Jonathan Linton was 10 years old when he started riding with his father in the summers. By the time school let out in June, his bags would already be packed and waiting inside the front door of the family home in Allentown, Pa. He could barely wait, because he was finally going to spend some time with his father.
Roy Linton drove a tractor-trailer for a living. He drove it from one end of the country to the other, year round, to support his family. He and his wife, Jean, had come to this country from Jamaica in the late 1960s in search of a better life and a finer education for their children -- what we have come to know as the American Dream.
Roy soon discovered that the dream was attainable only through patience, sacrifice and hard work. He drove the 18-wheeler. His wife worked as a nurse. They made ends meet. But Roy's work kept him on the road for weeks at a time. Sometimes, he'd be on the road for a month, home for a couple of days, and then back out again.
Time away from his five children was the price of the dream. So he decided to take Jonathan, his youngest, on the road. They spent four summers together, and it was an experience they'll never forget.
"I spent the whole summer in the rig," Linton said. "We'd sleep in the truck. I lived the life of a truck driver. I loved it. The most important thing was being with my dad. I never got to see him that much, because he was out working all the time and things were hard. If I wanted to see him more than two days at a time, I had to go out with him.
"We talked a lot," he said. "He taught me a lot about myself, and about who he was and about life in general. I guess that's where my patience comes from, because driving to California, you can easily go crazy."
That patience has served Linton well in his career as a football player. He spent five years at North Carolina, one as a redshirt and three as a backup to Leon Johnson. And now, as a Bills rookie, he is playing behind some of the classiest running backs in the NFL. He has Antowain Smith and Thurman Thomas ahead of him at tailback, and the estimable Sam Gash starting at fullback.
Every time Linton carries the ball, good things happen. He led the Bills in rushing in the preseason with 218 yards on 48 carries. He had 53 yards on 10 carries at Carolina. Last week against Indianapolis, he rushed for 46 yards on just six carries. Other than his play on special teams, that was his only significant action in the regular season.
Bills fans are impatient, too. They'd love to see more of this 6-foot, 248-pounder. Coach Wade Phillips admits he would like to give him more opportunities at both backfield positions.
"I think he can play fullback," Phillips said. "But right now, he's really more of a running back. He's got natural skills for the position. He's very quick in the hole; he has good feet, good vision. We want to get him more playing time."
But with Smith and Thomas ahead of him on the depth chart, Linton will have to wait his turn. At least waiting is something he's grown accustomed to.
"At times, it is frustrating to wait," Linton said. "You get tired of hearing coaches saying you're one play away from playing. You think, 'When is that play going to come?' But you have to focus on what you have to accomplish. I can accept it. Thurman is a Hall of Famer. Antowain is a first-round pick and he's done a great job. Sam? Personally, I think he's the best fullback in the league.
"So it's an honor for me to back up those guys, because I can learn a lot from them. Hopefully, when the time comes I can step up my level of play."
Linton's parents often told him, "Be patient and good things will come to you. Your time will come." They knew from experience. Moving to the United States from Jamaica was no easy thing. It took years to get adjusted, to feel comfortable and secure in a new country. Roy Linton had one overriding dream -- for all five of his children to get college degrees.
He used their summers together to drive that point home. Jonathan was right up there in the cab with him, a captive audience.
"I preached to him about education," the elder Linton said. "I can read and write. My wife can also. I told him, 'I didn't bring you to American just so you could read and write. I want you to get a college education. That's the most important thing.' "
By the time Jonathan was a freshman in high school, the Lintons had three children in college. Roy was thrilled, but he also was saddled with debts. He and Jean were in a financial struggle.
He had always told his children that good things come only through hard work, that you don't get something for nothing. But like so many Americans, he bought lottery tickets and allowed himself to dream. He bought one on a May day in 1990, while driving his 18-wheeler through Ohio. He was on his way home to Allentown -- to attend his daughter Debbie's college graduation from Lafayette -- when he pulled over at a truck stop for gas and a bite to eat.
Roy wasn't in a great hurry, so he asked the woman at the counter for the winning number in the lottery. She ran his ticket through and let out a gasp. He had the winner. It was worth $9 million! He told her it must be some kind of mistake, but the woman told him he'd better take care of that ticket.
After eating, Roy called home to tell his wife. She told him to stop joking. He called later, when he reached Pennsylvania, and told her it was no joke. They were rich.
"It was a turnaround for my family," Jonathan Linton said. "Not personally or socially, but financially it was a big turnaround, because we were in dire need at the time. God really blessed us at an opportune time. I'll never forget that night."
The family waited until after Debbie's graduation party to tell her about the lottery win. College was too important to the Lintons, and they didn't want their collective good fortune to overshadow her big moment. The next day, Roy reminded Debbie of his promise to buy her a car when she graduated. She laughed and said he didn't have the money. Then he told her about the lottery ticket. Reports from the Bills that Roy won the lottery a second time for $2 million were erroneous.
Roy Linton calls himself a very lucky man. It is not so much the $9 million windfall -- although it certainly didn't hurt -- as the fact that all of his children realized his dream by graduating from U.S. colleges and becoming professionals in different fields. For a man who grew up on a farm in Jamaica, watching his father making his living off the land, there could be no greater treasure.
His oldest son, Dunstan, works in computers for a major chemical company. Dave is a teacher. Debbie works in the environmental office of the state of New Jersey. Bruce is an Army pilot. All of them were fine athletes. But their baby, 24-year-old Jonathan, was the best athlete of them all. He became an NFL player, a long shot in his own right.
Linton says he didn't think much about the NFL when he was at North Carolina. He was a reserve for most of his college career, and his schoolwork was more important. Getting drafted by Buffalo in the fifth round was like a dream. His day will come. But until then, it's enough to be part of a contending team.
For now, he's willing to sit back, learn and enjoy the ride. His number will come up eventually. Who knows? It might even be worth millions.