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What drives Bills QB Josh Allen? Start with his California hometown

The Buffalo Bills drafted their next great hope at quarterback with the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. This is the second of a five-part series, "You bloom where you're planted: The cultivation of Josh Allen." (Read Part 1 here.) Part 3 will be published on Tuesday. 

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — In a place this small and so remote, folks handle multiple roles.

Seems that every third person you meet here — on top of their regular job — used to be the mayor, serves on the city council, sits on the school board, works for the volunteer fire department or coaches sports.

Brady Jenkins is among these trusted Firebaugh uber-stewards. He's head of security for the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District. He has been a city councilman for five years, was mayor and previously coached football, wrestling, track and swimming.

And wherever the University of Wyoming football team played the past couple of seasons, Jenkins' garage became an alternate community center.

Josh Allen's games have been must-see events for a couple of years in his isolated, Central Valley farming hometown. Wyoming, a fair team in a middling conference, wasn't commonly broadcast on national television.

"People would call around to see who had the game," Jenkins said, "and with all my sports packages, I could say, 'I got it!'

"They would be running down the street to my house. My garage was full. We would watch the entire game and hang around and talk about our guy."

The way people in Firebaugh gather around a single television to watch Allen calls to mind those old-time communal gatherings around a radio to hear the World Series or Joe Louis fight for the title.

There's an unspoken compact between Firebaugh and the Buffalo Bills' new quarterback.

Allen and his family have remained true to their home. Rather than transfer to a football program with more banners and the opportunity for a grander stage, Allen stuck and changed expectations for Firebaugh High.

"I have such strong family ties with this high school," Allen said at his parents' 2,000-acre ranch, where they grow cotton, wheat and cantaloupes. "I felt it was necessary for me to play here.

"I'd been here my whole life. There was no point in changing. We were going to work with what we got and find a way."

In extensive interviews with The Buffalo News over the past month, those who've raised, coached and taught Allen were unanimous in their insistence Allen simply was born with a constitution that's hard-wired to compete.

Where he grew up only added deeper layers.

You bloom where you're planted: The cultivation of Josh Allen, Part 1

Firebaugh intensifies the flame inside him. That defiance — a refusal to be patronized or abide big-timers — is a trait the town and its most famous resident share.

"The Central Valley does take things personally," said Rep. David Valadao, the U.S. Congressman who represents Firebaugh. "The Central Valley, as a whole, always feels ignored.

"We always feel the two population centers of the state, San Francisco and LA, take advantage and overlook us. It's hard to get their attention and get them to be supportive of policies that would benefit us."

Firebaugh, like much of California's 21st congressional district, is rural, poor, predominantly Hispanic and supremely reliant on the agriculture industry.

Signs at the town line state Firebaugh's population is 7,619. Wonderful Pistachios, TomaTek and Olam International have processing plants here, yet the nearest McDonald's is 11.2 miles away, a radius that equals 380 square miles devoid of golden arches.

The Firebaugh Chamber of Commerce was established in 2011. Its Facebook page hasn't been updated in four years; the phone number has been disconnected.

Allen's graduating class had 164 students. California Department of Education data showed he was one of 14 non-Hispanic students in his class. This year, 95.3 percent of the district's students from kindergarten through 12th grade are Hispanic.

Firebaugh High School. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

While the demographics are unalike, Western New Yorkers can relate to the potential inferiority complex that comes with being looked down upon by metropolises with steep resources and enviable attractions.

How a person or a community addresses such situations often is what truly matters.

"When you watch him, especially live, you see a guy that plays with an edge, a chip," said Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, who last month traded up to draft Allen seventh overall. "He cares about his teammates. It's not just about him.

"When you do your research, what you see is the loyalty. That's one of the characteristics you look for. Those were all things in his makeup that remind me of the same things Buffalo is about."

Allen comes from a family about to enter its fourth generation of farming on each parent's side. In town, his mom, LaVonne Allen, ran the Farmer's Daughter restaurant for six years.

Back in Allen Ranch's air-conditioned office two weeks ago, Joel and Josh Allen had a father-son conversation about Firebaugh and how it jibes with their perceptions of Western New York.

Josh: "Firebaugh shaped me to be the person, the quarterback I am today."

Joel: "And it's helped keep you grounded, you know?"

Josh: "It seems like Buffalo. Buffalo is a place I could see myself living forever."

Yet Josh Allen's loyalty to Firebaugh curbed the likelihood he would reach a Division I college program, let alone the NFL.

