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  • Writer's pictureDawn Neufeld

You Can't Rewrite History

So I figured I'd just leave this here...

The young Los Angeles attorney rides a plane bound for Buffalo, the ties between her and the legal profession loosening by the time zone. Her husband is hours away from suiting up in the Buffalo Bills' 2003 season opener, and she has too much anxiety invested in his career -- never mind his career, in their marriage -- to be anywhere but at The Ralph when it happens.

Dawn Neufeld enters the stadium and feels isolated among a crowd of more than 70,000. She knows not another player's wife, a girlfriend, a soul. The national anthem resonates on a humid 70-degree September day in Orchard Park.

A flyover punctuates the impending return of football and tears speckle her cheeks because after two years out of the game, tight end Ryan Neufeld is back on the inside. The immensity of the moment they share is affirmed by the can-this-be? wetness welling in his eyes. He sprints out of the tunnel, an NFL player once again. You all right?, teammates ask. And Ryan gives them the affirmative head shake. It's opening day. Isn't everybody emotional on opening day?"

Five years later, the end of this leg of their joyous journey looms. The Bills designated Neufeld inactive in their final four games. His contract has expired. He and Dawn do the rudimentary math and deduce their time in Western New York nears its conclusion. They wish it were otherwise because their affinity for the area and the franchise abounds.

Their son, 3-year-old Will, was born at Mercy Hospital.

Their second child, gender unknown by choice, will be delivered here in June. Will attends Buffalo Hearing and Speech to minimize his communication deficiencies. He's the reason they'll remain in their town house close by the McKinley Mall through the offseason and into summer instead of returning to their home in Frisco, Texas, just around the corner from two close friends met in Buffalo, former Bills running back Sammy Morris and his wife, Leslie. When they'll get back there depends on where Ryan's career goes from here. He's 32 and again at the crossroads.

Buffalo Bills arrive and depart on a regular basis and it's all chalked up to the business side of football. Very few players spend a career in one place, acclimate to just one city. Contracts run out. Cuts are made. Some free agents move on in pursuit of more lucrative deals, but scant is the number of players who leave of their own volition, on their own terms.

Neufeld is testament to the transient nature of the sport. Undrafted out of UCLA, he played six games for Dallas in 1999, three for Jacksonville in 2000 and spent the next two years working out to remain football ready while attending tryouts that came up empty. Dawn encouraged him to keep at it but for Ryan the fruitless exercises deflated his psyche.

Their payback -- and perhaps their marital salvation -- arrives when Ryan signs with the Bills. The Neufelds immerse themselves in the franchise and the community, donate countless hours to charitable endeavors. Dawn, an indefatigable spirit, steps to the forefront of many causes undertaken by the Buffalo Bills Women's Association. Ryan is often right there with her.

"The situation presented an opportunity to volunteer," Dawn says. "I'm like, 'Sign me up. Where do I go?' "

Their support spills to Garth Brooks' Teammates for Kids, Gilda's Club, Women and Children's Hospital, the Susan G. Komen Foundation for a Cure, Ronald McDonald House, and more. Dawn helps obtain and wrap gifts for the team's Toyota Rookie Club Christmas party. The night of the event, both she and Ryan mingle with the children although they're under no obligation to attend.

"Dawn, she's been a driving force really since she's been here," says Gretchen Geitter, the Bills' executive director of community relations. "Intelligent. Compassionate. Passionate. And the same with Ryan. They do it from the heart and that's why it's so wonderful to work with them. They contribute so much and so much of what they do people don't necessarily see. They do a lot on their own as well. Good people."

Speculation persists that the Bills, looking for ways to boost a sluggish, undefined offense, could select a tight end in the April draft or pluck one from the free-agent pool. If so, the likelihood of Neufeld returning to the roster further diminishes. His agent, Todd France, tells Ryan other teams will have interest. He and Dawn hope so.

"At 32, most people are just in the prime of a career and just going," Dawn says. "For him it's kind of like the wind down, which is so bizarre. He's 100 percent healthy and feeling great and it would be a shame if the one thing that stopped him would be his age."

If this is the end of their time in Buffalo, many area causes will feel the loss. Dawn was instrumental in helping Gilda's Club Western New York obtain a $10,000 grant through Teammates For Kids. The money, secured in December, will be used to support and enhance Noogieland, the organization's children's program.

"Dawn's intelligent and educated and obviously has a lot of choices how to spend her time," said Mary Beth Karr, executive director of Gilda's Club WNY. "That she picked to give her time to community involvement is impressive to us. It takes an effort to become integrated like that. We were really honored that she and Ryan would be involved with us."

