On New Year’s Day, when we spoke by telephone less than 24 hours after throwing one of the biggest touchdown passes in Buffalo Bills’ history – in a game that didn’t even involve the Buffalo Bills – Andy Dalton failed to fully comprehend the impact of a single play.
Sure, he understood Buffalo fans were excited after he found Tyler Boyd with a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 with 43 seconds remaining in the season finale, knocking the Ravens from the playoff race and enabling the Bills’ to end their 17-year postseason drought.
It was obvious when he checked social media and discovered #billsmafia in high gear.
"I know just from my Twitter," Dalton told me at the time. "You would think I played for the Bills, the way the reaction was from my Twitter. I know there are a lot of appreciative people out there after we won yesterday."
Dalton didn’t have a clue just how much frustration and anguish had subsided with a single flick of the wrist, and a terrific play by Boyd, how people in Buffalo would keep a soft spot in their hearts for him, how they would embrace his cause because he inadvertently helped theirs, how they would give him their left arm because of what he did with his right.
Andy Dalton didn’t know Buffalo.
And now he does.
"I hear it all the time," Dalton told Vic Carucci in a story published Sunday in The Buffalo News. “Walking through an airport or something like that, I still get a random, 'Hey, I'm a Bills fan. Appreciate ya!' Stuff like that."
The unlikely friendship, consummated in Baltimore of all places, will be celebrated Sunday when the Bengals visit New Era Field for a preseason game against the Bills. Nobody should be surprised if Dalton receives a standing ovation, a full plate of Buffalove, when he takes the field. They might even cheer him if throws a touchdown pass against the Bills.
It is the preseason, after all.
Bills fans never have had a relationship with an opposing quarterback like the one they built with Dalton in the months that followed. Dalton will never buy another beer in Buffalo. Tom Brady? Fans would just assume dump a pitcher over his head after he tormented them for so many years.
Buffalo has had its share of sports problems. You need not be a card-carrying fan know it has never won a title in a major sport. Many lived through the grisly tales of defeat. When you add up the heartbreaking losses and Super Bowl infamy and extended playoff slumps, you wonder just how much a single fan base can endure.
One thing the region does get right, however, is the people. They are as humble as they are hopeful and would open their hearts to anyone willing to do the same for them. The cold weather in the winter comes with warm hearts. The region has long been known for its kindness ... so long as you’re not playing against the Bills in a meaningful game.
Dalton probably didn’t know that about Buffalo.
And now he does.
Money from Buffalo poured into his charity in $17 increments – a dollar for every year the Bills had missed the playoffs – after The Pass. The Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation, which is geared toward helping sick children, collected $170,000 in the first 48 hours.
A single gesture turned into a movement. Dalton collected more than $400,000 from Buffalo fans, enough for him to return the favor with a donation to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Who knew there would be a market for No. 14 Bills jerseys with the name “Dalton” on the back?
All that because one quarterback threw one pass, in a game involving two other teams, lifting the Bills into a wild-card playoff game, lifting the spirits of a tortured fan base, lifting two charities that lift others when they needed to be lifted most.
"It started at $15,000, then it was $25,000, then it was $50,000, then it was over $100,000," Dalton told The News. "And then it just kept going and going and going.”
Buffalo fans have come to know him over the past eight months and appreciate the person behind the player. He’s not just a quarterback for the other team. They learned he’s one of the good guys in sports, someone who cares about his family and community and does his part to help them.
It’s funny how the sports world works sometimes.
Dalton gave Bills fans The Pass, and they gave him a rare pass. No matter how many ways I tried to explain the impact he made on Buffalo, he never fully understood what it meant at the time.
Then again, how could he?
He didn’t know Buffalo.
And now he does.
"I know, it's crazy," Dalton said. "I've signed (many) 14 DALTON Buffalo Bills jerseys. And people are like, 'You'll never have to pay for anything when you go into Buffalo.'"