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How Bills fans made Buffalo a special place to play for Aaron Williams and others


Players come. Players go.

That, unfortunately, is the cold hard truth about professional football.  

The Bills have dealt with some player moves this week - Aaron Williams retirement announcement and Eric Wood's statement that his playing days are over.  And both cases bring to light the difficulty players have in ending their NFL careers and what they take from their time in Buffalo.

Former safety Aaron Williams formalized his retirement decision this week, one season after his last game in a Bills uniform. Williams waited one full year from his last game to announce his retirement and he did it in a reflective, thoughtful post on The Players Tribune website.

Wood's announcement brought several past and present players to Buffalo on Monday, and some of them, most notably former Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, used the occasion to reflect on their time with the Bills and what their experience in Buffalo meant to their careers.

For Aaron Williams, "Buffalo will always be the place where I grew up—where I became a man." That's what he wrote in his open letter to Bills fans in The Players Tribune.

Williams, the Bills second round pick in 2011, apologized to Bills fans in his open letter. He said it took him two seasons in Buffalo to take a good look around at the support provided to Bills players by the community and how much his interaction with fans meant to him.

"I honestly wish I could have those years back," he wrote. "To do over. To do things the right way."

Williams says meeting young Bills fans a couple of years into his career, who sometimes wore his jersey and told him he was their role model, changed his perception of the city and his appreciation for Bills fans.

"The more time I spent out in the community," Williams wrote, "the more I realized that Buffalo is—well, it's just *Buffalo. *It's a blue-collar city. People work their asses off, and they love the Bills. I finally started to understand what an incredible responsibility it was to play for this football team."

For Ryan Fitzpatrick, returning to Buffalo to honor the end of Eric Wood's playing career meant returning to his favorite stop in his 13-year, 7-team journey around the NFL.

Appearing on The John Murphy Showthis week, Fitzpatrick told of being asked by his old high school in Arizona what team he would like to appear on a banner commemorating his NFL career.

"I gave them a picture of me in a Bills jersey," Fitzpatrick said. "When I think about my career, my four years here had more impact on me than anywhere else I've been."

"Buffalo is closest to my heart," Fitzpatrick said. "Even when they made the playoffs this year, I felt good when I saw that."

Fitzpatrick and Aaron Williams are not the first players to acknowledge their affection for Buffalo and Bills fans. But their comments came just days apart. And they both seem to embrace the notion that Buffalo is different, and it sneaks up on players when they least expect it.

It may not be the first NFL destination on the mind of rookie draft picks and veteran free agents when they survey the NFL landscape. But Williams points out that if you spend a little time with the Bills, and a little time in the Buffalo community, you will soon develop an attachment to the city and especially the fans. 

Aaron Williams thinks it's important that young Bills players are told that. And although he leaves the game with few regrets, he does wish he would have embraced Buffalo and the fans sooner. And he thinks players need to understand the fleeting nature of their careers.

"When we're in that business, playing, going to practice and meetings and game days—we really don't cherish the moment," he said. "We don't really see what it's like when it's taken away. You can tell a guy 'cherish the moment', but once that time is gone, it's like 'man, I wish I enjoyed that experience more.'"

Aaron Williams says the next chapter in his life is wide open. "I've always thought about going back to baseball," he says. "I thought about acting.  I thought about coaching. I have enough time, I'm still young.  We'll see where it takes me."

Ryan Fitzpatrick's immediate future is in football, at least for a couple of more years, he believes.

What is certain for both, and probably many more former Buffalo Bills, is that the relationships they made in Buffalo and the bond they developed with Bills fans will stay with them for a long time. It's an underrated and maybe unexpected benefit of playing in Buffalo.

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