ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Jordan Mills hunched over his binder, studying the Bills’ new playbook, 15 minutes before the start of Buffalo’s first team meeting during OTAs last spring. With a new general manager and head coach in town, OTAs marked the beginning of a stark regime change. Sean McDermott, the new coach, wandered over to the veteran tackle’s table and surprised Mills with a serious question. “Hey Jordan,” McDermott said. “Who is the most important person in your life right now? If you had to pick one that inspired you the most?”
“My dad,” Mills answered, almost automatically. This was an easy question for him.
“Do you mind talking about him in the team meeting?” McDermott asked.
What? Mills thought. Now this is different. Mills scrambled to send in a few photos of his dad, Oneal Mills Sr., to McDermott’s assistant, Matt Worswick, before the meeting started. McDermott, after giving his introductory talk, going through his plans for the season and screening some film, gave Mills his cue. The tackle walked to the front of the room to face his teammates. A photo of his dad appeared on screen behind him.
Mills began by describing what it was like to grow up in the one-stoplight town of Napoleonville, La., where he lived in a three-bedroom trailer with his mom and dad and six other siblings. Oneal ensured that his children had everything they needed, somehow, someway. He worked security at a small casino, and cut sugar cane during grinding season for extra money each fall. At one point during Jordan’s childhood, there was only one working bathtub in the trailer, and the nine-person household had to take turns using just the one tub. “But to me, I felt like it was a castle because I didn’t know any better,” Mills says.
A harsher reality set in when Jordan was in high school. One day during his junior year, he and his dad stopped at McDonald’s for lunch after a doctor’s appointment. They both ordered off the value menu. When the cashier announced the total, Oneal uncomfortably fished through his pockets and wallet, searching for a few extra dollars, some spare change. He didn’t have enough. The workers let them have the food, but as the father and son walked away with the tray of burgers and fries, Jordan overheard the workers behind the counter laughing and making fun of his dad. “That hit home,” he says. “I could have retaliated, but instead I swore to myself that my dad and mom wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever in life.”
Mills also told the group the favorite lesson his father would tell him him over and over again. Oneal would hand his son two books, a school textbook and the Bible, and tell him: These two things will take you anywhere. The simple illustration stuck.
“I always took school and football seriously every day,” Jordan says. “I used to wake up at 5:30, go to school, and I wouldn’t come home until 7:30 at night. I would stay after school and work, work, work to make sure I can get to college and make it here.”
As Mills related the tale of his upbringing to his teammates, he didn’t realize it was the start of new Bills tradition under McDermott: concluding team meetings by having a player talk about his life—personal stories of his upbringing, his motivations, his influences, what’s most important to him. Mills was nervous sharing a vulnerable part of his past, but when he was done he felt closer to his teammates. “It’s created a bond that I feel like no other team around this league has,” he says. “It’s really like we are brothers.”
Since the spring, McDermott has had 40 to 50 of these unorthodox sessions. Veteran players and young players alike say that they’ve never experienced anything like it in football. “I really think it is the bedrock of this team,” says veteran guard Richie Incognito. “One of the first things McDermott said when he first got here was, ‘We’re going to build this thing on love.’ When you talk about football, love isn’t a word we use, so when he said that he caught me off guard. And then we started doing this, and it all started making sense.”
“Everybody does a team outing, like going bowling, but nothing this intentional and this personal where you really get to know guys and relate to them and follow up with them,” says linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who has played for four different NFL teams.
And for a fragile 6-5 Bills team on the edge of playoff contention, such an exercise might be the glue that holds the team together, through major personnel moves and the recent starting quarterback drama.
McDermott’s idea stemmed from a name that teammate game he played with his defense in Carolina while coordinator there. The players loved trying to guess which teammate McDermott was describing based on the clues he fed them. In Buffalo, with a team all to himself for the first time, McDermott wanted to go deeper. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool for guys to get up and share their story of really what makes them go, what makes them get out of bed?” he says.
Each talk is a loosely structured 10-minute freestyle about what inspires a player, why he plays, who he’s playing for. Imagine it like the deep secrets and stories that are exchanged at summer camp, whispered around a crackling bonfire at night. Typically a player will use photos of his family as a guiding storyline. The talks are usually done without preparation or notes, since players rarely get more than a few hours notice from Worswick that they’re on that day.
“It’s like undivided attention when you’re up there,” fullback Mike Tolbert says. “Nobody is talking, nobody is doing anything. It’s a great feeling to know that everybody in this building is respecting you at that moment.”
More often than not, a story brings its teller and his teammates to tears. Vlad Ducasse’s talk during Week 10 was typical. The 6’5”, 329-pound guard is surprisingly soft-spoken, and he quietly began by introducing his teammates to his family, pointing out the pictures of his wife, son, mother and mother-in-law. He spoke about the challenge of immigrating from Haiti, acclimating to life in Stamford, Conn., and learning English at age 14. When Ducasse came to the picture of his mother-in-law, with whom he was very close, he abruptly shifted away from the crowd to face a wall. This was the hard part. He knew he might cry, and seeing the reaction of his teammates would only make him cry harder.
Ducasse took a deep breath and explained that one night during the 2015 season, while he was playing for the Bears, his mother-in-law called to catch up. He was exhausted from practice that day, so he told her he couldn’t talk and would call her first thing the next morning. “And then the next morning, we found out she passed,” Ducasse says.
