For the most part, I enjoyed Donte Whitner when he played in Buffalo. He was bright, engaging and passionate, a guy who spoke his mind and wore his heart on his sleeve. When the Bills played in his hometown of Cleveland, it made for a nice story about the native son returning home.
This Sunday, Whitner has another homecoming, his return to The Ralph as a visiting player. He won’t be welcomed with open arms, but by middle fingers. He’ll feel like a man who comes home to find the locks changed and vicious dogs eager to tear his throat out from behind the gate.
That happens when you’re one of the NFL’s most rabid tweeters. Coaches hate Twitter for a simple reason: It allows players, who are schooled in the art of saying nothing, to speak their minds by cell phone in the heat of the moment. You can delete a tweet, but it tends to follow you around.
Donte hits hard on Twitter, same as he does on the field. He has taken some cheap shots at Buffalo since leaving four years ago. Perhaps there’s lingering resentment toward people who expected the eighth overall pick to actually make a big defensive play now and then.
Anyway, Whitner was in rare tweeting form early last summer. In the span of a week, he tweeted some gratuitous digs at Sammy Watkins; joked about the Bills moving to Toronto; got into a war of words with Darryl Talley and his wife, and did some minor sparring with Aaron Williams.
The Twitter bitterness began in late June, when Watkins was asked if he would play with a chip on his shoulder against the Browns, who traded away the fourth pick of the draft to the Bills rather than pick him. He made some innocuous comments at the NFL rookie symposium. He said he had a chip on his shoulder for every game, not just the Browns.
“It’ll be a great matchup,” Watkins said in June, looking five months down the road to this Sunday’s game between the Bills and Browns. “We can go out there, battle, scrap, have a couple fights. It’s going to be great.”
Whitner, who goes by ‘DonteHitner’ on Twitter, took offense to the rookie’s comments. “Be quiet Sammy. Trust me!” he tweeted on the evening of June 27. Two hours later, he tweeted, “All you wack buffalo fans don’t have to feel this. Sammy will!”
A week later, Whitner tweeted “Wonder how you Bills fans gonna feel when the team is moved? LOL” and “Can you say Toronto Bills?!”
It turned ugly in a hurry. Talley threatened to put his hands around Whitner’s throat after Whitner tweeted some comments about Darryl’s daughter. Whitner challenged Talley to a boxing match. Talley insulted Whitner by suggesting he was a nobody in Buffalo.
Not surprisingly, the animosity resurfaced on Wednesday, when the Bills and Browns had their respective Media Days. Fred Jackson, normally a rock of emotional reserve, called Whitner “dumb,” an “idiot trying to ruffle feathers” and unworthy of anyone’s respect.
At least Whitner didn’t backpedal and accuse the media of taking his words out of context, like so many athletes nowadays.
“I knew that it would get to them,” he said later Wednesday. “I knew it would ruffle a feather. If they’re over there talking about this, maybe we are in their heads. Maybe I’m in their heads.”
At this point, many Bills fans would love to take off Whitner’s head. And knowing Whitner, he’s loving every minute of it. I’m sure Johnny Manziel is happy to have a teammate deflecting attention from that little dustup in the hotel early Saturday.
So the battle is on. There have been some ugly Bills-Browns game over the years. The 8-0 whiteout at Cleveland in 2007 comes to mind. Then there was the 6-3 Browns win here in 2009, which has become the standard for unsightly football games around here.
This could be ugly for a different reason, assuming the Whitner hostility carries onto the field. Maybe this is just what the Bills need as they attempt to recharge their emotional batteries in the aftermath of Monday’s win over the Jets in Detroit.
That will be the real homecoming on Sunday, the Bills getting to play in their own stadium for the first time in three weeks. The fans will finally have a chance to welcome the team back to The Ralph after the big snowstorm battered the Southtowns and forced the Jets game to be relocated.
It promises to be an emotional scene. Most Bills fans believe the team lifted the community with their big win in Detroit. Now the fans can thank the Bills for rising above the weather crisis and reminding the country of the resilient nature of the Western New York people.
The question is how much emotional energy the Bills have left. They haven’t played a good game at The Ralph since the second week of the season, after the news broke that Terry Pegula had won the bid for the franchise. It’s about time they played their best game in their actual home.
“I just talked to them about it,” said coach Doug Marrone. “I did. We have not done a very good job here. It’s been a long time since we won a game here at our stadium, so I talked to our players about it right when I brought them up after practice.”
The Bills’ last win at The Ralph came on Oct. 19 against the Vikings. That was the game when Marrone said he wasn’t happy, despite the outcome. The team seemed flat that day. So did the crowd. This Sunday, the 12th Man should be out in full throat.
“When adversity or something comes up, it seems that’s when they show up best,” said Kyle Williams. “You could see it in the beginning of the season when Mr. Pegula bought the team. That gave the fans the renewed sense of ‘Hey, this team is going to be here.’ ”
Jackson expects the Buffalo fans to be at their rowdiest with the Bills clinging to faint playoff hopes and desperately needing a win against one of the teams they’re fighting for a wild-card berth.
“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said. “We expect them to be in there and be rowdy. They always are. It’s up to us to go out and make plays to keep them in it.
They’re like that, anyway. They don’t need Donte to get them all riled up.”
But it won’t hurt, will it, Fred?
“No, it won’t,” he said.