The biggest ovation at New Era Field in Buffalo on Sunday when the Bills play the Cincinnati Bengals in an otherwise innocuous preseason game probably will be for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
The NFL’s longest playoff drought came to an end in dramatic fashion, and Bills fans won’t soon forget where they were when it happened, writes Mike Rodak.
It might seem strange to see Dalton jerseys in an opposing stadium, not necessarily being worn by Bengals fans, but the tale of how it got to this point is both unexpected and wonderful. It’s about a Bills fan, living in America’s heartland, who tapped into his heart and touched off a campaign of donations that left Dalton and his wife, Jordan, in shock. And it’s why Jordan plans to fly to Buffalo on Sunday with the board members of the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation to present tablets to the pediatric ward of the Roswell Park Cancer Center.
Dalton was just doing his job seven months ago when he threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd to beat the Ravens on New Year’s Eve.
It was a game that would have been mostly forgotten in normal circumstance, except it happened to be the one scenario that would get the Bills into the playoffs after a 17-season drought.
The improbable play, which occurred on fourth-and-12 with 53 seconds left, was a nice way for the Bengals to close out a difficult season. Jordan, who was watching with some other Bengals wives, happily remembers the celebration it caused in the household that night.
“It was silent, and then he makes the throw and everyone goes crazy,” Jordan said. “Kids are crying, babies are screaming. It was just chaos.”
But Jordan and Andy had no idea at the time how much that play would mean, not only for them but for everyone in Buffalo.
Bills fans were so appreciative that they flooded Dalton’s foundation with donations, eventually raising $450,000 from 17,000 donors. Boyd, who doesn’t have a foundation, set up a fund benefiting the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletics Association. Bills fans raised more than $100,000 for that, as well.
Perhaps the strangest part of the whole saga isn’t the improbable comeback or even the donations. It’s that it all started with a fan from Nebraska who shouldn’t have had any ties to Buffalo or Cincinnati.
Thanks to Omaha resident Kevin Forrest and a random act of kindness, lives were forever changed — with more to come.
A simple act of kindness
Forrest was overcome with emotion on that New Year’s Eve.
He had been a Bills fan since he was 8 years old thanks to a childhood best friend whose family loved the team unconditionally. Forrest grew up in the days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Super Bowl runs. It was great time to be a Bills fan, before the team abruptly stopped winning.
With each passing year, the teams he loved as a child seemed a little further away. So when Dalton threw that touchdown pass, Forrest waited for the other shoe to drop, for something wacky to happen that would make it clear this was just a joke. He practically held his breath until the Bengals knelt in victory formation.
“I was trying to be optimistic, but if you know anything about Bills fans, I don’t think most of them can help but be a little bit down in the dumps just based on history,” he said.
Without any other Bills fans around to celebrate with, Forrest went online to find an outlet to express his gratitude. A simple message to Dalton on social media didn’t seem like enough, so he searched Dalton’s name and found the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation.
The mission of the foundation “is to provide daily support, opportunities, resources and life-changing experiences to seriously ill and physically challenged children and their families in Cincinnati and Fort Worth.”
That was more than enough for Forrest, who decided to give $30 since his company, Union Pacific, offered a match on charitable donations of at least that amount.
“I clicked on it and saw the mission and thought, ‘Well, there you go, I can’t think of a better way,’” Forrest said.
Forrest had never done something like that before, at least not because of a football game. It was a completely spontaneous act.
He took a screenshot of the donation confirmation, sent out a tweet to members of the Bills Mafia and Bills beat writers, and went to sleep. When he woke up the next morning, he found out he had created a chain reaction.
Forrest’s tweet had been shared more than 100 times, with Bills fans all over jumping in to show their love for the Bengals. When Andy got back to Cincinnati after the game, he told Jordan he’d noticed a few donations had come in that night. Neither one had connected the dots yet.
But Dalton’s phone kept buzzing through the next morning when he was doing his end-of-season interviews with the media. He showed some reporters how many $17 donations he was receiving. That number represented the 17 seasons without a playoff appearance.
Bills fans raised $57,000 in 24 hours, and by Tuesday morning the money had risen to $100,000.
