In a year where a virtual NFL draft and offseason have become ordinary for rookies entering the league, it's even more important now to lean on current or former players as they begin to navigate through their first year. Luckily for the Bills 2020 rookie class, four out of the seven drafted rookies have family ties or mentors who have played football on a professional or collegiate level.
Bills rookie wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins looks to his father for advice. Hodgins' father, James, played in the NFL for eight years. James had to earn his way onto a roster after being an undrafted free agent. From this experience, James taught his son it doesn't matter what round you get drafted rather it's the impact you make once in the league that has the lasting effect.
"He's had a huge influence and he has definitely helped me out a lot during this process," Hodgins said. "Just kind of preparing me for what the NFL is like, what to expect, how it's a business and how things are done. He has definitely helped me with the ins and outs of the game. He has been preparing me my whole life for this moment."
Bills rookie defensive end A.J. Epenesa has a similar role model to Hodgins. Epenesa's father, Eppy, was a walk-on at Iowa where A.J. eventually played his collegiate career as well. For Epenesa, his father's walk-on mentality influenced the way he approaches the game. In an article from The Athletic by Matthew Fairburn, Eppy explained the mindset he instilled in his children.
"There's nothing given," Eppy told Fairburn. "I always try to make sure my kids know that. When you go to these things, it doesn't matter how many stars are behind your name. You have to go over there and do the work. You have to work your butt off."
"No matter if it's in games, at camps, all this stuff growing up, just being able to show what you can do because of all the hard work you put in behind the scenes," A.J. explained. "That's kind of how it's been throughout my life. Trying not to be kind of showboaty and bright, kind of stick behind the scenes. That's really how it's been growing up and how it's been taught to me."
Rookie running back Zack Moss has two cousins who played in the NFL — Santana Moss and Sinorice Moss. Santana played in the NFL for 14 years and Sinorice had a four-year career in the league.
"I reached out to him and let him know, I've been there and done that," Santana Moss said. "So if you have any questions I said I'm here for you because I understand the process you're going through now and I'm willing to help you go down this journey."
"They've influenced my career by wanting to be another person in the family to do something very special, start something in my family, be a role model that kids can look up to—not just in my family but all over the world," Zack said. "Try to be one of the best players I can possibly be, that's the influence they've played on me watching them. Now it's my turn. It's really just a blessing."
Another player who has been asked to carry the torch for a different type of family is UCF grad Gabriel Davis. UCF has produced its share of talented receivers in recent years, including Davis and Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The two UCF alumni had the opportunity to connect this offseason to go over film, train and learn.
"We were talking about certain situations with football, film work and those types of things," Davis said. "The biggest thing we talked about was the body and the mind. How that is just as, if not more important than the actual on the field part of football."
In a video put together by NFL Media that highlighted their meeting, Marshall had some uplifting words for the rookie who broke several of Marshall's records at UCF.
"You have a bright future ahead of you," Marshall said. "I'm excited to watch you, I've been watching you for a couple years. You broke all my records, Mike Sims-Walker's records, Doug Gabriel's records at UCF and I expect you to do the same thing. Carry on that torch, wide receiver university. Come back and bring some other guys with you. All these experiences that you're having, come back and share with our guys because we need it."
For the rookies, the help and guidance from mentors gives them a sense of confidence to enter their first year in the league knowing they can play a vital role on their team.
"It just shows how far I can really take it," Davis said after training with Marshall. "It shows that I have people that are behind me and believe in me, trust in me and see something special. I just have to see the same things they're seeing. Just understand and know that I can become great just like him."
In a season where this rookie class has to open an NFL playbook for the first time virtually, a role model or someone to go to for help may be just what they need to believe in their dream. As they begin their first NFL season, they will follow in the footsteps to make those influences proud of their accomplishments.