When he and his wife went through her mom’s belongings, they found a text message she had drafted on her phone. I love you guys, it read. “She never got to send it,” Ducasse says. “She was sending the text, and the words were just there. So we just kept it like that.”
Ducasse’s point: Time is precious. Always take the opportunity to tell your loved ones what they mean to you.
While Ducasse faced away from his team, he didn’t see his quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, also wiping away tears. Taylor lost his two great-grandmothers, Gran Gran and Granny Lee, pillars of his family, in 2012, his second year in the NFL, and he related to Ducasse’s experience of losing a strong woman in his life. Taylor now has a portrait of each of his two great-grandmothers tattooed on the left side of his back. “Yeah, I shed a couple tears this morning,” Taylor said the day of Ducasse’s talk. “Vlad’s situation definitely reminded me of my grandmas. It was tough to hear. Once you know about your teammate, about their family, you know one of the reasons why they play the game, and what inspires them, it brings a brotherhood together.”
Lighthearted moments do break up the heavy stories of adversity and loss. When third-string quarterback Joe Webb took the floor, he introduced his teammates to his large and very Southern family back home in Alabama. Alright, this is my mom, this is my dad, my grandfather, this is my sister and all her kids, this is my brother. Oh, and this is my fat cousin.
The room burst out in laughter. “I’m just speaking the truth,” Webb says. “That’s what we called him all my life, fat cousin. I’m just trying to express to my teammates who I am, my background, and maybe they’ll get to know me a whole lot better.”
Receiver Jordan Matthews took a risk when his turn arrived in Week 4. Matthews sent in the usual pictures—his mom and dad, brother, fiancée. And then … a photo of a cross, to represent his Christian faith. “When I sent them the cross, I was like, I wonder if they’re going to let me talk about [my faith]?” Matthews says. “Because this is essentially who I am. My fiancée, death is going to do-us-part someday. I love my parents, they are getting older, one day they’re going to be gone. But [my faith] is going to be forever, that is eternity. So that’s what fuels me when nobody is looking.”
Matthews came from Philadelphia in a trade during training camp, and he says hearing his teammates’ life stories has helped him to make up ground with his new team after his late start with the Bills. “Now that I’ve heard their stories, when I see them throughout the day, I’m actually thinking about this at times,” he says. “Like, okay, I know what this guy is playing for. I know what motivates him. It’s cool to get to that deeper level of understanding of the guys you’re around.”
Each Bills player has his own message to impart to his teammates. Incognito explained the importance of getting another opportunity after his suspension in Miami for his involvement in the Jonathan Martin bullying incident: “Make the most of a second chance. I shared to the team about climbing a peakless mountain, just constantly improving, getting up to the turn and looking up and just knowing that you can just keep going up and up and never stop working on yourself, never finish evolving.”
Center Eric Wood lost his younger brother Evan, who died from complications of cerebral palsy when he was 11 years old. Evan is now the inspiration behind Wood’s charity work helping families of sick children.
Tolbert was born with a hole in his heart and spent the first two and half months of his life in the hospital. His parents weren’t sure he’d make it out or live a normal life. “I am grateful, and every day I treat this like a blessing,” Tolbert says. “That’s why I’m always joking, having a good time, because I am not supposed to be here, literally.”
Little by little, McDermott is building a new culture in Buffalo. He’s mixed up locker stall arrangements, done away with video games in the locker room and, along with general manager Brandon Beane, is remaking the core of the roster. Buffalo traded away two of its former first-round picks this season—receiver Sammy Watkins was sent to the Rams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars. Buffalo traded for Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin just before the trade deadline in late October.
“One thing [McDermott] has been vocal about with the moves that he’s made, is if anybody has a problem with them, to go and talk to him,” Ducasse says. “I don’t think anybody has problems with all the moves because we are trusting the process. He has the bigger picture, and he’s trying to help us see it. Bit by bit every week, it’s like we are drawing the picture ourselves.”
After a surprising, possibly season-rescuing win at Kansas City last Sunday, the Bills are back in the AFC wild-card race. McDermott sacrificed an important chance to win in Week 11 with his decision to bench Taylor in favor of untested rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman. The coach isn’t necessarily playing to win now with this current roster. He’s building for the future, and the weekly life story is another way he’s working on that.
Coaches have long tested unconventional tactics to unite their players, from Navy SEAL-inspired workouts to team paintball outings. Players often see these as elaborate charades, but in this case, player after player in Buffalo said that McDermott’s take on team building is crucial, especially given of the dramatic roster turnover. Only six players drafted between 2013 and 2016 are still on the Bills roster.
“We’ve had such massive turnover that it’s a tool to help breed chemistry and camaraderie,” says Alexander. “We have 30-plus new guys. How do you create that brotherhood organically in a quick period of time?”
While a few members of the coaching staff have taken their turn, McDermott himself hasn’t done so yet. He prefers to let his players use the time. With five games left in the season, five more players will tell their stories—and possibly more if the Bills make it to the playoffs. Regardless of how this season ends, players are sold on the new tradition.
“Every team should do it,” Matthews says. “Every business, every walk of life should do it. I don’t think there is enough emphasis on people. We don’t see people. We just see titles and labels, but there is a human being there. When you can start seeing somebody for who they really are, instead of just their performance, it helps relationships grow that much better.”
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