“As this money started coming in, and kept coming in, I just kept picturing all these families we were going to be able to help,” Jordan said.
The donations eventually slowed to a trickle but never stopped coming. To this day, the foundation still receives at least one donation from Buffalo biweekly. It is sure to spike with the Bengals traveling to Buffalo to play the Bills on Sunday.
“We didn’t know how much it was going to be, but we felt like, ‘Oh wow, this is something that they’re really doing,’” Dalton said.
Although Dalton had set his foundation up when he was a rookie in 2011, Boyd hadn’t gotten around to doing it. He’d always had big dreams, and remembered how it felt growing up in Clairton, Pennsylvania. He and his friends would talk about all the things they could do if they just had more money.
One day, he plans to do those things for the kids in his hometown. He hopes to open a recreation center.
“All in due time,” he said.
Boyd felt a little overwhelmed when Bills fans turned their attention his way. He didn’t want to miss this opportunity in front of him to help someone.
“I wasn’t ready for it because I hadn’t even started my foundation yet. … That came out of nowhere, and it was a surprise,” Boyd said. “I had to basically come up with something quick they could fund because I didn’t want that to go to waste. That was a powerful thing for them to do.”
He chose the Western Pennsylvania Youth Athletics Association because he played in the league growing up. His mother, Tonya Payne, is its current president. It was more than a sports outlet for him. When Boyd was in high school, an electrical fire destroyed the house in which Payne had raised her sons and the community rallied around them.
Boyd didn’t have the exact numbers, but he estimated more than $130,000 was sent to the fund, which went to new equipment, paying officials, travel arrangements and buses. Boyd said he also started a seven-on-seven football league and winter basketball league for the children in the area.
The association’s website still has a thank-you to Bills fans on the homepage.
“The WPYAA would like to thank Mr. Tyler Boyd … and all the Buffalo Bills fans that donated money to our organization. The money we have received will go a long way for our upcoming 2018 season,” the note said.
Brian Pohlmeyer and his wife, Katie, might never meet Kevin Forrest or any other Bills fan, but they’ll never forget his impact.
Around the time Dalton was throwing the touchdown pass to Boyd, the Pohlmeyers were worrying about how to pay the medical bills for their son Simon, who was born with a coarctation, or narrowing of the aorta. When Simon was 2 weeks old, he was rushed to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in renal failure.
Katie thought he was dying.
“His temperature was 94 degrees when I took it at home. His body was just shutting down,” she said. “And the people at Children’s Hospital, they saved him. They had to drill holes in his legs, trying to find circulation in his head. We were in the CICU for about a week.”
Simon’s time in the cardiac intensive care unit was followed by heart surgery and then a procedure to blow his aorta back up. This all occurred in the first three months of his life.
It’s hard to imagine it was once touch-and-go for the now 4-year-old, who was bouncing around a charity event hosted by the Daltons in mid-August. The Daltons host an annual event at King’s Island called “King for a Day,” to allow families of ill or special-needs children a day of fun and relaxation. More than 40 families took part this year.
It was important to the Daltons and the Pohlmeyers for their families to be together at this event. The Pohlmeyers were one of the families that applied for a grant with the foundation’s “Pass It On” fund, which provides money to families dealing with overwhelming medical bills. The fund attempts to ease the financial burden of bills that aren’t covered by insurance.
The Pohlmeyers were directed toward the fund by Children’s Hospital when they went in search of help to cover their medical bills. Although Simon appears healthy now, the surgeries combined with yearly EKGs and visits to the cardiologists added up.
“Children’s is amazing. They saved his life, for sure,” Brian said. “I figured we’d be paying Children’s Hospital for the rest of our lives. And that’s OK.”
The problem was that there wasn’t enough money left in the fund’s account. January has always been a slow month for fundraising, and at the time of the Pohlmeyers’ application, there wasn’t any money to give out.
When that happens, Jordan tells the foundation to put certain applications on pause. It’s painful for her every time she does it because she insists on reading every application herself. Although the foundation has gotten big enough that she could pass it along to someone else, Jordan doesn’t believe in putting her name on something that isn’t actually run by her or Andy.
It’s an extremely emotionally draining task.
