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Reilly goes from youth hockey star to Bills hopeful

Brandon Reilly waited, impatiently, as the clock ticked down at Lincoln Financial Field last Thursday night.

When was the undrafted free agent from Nebraska going to get in the Buffalo Bills' preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles at wide receiver? Would he get in the game at all? And if he did get in, would he actually have a chance to catch a pass?

"I was a little frustrated," Reilly said. "It was kind of late in the fourth quarter and I had only been in for one play."

Finally, with a little more than five minutes left, the Bills, thanks to Greg Mabin's interception, were at the Eagles' 9-yard line. Reilly heard third-string quarterback T.J. Yates call "Double Fade" in the huddle. He had a pretty good idea the ball was coming his way.

"In my head I was like, 'Well, this is what I'm here for, to make a name for myself, and this is a perfect opportunity,'" Reilly recalled. "And T.J. threw a perfect pass, and I'd have been a fool not to catch it and stay in bounds."

Reilly's reception, one of a team-leading four on the night for 39 yards, gave the Bills their lone touchdown in a 20-16 loss.

"A lot of people don't know my name, but you know, hopefully in a few months, they do," he said. "And, hopefully, I can help this team get some wins."

Sean McDermott knows Reilly's name, and that might be all the recognition the rookie needs at this point. While talking with reporters Tuesday, the head coach went out of his way to mention how well Reilly and fellow undrafted free-agent Daikiel Shorts (two receptions for 22 yards) performed against the Eagles.

"It means a lot, obviously," Reilly said. "Me and Daikiel kind of have the same mentality -- just keep working and we'll get a chance sometime."

For receivers on the Bills, the chances are plentiful. There might not be a more wide-open position on the team, especially after Sammy Watkins was traded to the Los Angeles Rams and Anquan Boldin stopped by for two weeks before retiring.

Other than Jordan Matthews -- who was recently acquired in a trade with the Eagles and is working his way back from an injury -- and second-round draft pick Zay Jones, most reserve positions are up for grabs.

"It's definitely a big opportunity, you know?" Reilly said. "The room's been changing up a lot lately, but the mindset's still the same, trying to go out there and prove myself each day and earn a spot on this roster."

It seems he has been striving to get someone to notice him as a football player ever since he became serious about playing the sport as a freshman at Lincoln (Neb.) Southwest High School.

Before then, Reilly's athletic life -- with the exception of his brief exposure to Pop Warner Football in fourth and fifth grade -- was devoted to hockey. And with good reason. He was an excellent center who played on a travel team that competed throughout the country and in Canada for international tournaments. In eighth grade, he was the seventh-ranked prospect in the nation.

Reilly had dreams of playing in the National Hockey League. A couple of his boyhood friends were drafted into the NHL: Luke Johnson, who played at the University of North Dakota, by the Chicago Blackhawks, and his cousin, Paul LaDue, who also went to North Dakota, by the Los Angeles Kings.

But at 15, Reilly realized that in order to have a chance of reaching the same heights, he had to be willing to venture far from home. He had seen his older brother move in with a host family for a few years to continue playing amateur hockey at the level necessary to have legitimate pro aspirations.

That wasn't for Brandon. He preferred remaining in Lincoln to play high school sports with his close friends.

"At that age, I didn't want to move away," Reilly said. "It was a tough decision, it took a lot of thought. My parents, they weren't too happy for awhile, because they saw the potential I had in hockey. But I told them, 'Just trust me, it'll all work out.'"

He was a natural athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball, and also running track. Late in his junior year and into his senior year at Lincoln Southwest, he began to see that he might have a future in football, excelling as a receiver, cornerback, and safety.

Still, Reilly couldn't get noticed. Despite a senior season in which he caught nine touchdown passes (eight of which covered 50 yards or more), he received zero scholarship offers.

He wound up joining the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers as a walk-on, fulfilling a dream he had as a kid selling pop at their football games (he admits he did more watching of the action on the field than selling).

"When I got to Nebraska, they gave me the option to play offense or defense, so it means they really don't expect much out of you if they give you the choice," Reilly said. "I chose offense and kind of had to turn some heads and prove people wrong."

After his sophomore season, Reilly received a scholarship. He finished his collegiate career with 70 receptions for 1,275 yards and six touchdowns. As a junior in 2015, Reilly had the game-winning touchdown catch in the Cornhuskers' 39-38 upset victory against sixth-ranked Michigan State.

More than a half-dozen NFL teams expressed interest in him before last April's draft. He heard from some that said they were targeting him as a late-round pick. But the draft ended without a single phone call.

Reilly didn't hang his head.

"I've kind of been there before," he said. "I've always been doubted my whole life. It kind of adds an extra chip on my shoulder I have each day."

Reilly understands that, when it comes to playing time, Saturday night's preseason game at Baltimore is crucial. It is the third on the Bills' schedule, and anyone who sees little or no playing time in the third preseason game has little or no chance of making the roster.

He knows he has to make a splash, especially on special teams.

"Nothing's ever guaranteed," Reilly said. "I'm having fun with it each day. I look at it as a great opportunity.

"I walked on in college, so it's kind of a similar situation, just kind of waiting, and when your opportunity comes, make the most of it and don't look back. I feel that's what I did in college and became successful that way, and I hope to do the same here at this level."

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