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Bills' undrafted rookies recall phone calls that changed their lives

From working at a hot dog stand to dancing at a wedding to a long walk around Tuscaloosa, the six undrafted rookies on the Bills' roster had to find a way to deal with the likelihood they'd be passed over on April 28, the final day of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Eight months later, they now have the opportunity of a lifetime.

With Buffalo eliminated from playoff contention and using the stretch run to get a good look at the back end of its roster, the six who saw playing time in a 14-13 victory against the Detroit Lions last week can continue to earn snaps over the final two games of the regular season on Sunday at New England and the following weekend at home against Miami.

“That’s a blessing. That’s strong, man,” undrafted rookie wide receiver Robert Foster said. “It’s not just for us. It’s for the people that’s in this year’s draft. Regardless if you get drafted or not, we are a testimony for the people that don’t get drafted for next year. I just want them to understand that anything that you put your mind to, anything that you believe in, you can accomplish.”

This week, The Buffalo News asked each to reminisce about their draft experiences.

ROBERT FOSTER, wide receiver, Alabama

Foster was considered one of the top wide receivers in the nation coming out of high school.

But he managed just 35 catches for 389 yards and three touchdowns in four seasons at Alabama, then spent the final day of the draft lying in bed in his apartment in Tuscaloosa with the TV off.

“I didn’t watch the draft because I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted,” Foster said. “So what’s the point of watching it if I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted? I knew at the end of the day I was going to have to work regardless of where I ended up signing, and that’s just how I approached it.”

His parents were back home watching every selection, and his mom called every other round.

He said he was OK.

“Because at the end of the day, I know how God works,” Foster said. “You know what I mean? He already has my life designed out, so I’m just living it. I’m doing what he wants me to do. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t mad or nothing. Everybody’s got their life designed out. You’ve just got to take advantage of it.”

The 6-foot-2 receiver had options as a free agent after running a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine. He chose the Bills.

“I noticed that Buffalo didn’t have that much speed, so I just wanted to contribute and see what I could do to help them,” Foster said.

Foster made the 53-man roster out of training camp but was released and spent time on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster on Nov. 10. He’s come on strong since, with at least 90 receiving yards in four of the last five games. He has 19 catches for 468 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Foster said he didn’t celebrate after agreeing to sign with the Bills.

“Celebrate for what?” Foster said. “I didn’t get drafted. It was just another opportunity. I’m really just day by day, man. I kind of just live and continue to work. I’m real simple.”

Bills running back Keith Ford (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

 KEITH FORD, running back, Texas A&M

Ford was nervous about the draft and didn’t want to watch, so he decided to help his parents in Houston.

“We have this little hot dog stand called ‘Happy Hotdogs,’ Ford said. “It’s like this little business that my dad created when I was in college, and I used to come home and want a little bit of extra money – $20 an hour my dad was paying me for like four or five hours, so I’d make $100 a day. It was just a little bit of extra money.”

Ford was one of the top running back prospects in the nation coming out of high school. He spent two seasons at Oklahoma before transferring to Texas A&M, where he rushed for 1,217 yards and 18 touchdowns on 265 carries in 26 games.

But the 5-11, 215-pound running back wasn’t invited to the Combine and wasn’t projected to be taken in the draft.

“I didn’t watch any of it at all,” Ford said. “Regardless of what happened, I just wanted to keep working and keep my mind off it. I didn’t want to hope for something that wasn’t going to come.”

He made the decision, weeks in advance, to spend the day working alongside his parents.

The Raiders were the first to call, offering a tryout at rookie minicamp. The Bills rang his phone next, and he accepted their offer on the spot. He parents beamed with pride.

Then he returned to slinging hot dogs.

“I just kept working,” Ford said.

Bills linebacker Mike Love. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

MIKE LOVE, defensive end, South Florida

Love spent the day surrounded by family and fielding phone calls while getting ready for his cousin’s wedding in Tampa.

“We were drinking a little bit while we were waiting, so it was kind of fun,” Love said. “We had the TV on, too. It was exciting, honestly like the greatest time of my life. Even though I didn’t get the call that I wanted, I still got a lot of attention during the draft, which was helpful.”

The 6-4, 266-pound Love had surgeries on both knees and a broken right foot during his college career, but he managed 8½ sacks over his final two seasons and was projected as a possible seventh-round pick.

Love alerted his cousin that he might be drafted that day or end up signing with a team as a free agent.

“I told her news was going to happen, so she knew,” Love said. “My phone was bugging and luckily they didn’t start yet. Once I got the call from the Bills, the wedding started after that, so it was like perfect timing.”