“There were times when I was going through the applications that I’d have to put them down and wait a couple of days,” Jordan said. “Because it just becomes emotional thinking about these kids and their families and what they’re going through. And they become your life. At events like [the fundraisers], you get to know them, and it becomes even more real.”
Helping families with sick children resonates with her even more these days than it did at the beginning. She’s now a mother of two sons with a baby girl on the way. She remembers the helpless feeling when her son Nash was born and was swiftly taken away to the NICU. It’s not something she can forget.
“He, praise God, was OK. But we got a glimpse of what these families go through. And just in that moment thinking you would do anything — anything — to make your children better, to be there and just to provide any kind of support,” Jordan said. “And I think that really deepened our passion for what we’re doing, to where we want to dig all in and go all-in, in the time that we have. To make sure we’re making the best impact that we can while we’re here.”
The Pohlmeyers’ application stood out to Jordan for some reason. One phrase in particular from a personal letter attached resonated with her.
“I would do anything for my child,” it read.
“I didn’t think it would stand out,” Katie Pohlmeyer said. “It didn’t seem that impactful because, to me, I’d give my life for my kids and I’d go bankrupt if it meant they got the health care that they needed.”
It devastated Jordan to think she couldn’t immediately help this family, but just as she was bracing herself to tell the family that the money would have to wait, Bills fans came through.
Suddenly there not only was money to help the Pohlmeyers but enough to help more families than the Daltons ever would have thought possible.
“This money started coming in, and it was like, praise Jesus, here’s the money,” Jordan said. “And then — ‘It’s not going to just be this family, it’s going to be hundreds of families.'”
Passing it on
The Daltons’ goal is to raise enough money so that they will never have to turn down or pause a single application. It’s ambitious, but with the amount of attention the foundation has received in the past year, it’s suddenly looking like a possibility.
The Pass It On fund already has been able to double in size, and Andy said they’re now able to accept 24 grants a month, up from the 10-12 they were accepting.
“You can see the huge impact it’s made on a lot of families,” Andy said.
The foundation also is expanding its outreach to a hospital in Dayton in addition to its work in Cincinnati and Fort Worth. And this weekend they will put a “hub” in the Roswell Center in Buffalo.
“This is full of iPads, learning devices, things that they can use either in downtime or while they’re getting treatment to try to take their mind off whatever they’re doing,” Andy said. “We’ve seen a really positive impact that it’s made in other hospitals, and we’re excited to have this in Buffalo, as well.”
The Daltons will be greeted with open arms in Buffalo, not only by local Bills fans but by Forrest, who will meet them for the first time. Forrest already has a permanent reminder hanging in his office.
Earlier in the year, he found a Sammy Watkins jersey online and customized it into an Andy Dalton jersey. He sent it to Andy to get it signed, and now it sits framed in his house.
“I feel like we equally get people who talk to us about what we’re doing with the foundation and how he is as a football player. And that’s pretty cool. That’s all because of what happened in Buffalo.”
“I already have a Jim Kelly jersey framed and autographed, and I’m going to have the Dalton one hanging up right next to it,” he said.
The Pohlmeyers won’t be going to Buffalo, but they represent one of the many families Forrest was able to impact with his act of generosity. They’ll be watching the game, with Simon next to them as a reminder of how quickly life can change.
“It’s been a long road … but here he is,” Katie Pohlmeyer said. “There’s something about him. We call him our happy-to-be-alive baby because he could’ve easily died.”
They’ve pledged to pass on the kindness shown to them one day.
As for the Daltons, life has changed in a few small ways outside of the obvious. More often than not, wherever they are, a fan will approach them to talk. And lately it’s not football on their minds.
“I feel like we equally get people who talk to us about what we’re doing with the foundation and how he is as a football player. And that’s pretty cool,” Jordan said. “That’s all because of what happened in Buffalo.”
If there’s a lesson the Daltons have learned in all this, it’s the power of the human spirit.
Andy mused how one simple football play inspired a single person, and how that person’s simple act of kindness inspired a movement.
Pass it on indeed.
“It just goes to show the power of kindness and a good act, and I’m just thankful for all the money we’ve received,” Andy said.