Recruiters didn't take his size, stats or highlight tapes seriously. He didn't receive a single scholarship offer, not even to nearby Fresno State.

"Big-time college programs," Beane said, "aren't pulling guys out of Firebaugh."

Allen played a season for Reedley College's nondescript program, but he began the season as the backup and required a break or two to capture Wyoming's attention. He also grew a few inches and morphed into a prototype QB body.

Still, playing at Firebaugh High provided no launching pad and nearly squelched his dream.

"You bet it did," Home Based Realty owner Craig Knight said. He's also a two-time Firebaugh mayor (his father and grandfather were mayors, too) and a third-generation Firebaugh volunteer firefighter.

"You can be a great athlete in Firebaugh, but unless you get seen, you can fall by the wayside. He just wouldn't let that stop him, and this is home."

The village respects him that much more for it.

Product of his place

Valadao, the Congressman, described Firebaugh as being "a little bit of the Wild West" and "pretty far out in a wide-open area."

The closest metropolitan area is Fresno, about an hour away. Fresno Yosemite Airport doesn't provide a slew of appealing flight options. Only 18 percent of its traffic is commercial.

San Francisco is 150 miles away; Los Angeles, 240.

Firebaugh does have an exit off a particularly tedious stretch of Interstate 5, but you'd still need to drive 18 more miles to reach its two-stoplight downtown. Along the way, signs stapled to telephone poles advertise "owl boxes" and "10 avocados for $1" and "100 percent chicken manure."

"You've got to want to go to Firebaugh to get to Firebaugh," Wyoming offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen said, "but Josh is a product of that place."

Once Arvid Allen somehow made it here from Eldsberga, Sweden, nearly a century ago, Firebaugh's future would be impacted with each generation.

Allen's great-grandfather was 16 when he emigrated through Ellis Island in 1924, changing his surname from Erlandson. The nickname "Swede" didn't involve paperwork. The aspiring farmer went to Chicago and then to Arkansas, where he met his future wife, Buelah, in a strawberry patch.

They found their way to Firebaugh's fertile soil and became enmeshed in the community's fiber.

Few aside from entrepreneur Andrew Firebaugh himself have had greater influence here than the Allens.

A sign outside the Ledford Rodeo Grounds explains the outpost was founded in 1854 as Firebaugh's Ferry, named for his conveyance across the San Joaquin River during California's Gold Rush.

Two of Swede Allen's sons teamed up to start Allen Brothers Farming. Alfred went by "Buzz" because he always was "busy as a bee"; Arvid was known as "Dink" because he was "as cute as a little Dinky Doll."

Back then, Firebaugh residents had to travel to Dos Palos to attend high school. The town centers are about 15 miles apart, but the area is spread so wide some students could live a 30-mile drive from campus.

Buzz and Dink crusaded for Firebaugh to have its own high school and donated the land upon which the school was built. Buzz was the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District's first president and served 12 years on the board.

Firebaugh High's gymnasium is dedicated to Buzz. He died at the start of Josh's senior season, but Josh channeled his late grandpa's spirit whenever he could, touching the gymnasium plaque before each game and scrawling Buzz's initials on his cleats.

The gymnasium at Firebaugh High School, renamed for Josh Allen's grandfather. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

"I think about my dad in moments like this," said Buzz's daughter, Cindy Best. "I was sitting there at the NFL Draft, looking at my nephew and thinking, 'Wow, this kid is from Firebaugh.'

"My dad fought to get this school built. My dad would be so happy right now. He would be totally overwhelmed."

Best was in Firebaugh High's first graduating class of '78. She would help her father irrigate the crops and handled insect patrol, and she was the prom queen. Now she teaches the AVID college-readiness program and English-language development at her alma mater.

She witnessed every step of the school's growth. She marvels at massive construction taking place on campus after a $15 million bond was approved.

Community pride in the school is evident. Even with renovations ongoing, the Firebaugh-Las Deltas campus is impeccably maintained and landscaped.

"We know how to get dirty, probably know how to drive a tractor, probably drive a pickup," Best said of the average Firebaugh resident. "We help our neighbors. We appreciate hard work and those who work hard.

"Life is a little bit slow. So we're probably a little more sheltered, growing up in the country, but we have wholesome values."

Success is earned

The Firebaugh Harvest Festival in late July or early August is a pretty big deal.

