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Zoo visit gives Bills rookies a chance to be kids again

They walked, the little kids and the big kids. Across the paths that wind through the Buffalo Zoo, they took in the animal exhibits, heard some fun facts from the guide (did you know an elephant's trunk has more than 100,000 muscles?), and did, well, kid-like things.

Mainly, that came from the big kids, as in the rookies for the Buffalo Bills who spent part of a beautiful Monday taking a zoo tour with 50 students from Westminster Community Charter School and Buffalo Public School 80.

One of them was linebacker Reggie Ragland, the second-round draft pick from Alabama.

On the way to see the polar bears, he would occasionally flick the ear of one of the young boys in front of him and then quickly look away, leaving the victim clueless as to the culprit's identity. Finally, one turned toward him and Ragland flashed a wry smile.

Eric Striker, another linebacker, reached into his pocket to pull out a handful of bubble gum for the new friends he made in his group. He hadn't been to a zoo since he was in fifth grade in Tampa, Fla. Fullback Glenn Gronkowski grew up in Western New York, but he couldn't recall ever visiting the Buffalo Zoo.

"It definitely was a while ago if I was here," he said. "I would have been real little, too little to remember."

The event was part of the new NFL Rookie Transition Program hosted by each of the 32 clubs for drafted and undrafted rookies. The program replaces the Rookie Symposium, which was held in a central location (most recently in Ohio) and was open only to drafted rookies. The new program, which has the players hearing all sorts of cautionary tales about life as an NFL player, runs through this week, providing the rookies a chance to get to learn more about the communities in which they play and to give back.

[Gallery: Bills rookies visit the Buffalo Zoo]

The zoo visit was a fun time, and not just for the students who were getting to hang out with a bunch of professional athletes. One of the students said he thought the players were enjoying the experience even more than their younger companions.

"I'm pretty much a big kid myself and just being around the kids is a great thing," Striker said. "I never had the opportunity these kids had being around professional athletes or rookies, so it's just a good time to see us and hang out and see we're just people, just like them, and interact with them.

"It's just a good time. And I'm a big kid, so I fit right in with them."

For Striker, having the chance to make his long-awaited return to a zoo was a treat in itself. He has a fascination with animals. He constantly watches documentaries about them on Netflix.

"Animals in Africa, Australia, the deep sea … I watch all of that stuff," he said. "The BBC does a good job of covering all that stuff. That's why I know a little bit about animals."

In fact, Striker shared his own fun fact about elephants: "Their poo is loaded with protein, so if you're ever stuck somewhere and that's the only thing around …"

The other Bills' rookies and students laughed, as did the guide, who added, "I have to say I didn't know that one."

The highlight for each Bills rookie group was the rare opportunity to feed an elephant. The general public doesn't get to do that, because the exhibit housing the pachyderms is too small to accommodate large crowds. Each student and player handed a carrot that the elephant grabbed with his trunk and dropped into his mouth.

"Feeding the elephants and stuff like that, I've never done anything close to that," Gronkowski said. "Definitely something different, so definitely something cool."

As the tour came to an end, Ragland's group was walking by a vendor selling "Dippin' Dots." It was hot day and he figured the students could use an ice cream treat to cool off.

"Hey, those are four bucks each," one of the other rookies pointed out.

Ragland, who recently signed a lucrative second-round contract, shrugged.

"Dippin' Dots" all around.

The students received autographs from the players and gift bags before boarding buses back to school. The players boarded their own bus that took them back to One Bills Drive.

Before he left, Ragland looked around at the smiles on the faces of the students. He wore a big grin of his own.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "Pretty cool."

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