Kyle Williams arrived at the Bills facility at around 6 a.m. Wednesday, early for work as usual. It was a frigid 9 degrees in the parking lot, where he saw a solitary hooded figure, shoveling snow outside the ADPRO Sports Training Center.
"He's doing that for us," Williams thought to himself as he paused to watch the man at work. "He's doing something for me."
That's how the Bills' veteran defensive tackle, the longest-standing member of the team, thinks of everyone involved in the organization. They're all in this together, pushing through it together — the snow, the hard times, the 17-year playoff drought, all of it.
It has always been about the team, about striving toward a common goal. Williams hasn't changed since coming to Buffalo from LSU in the 2006 draft. Through the losing and dysfunction, through upheaval in the coaching staff, the front office and the ownership box, Williams has remained a resolute, unwavering force and a team leader.
But for the first time in his 12-year career, Williams is preparing for a season finale with the team still alive for a playoff berth. He has been here since the start of the Dick Jauron era. That's a long wait, so it's understandable if teammates, coaches and even the media are pulling for Kyle to get to the playoffs for the first time.
"I don't think about it in those terms," Williams said Wednesday. "I think about it the same way I think about the game last week, what can I do to best prepare myself and my teammates to go win one football game? There's a lot to worry about without getting all the extra in there."
"What we're trying to do is much larger and bigger than I am. It's not about me. It's about our team and organization and our city."
That's customary talk from Williams, who is practiced in dismissing the importance of any single game. One at a time, right? When you've seen countless promising seasons evaporate in the cold of December, you learn not to attach too much significance to one win or loss.
This week is different, whether Williams admits it or not. Ending the drought would lift a huge burden off the Bills, the town and the fans. They're an average team, one that isn't likely to go far in the playoffs, but getting out from under the longest drought in the four major professional sports would be a big deal.
Williams, a fifth-round pick who became a five-time Pro Bowler, will play his 167th NFL game Sunday in Miami. Jim Kelly played in 160 regular-season games and 17 in the playoffs. Back in the Super Bowl era, we took for granted being able to see the top players in the postseason. Thurman Thomas played in 21 playoff games, Bruce Smith 20, Kent Hull 19, Darryl Talley 18.
Your conscience tells you to remain objective. But I'm human. You can't cover a guy for more than a decade and not wish for him to make the playoffs just once. You root silently for Williams to get in after a long wait, same as you did for George Wilson and Brian Moorman, Takeo Spikes and Ryan Fitzpatrick, none of whom made it to a single NFL postseason game.
Williams, who turns 35 in June, admits that he is carrying the torch for former Bills who never got there. That includes two former defensive linemates, Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel, whom he communicates with regularly by text.
"Sure," he said. "It's guys in here and guys that identify with this team, with this community. Yeah. Absolutely. It's OK if they look to me like, 'Hey, Kyle's grinding it out to accomplish these things.' Making the playoffs isn't my ultimate goal, but yeah, I'm glad those guys can have a connection here."
Getting to the playoffs would be great. Williams said it's what motivates him to get up and work out in February, when he's still hurting from the previous season. But it's not how he defines himself as a player. It's the impact he's had on his teammates and fans, the way he keeps pushing on, despite injuries and loss, without complaint or self-pity.
"Any time you're part of a team long enough, you don't want the successes and failures to define you," he said. "You want it to be the relationships and things like that. At the same time, there's 53 guys in here that are working for a common goal that put a ton of work in. It's about our team. It's about our organization more than anything."
Williams is being treated like a man who is about to retire. He wouldn't say if he's at the end of his career, or whether he would be willing to go elsewhere to chase the playoffs, the way his former teammate and co-captain Fred Jackson did two years ago in Seattle after getting cut by the Bills.
"Your heart goes out for him," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "You want to see it happen. As much as I want to see it happen for our entire organization, I think about Kyle a lot. I would love to see him have his name introduced in a playoff game.
"I know we're going to do all we can on Sunday to take care of our part of it the best we can," Frazier added, "and that will be an awesome sight to be able to hear and see Kyle line up and to hear his name called in a playoff game and to be a part of it."
When we spoke before the season, Williams seemed torn. He talked about defensive tackles — Pat Williams and Ted Washington, for example — who played effectively into their late 30s. But when his wife, Jill, cried after the Bills' final home game against the Dolphins, it seemed Williams might be coming to the finish.
He has five young children, who cavort in the end zone near the tunnel after home games while their father gathers with family and friends, as if savoring every moment on the New Era turf. All five of his children were born while he was playing for the Bills, so he feels a powerful bond with the town and the people here.
"I'm a pretty loyal guy," said Williams, who jokes that he was the "first pick of the fifth round" in 2006. "It's a kindred spirit thing, identifying with the people, loving the fans here, coming from a very passionate place (LSU) where I played college football and stepping into a place I felt was its equal at the NFL level."
Those Buffalo fans have waited 17 years to get back to the playoffs, since Williams was a high school sophomore at Ruston High in Louisiana. There will be more on the line Sunday than in any of his previous 166 NFL games. Try telling him.
"I put it in the same box I do every other game," Williams said. "I'll prepare and try to be at my best and help my teammates be at their best. Hopefully, I can play well and help them and make them better and go out to win one football game. All the stuff on the side is a distraction."