Sixty children left Dick's Sporting Goods in the Galleria Mall Monday night thinking it doesn't get any better than this. They were treated to a pizza party. They were given $175 gift cards. And they were sent to shop the store in groups, a Buffalo Bill serving as their consultant.
But the lucky ones weren't the kids affiliated with Big Brother Big Sister, the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo, Northwest Buffalo Community Center and the Salvation Army. The lucky ones were the 14 players who in return for their time received the greatest holiday gifts of them all, the beaming eyes and bright smile of a child.
For the players in attendance, this trip to Cheektowaga was a salve for the soul. Most children under 12 don't know the Bills are 4-9, that they've lost four straight, that there will be no playoffs again this season. And even if they know, there are greater concerns in their lives, like what they're wearing to school tomorrow.
"How many games have the Bills won?" 8-year-old Armani was asked.
"Ten," he said with conviction.
"That's a good thing about it," said fullback Daimon Shelton. "They don't care nothing about the record. They just want to see your face. And actually it gives me a little happiness in our time of despair with our record and everything. It's fun to come out and take my mind off that."
They say no one can stretch this annual shopping budget further than safety Lawyer Milloy. He knows what's on sale. He recognizes a bargain. He makes sure his troops get every penny's worth.
"This is the first time I get to go shopping and get anything I want," Jose, 9, told Milloy.
"Go to school and get good grades and later on in your life you'll be able to do that," Milloy responded, as if he were Santa himself.
The whole thing's a Hallmark card come to life. Because do you know what happens when you give children who may have little a lot of money to spend? They start thinking about others more than they think about themselves.
"I have to get (something for) my mom," shouted Franklin, 10. "I got to say thanks to my mom."
"I'm getting this for my friend," said 10-year-old Chris. "He doesn't celebrate Christmas but I can give him a present. Nobody will know."
And suddenly 14 players are hurting a little less. Suddenly being a Buffalo Bill is once again pretty darn cool.
"I love doing this every year," said linebacker Josh Stamer. "I didn't have anyone doing this for me when I was young. I would love to have seen professional athletes, or have professional athletes help me pick out Christmas gifts. I just think it's a good way of giving back to the community."
A 9-year-old boy has finished with his shopping. Let's leave his name out of it for fear of spoiling the surprise. Next to him stands a box of golf clubs.
"They're for my grandpa," he said. "I know he's going to like them."
You look at the price tag. It's everything he had. Not everything, said the boy. He shows you a set of trading cards. And you know right then that come Christmas morning grandpa's going to be bawling his eyes out.
"He's played a lot of sports with me and I need to pay him back," the boy said. "He wants to play golf, and if I get him something that's special it will be a good way to thank him. I know grandpa will appreciate it. There's not anything to get grandma at a sporting goods store."
Cornerback Terrace McGee, the boy's advisor, will be telling this story in the locker room, be telling this story for years.
"That was way impressive," McGee said. "If I was 8 or 9 years old and you gave me all this money to shop, I'd probably have spent $10 on my mom and the rest on me. It may be a cliche, but he showed what Christmas is all about."