A self-made survivor

Neufeld made his mark in Buffalo predominantly on special teams, although all 13 of his NFL receptions and his one touchdown came in a Bills uniform. And while his participation ebbed this season, his work habits remained uncompromised. Neufeld's preparedness once rendered former Bills head coach Mike Mularkey sheepishly silent. During a plane trip to Oakland in 2005, Mularkey sought out Neufeld to tell him he wasn't going to dress for the game. Mularkey passed player after player before coming to Neufeld, the only one aboard studying his playbook. The coach decided he'd wait to break the news.

"Ryan is probably one of the most humble, hardworking, ethical people I know and when he has a job to do he does it," Dawn says. "To be living out his dream, albeit not in the capacity that he had hoped, he was just very grateful to have the opportunity. I think I probably get more frustrated and worked up in those situations than he does. I get selfish sometimes during the football season because he leaves at 6:30 in the morning. He'd get into work before the coaches even got there. He'd stay in a little later to study. Even during training camp, I mean his work ethic is unparalleled by a lot of the players. Not that I'm biased."

She smiles.

"Training camp, I'd go down and visit, and after not seeing him for several days all the other guys are coming off the field seeing their families and I'm looking for Ryan and he's over catching extra passes from a Jugs machine. And I'm like, 'I'm over here!' "

This season was a letdown, for him and for her. Dawn's frustrations are evident in a blog she maintains. Ryan is more philosophical. It's football. There are no promises, no guarantees.

"It didn't happen the way I would have liked for it to have happened for myself," Ryan says of the season. "I understand now what the business is and things that go into it. I tried to support the team in every way I could. I didn't want to be a complainer and have 100 meetings with coaches. I just try to do what I can to support the guys out there.

"I just kept up my work ethic, went in every day and worked hard and made the best of the situation.

"I just wish I would be here to experience when this team does get in the playoffs," he says.

"It was after the Dallas game this year, devastating loss. I was eating breakfast at Perkins and this lady comes up to me and she's like, 'I just love watching you guys play. You guys did a great job last night. Just keep working.' And I was like, 'Man, we need to get to the playoffs.' These fans around here, I know the atmosphere would just be electric."

Home away from home

Short stays in Dallas and Jacksonville and two years out of football brought the Neufelds to Western New York packing guarded optimism. Had they known they'd be here five years -- five whole seasons -- Dawn would have sat for the New York State bar exam.

Instead, she now wonders how she'll explain to a prospective employer the sudden stop in her job chronology aside from the online course in sports law she's taught for Canisius College.

At first, they admit, living in Western New York required a lifestyle adjustment. But it wasn't long before they became one with the community and began to cherish its attributes.

"It was definitely a culture shock for us coming from the West Coast," she says. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles and Ryan was born and raised in the San Jose area. L.A. traffic and Buffalo traffic, it's like night and day. When people say there's traffic here I kind of chuckle. It's not traffic. I think of it from the perspective of being in an environment where you can just kind of slow down and enjoy what's around you. I mean, we still get kind of excited when there's a deer outside, we totally do, because it's not like you see a deer running down the 405 in L.A. We still get excited about that. When it snows, when you're not from [here] and you know you're not going to be here forever, it's kind of nice. You kind of like it."

The camaraderie among the players, among the wives, they're going to miss. Buffalo's unique that way, Dawn says. All the players seem to reside in proximity to the stadium, making it like one big huddle. The wives have their own get-togethers when the team's out of town.

"People who we've known who've left, they just can't believe how different it is on other teams," she says. "This particular team is great, they're awesome, I can't say enough good things about them. I wish them all the luck in the future and definitely hope they have a great season next year. Again, it's just bittersweet. It's family. It's hard leaving a lot of these guys."

She emits a deep and sentimental sigh. Five years ago they arrived in WNY with almost empty bank accounts, just hoping to hold things together. Faith has helped to solidify their marriage. Their second child's on the way. Everywhere they look they see family.

"I look down the road to like end of June and we're heading out of Western New York and on that last flight out of here with my 3-, almost 4-year-old and a new baby and my husband and looking out the window, and sometimes depending on the flight path you fly over the Falls and fly over The Ralph. I'm going to be crying. I'm a crier, all right? I imagine it's going to be pretty emotional for me.

"But we'll see how it goes. It's going to be tough. It's going to be really hard to leave. Lots of good memories here. Can't say enough good things about these last five years for us in the Western New York area."

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