Josh Allen heard the disrespect from his teammates.
Even the team chaplain crossed the line.
Not one of them ranked Allen, the Buffalo Bills’ rookie franchise quarterback, the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, among the five best pingpong players on the team.
“It’s frustrating to be disrespected like that,” Allen said with a grimace. “But they’ll learn soon enough.”
Sean McDermott removed the video games and pool table from the Bills’ locker room when he was hired to replace Rex Ryan as head coach in 2017. But the pingpong table remained. At the time, McDermott joked that it helped players with "ball skills." The table is stationed front and center for all to see as they enter the locker room, a Coliseum-like proving ground teeming with alpha males right in front of what became Allen’s stall.
A moderately extensive investigation, completed to coincide with the Bills’ bye week, reveals an underappreciated yet prominent locker room pingpong subculture at One Bills Drive, one rife with intense rivalry, disagreement, big money, doctored equipment, winning streaks, wagered burritos and an unsolved mystery.
“It’s the lion’s den,” defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. “The dojo of pingpong. You’ve got to respect it.”
Maybe the pingpong table has nothing to do with what happens on the field, but Bills players tout the table's presence and the camaraderie it engenders as being critical to mental health and functioning at a high level throughout the workweek, if not on game days.
“It’s a competitive thing,” Allen said. “Guys really take it seriously. It’s a thing to kind of decompress and relax and still be involved in sport, you know? Literally, guys from different places, different parts of the locker room are coming to the table in front of my locker to play and they’re talking and people are sitting down and watching sometimes and they’re talking. It just kind of brings people together. As small as it may sound, it’s just kind of a cool thing to have in the locker room.”
Bills team chaplain Len Vanden Bos, who grew up playing the game with his dad and four brothers and coached football at Division III Wheaton (Ill.) College, has used pingpong to establish relationships with players and impart valuable lessons.
“Pingpong is like life. Right?” Vanden Bos said.
He’s being sincere.
“Rule No. 1 in pingpong is very similar, I think, to one of the top rules in life, which is ‘Don’t beat yourself,’ ” Vanden Bos said. “I hold my own on the table because I let the other person beat himself. I just get the ball back. I like to win by playing defense. Now every once in a while, there will be somebody that I’ll come across who has a similar style, and now I’m going to have to play some offense, which I love to play a little offense. But primarily, I like to let people beat themselves. Which is like life. Right? You show up. Don’t beat yourself. Be consistent. You’re going to beat 90 percent of the people out there. It’s the other 10 percent. That’s what separates you from good to great.”
Kyle Williams is the undisputed champion, the king of the hill.
The 13-year NFL veteran, who owns the Bills franchise record for sacks and football games played among defensive tackles, lords over the pingpong table like a kingpin, having never lost a game to any current player in the locker room. He’s gone virtually unchallenged since tight end Nick O’Leary was released in September.
“Nobody here has gotten close,” Williams said. “My only competition was O’Leary and he left.”
Williams described what sets him apart from the pack.
“Hand-eye coordination. It’s called talent. Some people got it, some people don’t,” he said. “The problem is all these guys play pingpong and I play table tennis. That’s why we’re different.”
Williams is known for his “custom” paddle, which, as it turns out, is less customized than doctored. He prefers the world “personalized.” He simply ripped the padding from its face and wrapped it in tape.
Any player worth his salt has his own paddle.
“If you want to play with the big dogs, you’ve got to buy your own paddle,” guard Wyatt Teller said. “That’s a fact. I had to borrow one for a little bit, and then I had to go out and buy one.”
He was terribly embarrassed.
“It’s like using another man’s pads. You don’t do that,” Teller said. “C’mon. It’s like wearing another man’s helmet. It just doesn’t happen.”
There’s a debate as to whether fullback Patrick DiMarco or kicker Stephen Hauschka is the second-best player in the locker room since O’Leary’s departure.
“Hauschka, he’s got his own paddle with conditioner spray. He has a whole paddle kit,” DiMarco said. “So it’s tough to compete with that, especially when I have a free paddle. I have my own, but it came in a set when I got my table back home.
“I think Eddie spent like $100 on his paddle to try to help himself climb the rankings. But, I mean, when you just talk about raw talent, you talk about a guy like Kyle Williams or myself.”
DiMarco argues that much like in actual tennis, Hauschka drops in the rankings due to inactivity, since he only plays sporadically.
Nathan Peterman was widely considered the fourth-best pingpong player on the team before being released Monday.
DiMarco and Peterman played a series of three games every Saturday, with the loser required to buy the winner Chipotle on road trips.
“I’ve had free lunch I think four weeks in a row,” DiMarco said before the Bills routed the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. “So I’m living pretty good right now.”
There was no consensus as to the fifth-best player.
Allen insists he not only belongs in the discussion, but ranks as high as No. 2 behind Williams.
“Pat hasn’t beaten me in about a month and a half,” Allen said, but he admits he hasn’t played competitive pingpong since spraining the elbow in his throwing arm against the Houston Texans on Oct. 14. "He’s champing at the bit to come get me. I know it. And that’s why he’s probably not putting me in his top five.”
Allen has played Peterman head-to-head, proving he’s better than the consensus No. 4 player, right?
“Yeah. It didn’t work out for me,” Allen said. “But listen, I’m thinking transitive property. I beat Pat. Pat beats Nate all the time. Therefore, it’s like the Pythagorean Theorem, right? A squared plus B squared equals C squared. I’m just putting it together and that’s how we’re rolling.”
What was Allen’s record against Peterman?
“It’s not important. The important thing is, I’m getting better,” Allen said. “I beat Pat. He hasn’t beaten me in a month and a half. And, yeah. Nobody has beaten me in a month and a half. So it’s been great. It’s been a good run.”
Allen said he’s nevertheless eager to be medically cleared to play football – and pingpong – following the bye week.
“Now I’ve got to go destroy everybody,” he said. “I’ve got to be put in some top fives.”
Allen acknowledged he played two games left-handed since his injury and won both, which was confirmed by a team spokesperson. The QB shared the names of the players he defeated but requested that his opponents’ identities remain confidential in order to maintain their dignity.
There is, however, an actual mystery.
The pingpong table used to be situated East and West, but early last week was turned to face North and South.
Yarbrough likes it better this way.
“Just a different outlook, a different scheme, gives a little bit more area for both people, the ball doesn’t go into anyone’s locker as much,” he said.
But DiMarco doesn’t care for it.
“I’m not a fan of whoever switched the table around,” he said, eager to identify the culprit. “I thought we had a security camera that solely watched the pingpong table. But I guess somebody took it down.”
Surely someone with a nearby locker would have seen something.
Who turned the table?
“I don’t know,” Allen said, breaking into a wry smile. “But the tables have turned.”