Love said he chose Buffalo because he wanted to play in a 4-3 defensive front.

What he didn’t want was to steal his cousin’s thunder.

“It wasn’t my party. That’s the thing,” Love said. “I wanted everyone to know, I told them, even though I may get drafted or sign with a team today, this whole event ain’t about me. It’s about my cousin, so we’re going to keep it that way, and she enjoyed her time. She was proud of me, but she knew it was about her. She got married; her cousin got to the NFL. It was icing on the cake.”

Detroit Lions wide receiver Andy Jones catches a touchdown pass in front of Bills defensive back Levi Wallace in the second quarter on Dec. 16, 2018, at New Era Field in Orchard Park. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

LEVI WALLACE, cornerback, Alabama

Wallace had people at his house, but he wasn’t among them for long.

“I couldn’t watch the TV,” Wallace said. “I was afraid to watch the TV. Just a bunch of nerves, really, and just hoping for the best.”

Instead of entertaining, he slipped out the door and spent a chunk of the afternoon alone, walking around Tuscaloosa with his phone in his hand, hoping to get a call.

Wallace had walked onto the Alabama football team at the urging of his father, who passed away from ALS in 2014. He spent two years on the scout team before earning a scholarship and eventually starting his senior year. In 2017, Wallace led the Crimson Tide with 15 pass breakups and contributed 48 tackles, including 4½ for loss, and two sacks.

He was projected as a possible seventh-round pick, but the draft came and went.

“I remember not getting my name called. That’s what I remember,” Wallace said.

Of course, the phone eventually rang.

Wallace was promoted from the Bills’ practice squad on Nov. 6, after the team released Phillip Gaines, and has started the last five games. He has 22 tackles and two pass breakups.

“I think everything happens for a reason and God has a purpose for me and I’m supposed to be here,” Wallace said.

Corey Thompson (left) makes a tackle with Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White against the Lions on Dec. 16, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

COREY THOMPSON, linebacker, LSU

Thompson’s dad, who built a career selling medical equipment and pharmaceuticals and often played golf with prospective clients, used to take him to the driving range all the time as a kid.

So Corey and about a dozen of his family members and friends returned to those roots, rather than watching the draft.

“We ended up going to Top Golf, just having fun, hanging out,” he said.

Thompson had durability concerns after missing two of his six seasons at LSU with a torn ACL and broken leg, and he had only one season of experience playing linebacker after converting from safety for his senior season. He managed 43 tackles, including seven for loss, and six sacks in 12 games. But he wasn’t projected to be drafted.

He watched the first round, then stopped for the rest of the weekend.

“I felt like if I would have kept watching, it would just raise my anxiety and have me worried,” Thompson said, “so I just took my mind off of it.”

Thompson has five tackles in four games with the Bills, including four stops in a career-high 20 snaps in the victory against the Lions.

“It’s hard to win in the NFL, so being able to do that was awesome. I’m glad to be a part of it,” Thompson said. “I’m thankful that I’m a part of this team, and I’ll do everything possible I can to help us win.

“Coming from OTAs, rookie minicamp, trying to learn the plays and figure this thing out and how to become a professional, there’s a big transition. We’ve come a long way. All the rookies. Drafted, undrafted, we’ve all come a long way.”

Ike Boettger, left, works with Vladimir Ducasse at minicamp. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

IKE BOETTGER, guard, Iowa

Boettger missed most of his senior season with an Achilles injury that required surgery but was projected as a possible late-round pick.

Still, he didn’t want to get his hopes up, even as his family, his fiancée and her parents gathered at his house to watch the draft.

“I was pretty confident I wasn’t getting drafted,” Boettger said. “There was talk between fifth and seventh round with some teams, but I didn’t really have a great feeling about it with that injury. I performed at Pro Day, but I didn’t do anywhere close to what I would have done if I was healthy, obviously six months after surgery. But I knew I’d have free agent options and was just trying to pick the right one.”

Boettger said he didn’t pay much attention to the TV.

“It’s not how I would have dreamed it to go, but that’s just the way it was,” Boettger said.

He began discussing free agent options with his agent midway through the sixth round, and how that was better than being picked.

“Definitely better at that point, for sure,” Boettger said. “I think anything after the fifth round, it’s nice to be able to choose your best fit, so I thought that was really nice and that’s what my agent had told me going into it.”

Boettger said he had offers from nearly a half-dozen teams and ended up with about 20 to 30 minutes to make a life-altering decision. He said his agent recommended the Bills, primarily for the opportunity to learn from offensive line coach Juan Castillo.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I trusted him to make the right choice,” Boettger said. “It would have been cool to be drafted, but there’s definitely benefits to not.”

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