Bills rookie wideout Steve Johnson caught his first career touchdown pass Sunday in New Jersey. But Tuesday night, he got an even greater lift from a group of children from the Buffalo area.
Johnson and fellow Bills Toyota Rookie Club members C.J. Hawthorne, Chris Ellis, Demetrius Bell, Brandon Rodd, Bruce Hall, Reggie Corner, Marcus Buggs, Jonathan Stupar and Leodis McKelvin joined Bills veterans Kirk Chambers, Copeland Bryant, Felton Huggins, Blake Costanzo, Justin Jenkins and John DiGiorgio as they hosted nearly 100 children from the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County, Stones Buddies – Women's & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, Aspire, Northwest Buffalo Community Center, United Way, Gateway-Longview, Salvation Army and the Buffalo Public Schools at the Bills' Annual Holiday Party at One Bills Drive.
Johnson said the feeling of bringing joy to children surpasses the thrill of a touchdown catch any day of the week.
"Doing things on the field, that's my job, but this is something that I want to say is bigger because doing it on the field is just entertaining everyone else," Johnson said. "It's something bigger than just catching touchdown passes on the football field because you can't really communicate with the fans (on the field). Being here, saying 'Hi', hugging, it's much bigger."
Jennifer Yates of the United Way agreed. "They're extremely excited," she said. "I think they're more excited about the Bills than the presents. I think they just think they're here for the event. It will be exciting when they see they're getting presents."
Exciting it was. Dressed in their Bills jerseys and Santa Claus hats, the Rookie Club members, Bills veterans and Jills cheerleaders each named their favorite Christmas presents as children before encouraging the children to sing a special song to bring out a special man.
The children and parents, led by Buggs, broke out into their best rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" before Santa Claus made his appearance.
After reminiscing about his days as a child, Claus called on the current Rookie Club to carry the Bills into the next generation of success.
"This is the future of the Buffalo Bills," he said. "And they're going to give us all a big surprise next year."
Each child in the crowd received a personal gift, with some lucky children receiving brand new state-of-the-art bicycles.
Brian Mack said besides the presents, the true gift the Bills players give is themselves. He stressed the importance of the players giving their own time and serving as role models for children. Mack's son, Collin, attended the party and had to quit playing hockey because of his condition but remains undeterred, as he looks to pick up basketball.
"It's nice for the kids to have role models who are athletes," Mack said.
Salvation Army Major Robert Dixon agreed.
"It's a great opportunity to be associating with role models they would not see except on television," he said. "This is a great experience for them. Probably many of them have never been to a game. It's history. They can say they've been to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Thank God for the purpose they have to do this. They will be blessed. The rewards are beyond what I can experience."
Dixon said many of the children would normally only receive gifts through family assistance programs. Hawthorne said that is the main reason him and his fellow rookies want to be there for these children.
"We all want to feel like we're important in some aspect," he said. "We all want to feel like someone cares about us and this definitely shows them that someone does care."