Locals still call it the Cantaloupe Roundup, a long-ago phenomenon when Firebaugh's population would explode with workers who — before machinery rendered the process obsolete — picked, washed and packaged melons on the spot.

In 1959, actor Walter Brennan from "The Real McCoys" television show fired the ceremonial starting gun.

Outside his real estate office, Knight and Joel Allen surveyed all four directions at the intersection of 10th Street and P Street. They pointed out six, eight, 10 storefronts that in the '50s and '60s were taverns geared to quench the Cantaloupe Roundup's thirst. There was a cathouse, too.

Firebaugh is considerably sleepier these days.

"If you kick a can down the middle of the road or throw something out of your car, everybody in town knows about it," said Jenkins, the school security director. "The whole town is a neighborhood block-watch program. Everybody puts in."

Success is earned in Firebaugh, and Josh Allen has personified that. In some places, soaring off toward magnificent horizons might be met with resentment from those left behind.

Allen, though, seems to draw universal admiration because he chose to do things the hard way in Firebaugh's name.

"Why isn't there anybody out there saying, 'I hope he fails'? Because he never created that atmosphere in this town," Firebaugh-Las Deltas superintendent Russell Freitas said.

Although his district is small, Allen is not Freitas' first brush with an elite athlete. In Easton, Calif., he was a Pop Warner coach of future Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers linebacker Ron Cox and spent time around future big-league pitcher Matt Garza at Washington Union High.

Freitas cried four times while talking about Allen's character during a 15-minute interview.

"He was more than a student," Freitas said. He paused seven seconds to compose himself. "When people ask me about Josh, I tell them he's the real deal.

"You want your children to be around him and connected with him. You would want him to be your daughter's husband."

Josh Allen is still a presence in the Firebaugh High School lobby. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News)

Examples of Allen's commitment to Firebaugh are abundant. One of the highlights the town still talks about was his final game against rival Dos Palos, a team Firebaugh never had beaten in football.

"And they reminded me of it all the time," Joel Allen said. "Right before Dos Palos would play Firebaugh they would say, 'Oh, that's going to be an easy win.'

"Right before Josh's last game against them, I heard, 'Firebaugh's going to get another beatdown!' I thought, 'Hmm, I don't think so.' "

Buzz Allen, a month shy of 75, died from cancer Sept. 17, 2013. It was Joel and LaVonne Allen's 25th wedding anniversary.

Firebaugh waited until its Oct. 18 game against Dos Palos to stage a Buzz Allen tribute. The school rededicated the gym and held a moment of silence for Josh's grandfather in Eagles Stadium.

Josh completed 21 of his 35 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another touchdown in a 52-28 victory.

"I'd been waiting a long time for that day," Joel Allen said. "Now we're the ones to beat."

Firebaugh beat Dos Palos the next year, too, and has won three of the past five meetings against the school from which Buzz Allen vacated out of community pride.

Firebaugh High principal Anthony Catalan gets passionate when discussing the way private schools frequently siphon the best and brightest student-athletes from public schools.

"We take it personally that it's not who we are," Catalan said recently in his office. "We kind of despise it. We feel it's unfair because we're a little school, a public school, and playing schools with recruits just isn't athletics in its truest sense.

"We feel that as a community. That's not who he is. Could Josh have gone to San Joaquin Memorial or De La Salle? Sure, but his goal was to build something here in Firebaugh with the kids around him."

Now Bills Country

Not even the Bills' scouts have been to Firebaugh. Not Beane, not head coach Sean McDermott, not the Pegulas. Not yet, anyway.

Vigen has seen it only because he is Wyoming's offensive coordinator. Wyoming was the lone university to honestly recruit Allen and trekked there with head coach Craig Bohl to court its quarterback.

"The character that comes with that upbringing is there — working hard, being respected — those are things that he values," Vigen said of Allen. "He comes from a good background."

As Allen ventures to the NFL, his hometown won't be letting go.

Bills games will be easier to find on TV than Wyoming versus Gardner-Webb, and Jenkins still will host his garage parties for whomever wants to come over.

A couple weeks ago, LaVonne Allen dropped by the high school before meeting Joel at Firebaugh Restaurant — a Mexican joint Josh highly recommends — for lunch. Along the way, people continually approached her about hatching plans to fly to Buffalo for this game or that.

Across the street from Firebaugh Restaurant, from an upper-deck patio atop Knight's realty office, a Bills flag rippled in the breeze.

Craig Knight flies a Bills flag in Firebaugh. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

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