saying a word, confirming his favorite keepsake will not be found in Room 429 of the Virginia Home. It will forever remain stashed in an area reserved only for him, available when he falls asleep at night and wakes up in the morning: Between his ears.

For a brief moment, Josh Pretko was in heaven.

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