Mac Engel

How ex-TCU teammates pushed the Bills to the playoffs

Former TCU teammates reunited: Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (left) and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton during their game in 2015 in Buffalo. Dalton’s last-minute touchdown pass in the regular season finale put Hughes’ Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Former TCU teammates reunited: Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes (left) and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton during their game in 2015 in Buffalo. Dalton’s last-minute touchdown pass in the regular season finale put Hughes’ Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. AP

Jerry Hughes has a special message for his former college quarterback, Andy Dalton:

“I thank him from the bottom of my heart. Myself and all of the Buffalo Bills and the Bills Mafia thank him,” Hughes said. “Next time we get down to Fort Worth, we’re having a big steak dinner on me. We’re pulling out all of the stops.

“We expected a first down, and he delivered a touchdown strike that sent our locker room sky high.”

By now, the world has seen the viral videos of the celebration that Dalton’s touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens started in the Buffalo Bills’ locker room. If you haven’t seen it, Google “Bills locker room celebration.” The videos are infectious fun.

The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, but this is the special story of ex-TCU teammates helping one another and a fan base opening its wallets in turn.

Hughes was one year ahead of Dalton at TCU. The two played together in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl during Hughes’ senior season. About 10 days ago, Hughes sent his buddy a text.

In order to make the playoffs, Hughes’ Bills had to defeat Miami, and then needed Dalton’s Bengals to win in Baltimore. The Bengals had been eliminated for a few weeks, and the Ravens just needed to win as home favorites to secure the final AFC playoff berth.

“I sent Andy a text to wish him well and just to go out there and play well,” Hughes said in a phone interview this week. “I had faith in him. There wasn’t too much doubt, and the way the game unfolded was perfect. He had quite the game, too.”

Most rational people didn’t have faith in Andy Dalton and the Bengals this season. Doubt was in abundance.

The Bills defeated the Dolphins in Miami, but still needed the Ravens to lose. But it didn’t look too promising.

Down three and facing a fourth-and-12 at midfield with 58 seconds remaining, Dalton hit receiver Tyler Boyd over the middle for a first down. He ran the remaining 20-plus yards for the game-winning touchdown.

“I just thought he would get a first down,” Hughes said.

Hughes was standing in the middle of the Bills’ locker room watching the game with the team’s traveling party. When Boyd scored, the Bills celebrated even more than the Bengals.

“I was right there in the thick of it,” Hughes said. “I was recording it, and sharing it with everybody. It was incredible.”

The win put the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999, snapping the longest postseason drought in North American sports. They play at Jacksonville at 12:05 p.m. Sunday.

Celebrations throughout Buffalo started almost immediately, and when the Bills’ charter plane landed, thousands dealt with the snow to greet their new playoff team.

“I don’t think this streak had really hit me until this happened,” said Hughes, who has been with the team since 2013 after spending the first three years of his career with the Indianapolis Colts. “When you’re in a season you just have tunnel vision. We got to the airport and it’s 5-degree weather. People are throwing snowballs. It was amazing. It’s something I’ll never experience again. It was overwhelming.”

Around that time, a Buffalo Bills fan took to Twitter to thank Dalton.

Bills fan Kevin Forrest of Grand Island, Neb., sent Dalton’s foundation $30, according to a story in the Buffalo News. Forrest challenged Bills fans to donate to Dalton’s foundation as a thank you for the win.

“Show Andy Dalton some love,” Forrest tweeted.

Bills fans began to donate money to his foundation by the tens of dollars. Then the hundreds. Now we’re into the hundreds of thousands.

J.J. Watt style, Dalton has taken to Twitter to update the figures: As of Wednesday, he said his foundation has received donations from 14,000 people totaling $315,000.

Duff’s restaurant in Buffalo, via the Bills, sent the Bengals 1,440 wings, 90 pounds of celery, 30 pounds of carrots, six gallons of blue cheese and nine gallons of Duff’s wing sauce.

Bills’ fans also donated more than $50,000 to Boyd’s cause: The Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletic Association.

Just imagine if they won a Super Bowl.

Despite the considerable adjustment to living in the snow, which Buffalo could list as an export, Hughes is enjoying all of this.

“The snow is quite a transition. I joked with my sister we would see a white Christmas and love to experience that. To go through it, it’s quite tedious,” said Hughes, who is from Sugar Land. “It’s fun to watch on TV until everything you do turns into a full body workout.”

A first round pick of the Colts in 2010, Hughes’ career traveled nowhere in his first three seasons. He started just seven times with the Colts, who had him out of position at outside linebacker.

Not until he went to Buffalo in 2013 did he look like the player who was one of the nation’s better defensive ends in his final two years at TCU.

He has appeared in 79 of 80 games for the Bills, and has started the past four years.

“My entire career hasn’t worked out the way I thought it would. I thought I would be a running back and scoring touchdowns,” said Hughes, who was a running back in high school until TCU coach Gary Patterson changed his position. “Now, I chase quarterbacks. I’m excited and blessed and I’ve enjoyed this ride.”

The ride includes going back to the playoffs with the Bills on a TD pass made possible from Hughes’ TCU quarterback.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof