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Inside the Bills: How Josh Allen formed a special bond with fans

If I ever make it big one day, Josh Allen thought to himself, I’m not going to act like that guy.

Growing up in Firebaugh, Calif., the Buffalo Bills’ rookie quarterback was a big San Francisco Giants fan. He recalled this week a moment that has shaped his approach ever since.

“I won't mention his name, but there was a pitcher for the Giants. He had a fantastic game and we were all excited,” Allen said. “We went down to the tunnel. There were maybe 15, 20 kids there — not a huge amount — and he came out of the locker room after he had changed. He was the last one to leave. We were all waiting there. He turned his head and walked straight the opposite direction. Didn't wave, didn't look, didn't say thank you. As a kid, I could never root for a guy like that again.

“I told myself if I got to be in this position, I'd go out of my way to do small things like that.”

Allen has lived up to his word in his first professional season. It was common to see him signing autographs after every practice of training camp for at least 45 minutes.

“I was that kid before,” Allen said. “I was in the same spot. I was looking up to guys, wanting to meet them and get to talk to them. I told myself if I ever got the opportunity to be in the NFL, I'd make sure that I would do the right things. If there was any kid that wanted to talk or have me sign something, that I was going to go out of my way to try and do that.”

Allen’s generosity particularly left an impression on Jordan Peterson, a 16-year-old from North Dakota who is a double lung transplant recipient and a huge Bills fan. That’s been passed down from his parents, Dan and Annette, both of whom grew up in Western New York — Dan graduated from Niagara Wheatfield and Annette from North Tonawanda.

“Her parents had original season tickets to the Buffalo Bills back in 1960 at the Rockpile,” Dan said of his wife. “So our families have been Bills fans our entire lives.”

A job opportunity took Dan to Fargo, N.D., in 1998.

“So we've been here the last 20 years, voices in the wilderness,” Dan said. “My boys have inherited that love of the Bills. They sit next to me on Sundays, and it's been a big part of our family.”

Josh Allen, the Bills' top 2018 draft pick, stands in the cotton fields at his family's farm in Firebaugh, Calif. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Suffering from cystic fibrosis, Jordan received a double lung transplant in 2011.

“When we got the news, it was so overwhelming, when they gave us all the statistics. At the time, for children with a lung transplant the five-year survival rate was — I remember distinctly them telling us — 38 percent,” Dan said. “So, my wife and I, it was a sobering day when we walked out of the hospital. We sat in the car, I can remember just being overwhelmed at the enormity of everything that we were hearing.

“And Jordan said, ‘Dad, what's wrong?’ I said, ‘Well, we have a lot to think about. A lot to pray about.’ And he said, ‘We have to do this. This is my only chance to have any life. There's nothing to think about, we have to do this.’ That was just his attitude about life.”

Jordan received his transplant on June 18, 2013. His first question to doctors after surgery was “Can I play sports again?”

At first, the answer was only noncontact sports. With no checking in squirts, that meant he could get back to playing hockey. As he kept going back for quarterly checkups, Jordan continued to ask the same question, “Can I play football?”

Finally, after two years of hearing no for an answer, doctors responded, “We’ll see.”

“He walked out of the room and Jordan looked at me and said, ‘He didn't say no, dad. I think there's a chance,’ ” Dan said. “They went back to the surgeons and said ‘Is there any reason why he can't play?’ And they said, ‘Well, not structurally.’ His sternum had been wired back together and was healed, so he didn’t have any higher risk of an injury that way. So he got permission and started playing sixth-grade football. So that's been a big thrill. He's our little ‘Rudy’ if you will.”

After he returned to Fargo following his surgery, Jordan was given a grand welcome at Oak Grove Elementary. North Dakota State football coach Craig Bohl praised Jordan at a school assembly, calling him a “true hero.”

When he appeared in two varsity games last season for Oak Grove Lutheran High School, the family believes Jordan became the first double lung transplant recipient in the country to play varsity high school football.

Bills General Manager Brandon Beane heard of Jordan’s story through a mutual acquaintance he shares with Dan. That led Beane to invite the family to the game against Minnesota. They had front-row seats on the 50-yard line, providing an excellent view of Allen’s now-famous hurdle of Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr.

“We all kind of stood up. My dad and I looked at each other like, ‘Did that just happen?’ It was incredible,” Jordan said. “I hope he never does it again, though.”

“He did tell me that,” Allen said with a laugh.

The next time Allen saw Jordan, who made a visit to the Bills’ facility in November, his cellphone case had “The Hurdle” on it.

“That was kind of cool,” Allen said. "Being in this position where I am, kids are looking up to me, it's extremely surreal. To be in this situation and to use our platform for good, it makes it all worthwhile.”

The Bills rolled out the red carpet for Jordan during his visit. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll let him call a few plays during practice. Coach Sean McDermott had his arm around Jordan as he addressed the team at the end of practice. The message was about overcoming adversity, pointing to Jordan as an example. After McDermott’s talk, Jordan broke down the team huddle.

“Micah Hyde came up to me and gave me a hug and we talked for a little bit. Coach McDermott was super nice,” Jordan said. “Zay Jones came up and gave me his gloves. Jordan Poyer gave me his cleats. Josh gave me his game cleats. Harry Phillips gave me his gloves. Mr. Pegula, he was super kind. Brandon Beane was super kind. Tre White, I met him and he's a character. He was super nice to me.”

“We just can’t thank the Bills enough. It was such an awesome experience,” Dan said. “Josh is just an incredible young man.”

The Peterson family had been fans of Allen dating back to his time at Wyoming, where he played for Bohl. Meeting him only reinforced that.

“He was extremely kind,” Jordan said. “He's a class act, I would say.”

During Jordan’s visit, he even pulled off a "Madden" video game victory over Allen.

“It was 21-20,” he said. “He had a chance to win but he choked. He kind of tripped on the 1-yard line I guess and then my defense stopped him. But he won on Sunday so that was the important thing.”

Reminded of the outcome, Allen largely declined comment.

“I don't want to talk about it,” he said. “He exploited me on a few plays, and I won't go into any further detail. The results were inconclusive, I still think. That's what we're saying.”

“Just to know that a type of kid like that is following me, it definitely puts things in perspective,” Allen said. “Being on this level, you can use your platform for a lot of good. Just to see his face brighten up, it was awesome. He thoroughly enjoyed his time out here, and I'm just glad I got to be a part of it.”

Hyde hosts ‘Kicks for Kids’

Bills safety Micah Hyde’s charitable foundation, IMagINe for Youth, hosted a Christmas party Thursday in the Dunn Tire Club at New Era Field. At the event, Hyde gifted 250 kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo with new sneakers.

“I’ve embraced this community like the community embraced me,” Hyde said. “My family got here over a year ago, and it's been all love. The people here are so nice, so respectful. So I try to give back as much as I can. Growing up, we never really had a lavish Christmas. There were never tons of presents around the tree and all that stuff. So getting ready for this, seeing all the shoes and knowing how the kids are going to react, it's just awesome to see.”

Hyde’s foundation, which he formed while in college, has held several events in Buffalo, including a back-to-school drive every fall. At Thursday’s party, kids got to meet Santa and enjoy pizza, a s'mores station and more.

“When I was younger, I had an opportunity to meet the varsity football or varsity basketball team. I could name the guys and everything. If an NFL player came, I would have lost it,” Hyde said. “To be able to put a smile on these kids’ faces is 100 percent the best part of the job.”

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