PITTSFORD —The moment they saw No. 94 approaching the practice field, the ovation started.
As Mario Williams headed for the new grass practice field in back of the St. John Fisher Fieldhouse —the welcome by-product of a 13-year training camp affiliation with an NFL team — Bills’ fans crammed into the bleachers a field away saluted him with a lusty cheer.
For 12 seasons, Buffalo fans have vainly rooted for a return to the playoffs, haunted by the memory that their team’s last trip to the postseason ended in the nightmarish Music City Miracle against the Titans in Nashville.
But Williams is supposed to change all that.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, after six seasons with the Houston Texans, had become pro football’S most coveted free agent.
The 27-year-old, 6-foot-6, 290-pound pass-rush specializing defensive end from North Carolina State didn’t choose New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, which could have made him a commercial icon.
Instead he picked Buffalo, the NFL’s second-smallest market and a franchise which hasn’t made the postseason this century.
And, oh, that six-year, $100 million contract —$50 million guaranteed — was a huge factor.
But so was the city’s small-town appeal that reminded him of where he grew up in North Carolina and the fact he’s seen as, and well could be, a difference maker.
That’s what you expect of a player who, based on games played, averaged more than 10 sacks a season.
And that greeting Thursday at St. John Fisher didn’t hurt his decision that surprised pro football.
“I WAS really excited, “ he said of yesterday’s initial workout. “It’s one of those things that you have to keep yourself under wraps about and make sure that you’re out there taking care of business. It’s about not letting the first day get over your head and not doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing on the field.
“It’s about the opportunity to get out here to show what you can do.
He added, “My biggest thing is to focus on football and just play and not worry about all the other stuff like my body (specifically the torn pectoral muscle that put him on injured reserve last season).
Still, it was a different experience.
“This is my first time being away from home because typically we would have camp in (Houston), Williams said. “It would be like having camp in Buffalo. This is a little different. When I got here guys were like, ‘Did you call ‘Rent-A-Center?’ And I said, ‘No I didn’t’. Nobody told me about it until I got here. I’m sleeping on twin-size beds and no TV. It’s not a big deal but I just didn’t know (the set-up) so it was a shock.
“This is my first time ever being away from home for a camp so it’s definitely different, but it’s cool. We’re here to take care of business. It’s not like we’ll be messing around in the rooms. “
OF THE OVATION, he added, “It felt great to finally see the fans besides seeing them in Buffalo everywhere I go. It’s good to come out and have people chant your name. I just want to go out here and give something back to them ... going out and performing on the field and making it happen.
“Everywhere I go, especially in Buffalo, it’s ‘Hey how are you?’ It’s something I’m not really accustomed to. Fans are fans in general but when you go everywhere (even) just getting gas, it doesn’t matter, somebody’s going to come over to you and someone is going to say something to you. It’s definitely a big difference because this is Bills territory.”
Did it compare to the attention when he was the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Texans?
“I can’t really say that because I’m not really focused on that,” Williams admitted. “If you look at it too much it’s going to become too big and get overwhelming. The biggest thing is just going out there and doing what I have to do to just win. That’s all I want to focus on.
“I know (the attention) is there; it is what it is, but if I sit here and work like that and listen to all the good and the bad then I will not be taking care of business.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)