The Bills had their best season since 1993 winning the AFC East and 15 total games. Having that type of success in a normal season isn't easy, add in a pandemic and that success becomes even harder to reach. It all wouldn't have been possible without the small army of people working behind the scenes to make it all happen.
The offices at One Bills Drive closed on March 13, 2020. As we packed up our belongings right before free agency was set to start, most of us imagined we would be out of the office for two weeks once this newly introduced virus calmed down. Little did we know, some of us would be working from home for an entire year.
"Thinking back to a year ago, none of us knew what to expect". Bills Director of Human Resources and Infection Control Officer Barb Evans explained looking back on the Buffalo Bills decision to shut their doors. "None of us could have anticipated what this evolved into."
League protocols and new responsibilities
Once it was obvious COVID-19 would impact the NFL season, the league quickly began to figure out how and if a season could proceed during a pandemic. The league called on each team to be a part of the process by creating an Infection Response Team (IRT) headed by an Infection Control Officer (ICO). Barb Evans, the Director of Human Resources, was named the ICO for the season. Evans, the IRT and a handful of other people involved with the team would be in charge of enforcing league protocols and limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the season.
"Going into the season, we expected that it was likely we were going to have a positive case," Evans explained. "Our focus was to keep the team and staff safe, to prevent an outbreak at the facility, and play a full season of football."
Evans and Laura Young were two women who played key roles in making sure the Bills had a safe season. Young is the coordinator of player services in a normal year and works with players and their families in the transition to Buffalo along with assisting the player development team in the daily needs for players. She continued to do that last season and, like many others, added many responsibilities having to do with the pandemic to her plate. This all ramped up when players showed up for training camp in late July.
"When the season started and we began bringing players back, I was asked to be one of our covid protocol coordinators and would be handling the daily staff and player tier and testing schedules for the building," Young said. "I was fortunate to have Ryan Moore (COVID Protocol Coordinator) helping with our daily contact tracers. Once games started, I worked alongside the NFL in managing all testing and scheduling for our gameday assistants.
"Nicole Hendricks in our PR department was key in making sure all the gameday staff were credentialed and cleared before access the stadium. None of this could have happened without Ryan and Nicole helping all season long."
Long nights, little sleep and constant communication
Like Young, Evans added to her lengthy list of things to accomplish every day as well by managing everyone who came in and out of the complex and making sure they were adhering to league guidelines and protocols. This meant working all hours of the night and morning to ensure results were negative before people could enter the complex.
"If there was a positive, Nate [Breske], Dr. [Thomas] White and I would receive a positive test alert notification in the middle of the night," Evans explained. "I don't think I slept through the night for six months. I woke up several times each night to see if we received a notification.
When we did receive a positive test, I began contact tracing immediately, even if it meant looking at our contact tracing data at 3 or 4 in the morning. It was important for us to be able to identify any close contacts quickly."
Evans and Young were in communication with each other throughout the day often times starting their morning with a text or call and ending it the same way. Young was astonished at how Evans was able to juggle multiple Zoom calls a day relating to COVID-19 while quickly communicating new league protocols to those who needed to know.
"She was the one that made sure when the protocols came in, we got it and understood it," Young said of Evans. "She set up and made sure that we as an organization were aware of what needed to be done."
"I think the role of the ICO was critical and I think that there couldn't have been anybody better. Barb has a calm demeanor, is easygoing, a good communicator and was not afraid to step up when the time needed to happen."
It wasn't a simple task overseeing and scheduling the testing of more than 200 people a day for more than six months. Young was able to do that and manage those who were coming in and out of town for games.
"Nobody works harder than Laura," Evans shared. "We needed somebody like that in this role and she exemplifies a tremendous work ethic. She will do anything necessary and put in any amount of effort to getting the job done.
"On rainy, cold, windy days Laura's standing out at the testing trailer making sure that guys are pulling in and know where to go. The guys who needed to do a rapid test for whatever reason, Laura's out there making sure she gets the results immediately and can communicate them. I am grateful we had an amazing team that worked together this season, and Laura was a big part of that."
An irreplaceable bond formed through the pandemic season
The success of the season was the perfect way to encapsulate all the hard work that went in to making the season come to life. With the long hours, sleepless nights and constant digestion of updated protocols came an appreciation of the tireless teamwork.
"One of the greatest attributes of this organization is the people I get to work with on a daily basis," Young said. "Each day we needed to set up and take down about 400 tables and chairs, move video equipment and pipe and drape so that we could have walk-through and practice. It was an all-hands-on-deck approach with strength and conditioning, trainers, equipment, operations, PR, coaches and video all pitching in to get it done.
"That teamwork and camaraderie is a reflection of the selflessness of people in this organization."
"Everyone knew what was at stake," Evans explained. "We knew what kind of season we could have if we followed the protocols. It was an honor to be part of the team that was trusted to facilitate those and contribute to the success of this past season. And the other benefit is the relationships, collaboration, and teamwork. Going through this incredible undertaking with a great group of people, and the relationships that are created are special."
The group grew to have an irreplaceable bond that was full of grinders who defied the odds of having an NFL season in the middle of a pandemic.
Setting an example for women
Several women who were a part of that team helped make everything run smoothly and efficiently. They look at the Bills as an organization that champions for women.
"The Bills are fortunate to have great leaders in Kim Pegula, Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott," Evans explained. "They believe in the importance of having women in a variety of roles in the Bills organization."
Reflecting on a time where women would not even be allowed to be in those roles, Young is thankful for the trailblazers that allowed her to have a job in the NFL.
"I look at the women who I worked with at other teams and here at the Bills who set the groundwork for me," Young said. "They are the ones who said 'Yes we can.' We have great women in this organization who do exceptional things on a daily basis that help in the organization's success. We are all paving more paths for future generations."
Evans is paving a path for her children to view women in a way that wouldn't have existed when women were first breaking into the NFL.
"I feel blessed to work in an organization where women are empowered, supported and valued," Evans expressed. "And we have so many amazing and talented women in all areas of our building who play important roles. As a mom it's important for me to demonstrate what a strong professional woman can look like.
"I have two daughters, ages 19 and 21, and a son, age 16. To show my daughters, and also my son, what equality looks like and for me to represent that to them is inspiring."
During Women's History Month we are proud of people like Laura Young, Barb Evans and so many other women who played important roles behind the scenes to help a season happen when many thought it wouldn't. It led to an AFC East title, a 13-3 season and a heck of a lot of hope for the future.