A championship puzzle has many pieces, some large and easy to spot, others tiny and subtle, off in a corner.
Last August, the Buffalo Bills let go of more experienced linemen and took a chance, based on what they were seeing, that an undrafted, untested kid from UConn, Ryan Van Demark, could fit the puzzle as a backup at both offensive tackles and, if needed, protect their most important piece.
The need arose in the last game of the regular season, the Bills fighting Miami for the AFC East title. Veteran starter Dion Dawkins lacerated his hand at a critical point and Van Demark had to step in at left tackle and protect Josh Allen’s blind side. By all accounts, he more than held his own as Allen drove Buffalo down the field, eight plays, 74 yards, for the winning score.
Dawkins sought him out on the bench and, using his healthy hand, gave Van Demark a vigorous greeting.
“I’m going to give that kid a box of steaks,” Dawkins told reporters after the game. “We tell him all year long, over and over and over to be ready, stay ready because sooner or later your ticket is going to get punched and you’re going to have to show that you can do it. This was probably one of the biggest games of our season — and his career — and he went in there with no blink, communicated with (fellow linemen) Connor (McGovern) and Mitch (Morse) and with no hiccup and that’s the best thing I could ask for from someone who is backing me up.”
Now Van Demark, 25, can be seen reporting for work in a custom leather jacket, UConn colors and old-school logo on the right half, Bills red and blue on the left, still wearing his No. 74.
Van Demark had trouble putting on weight at UConn, but eventually got up to 300 pounds, NFL size, and became a rock-solid presence, playing in 45 games, starting 42, through some tough times at UConn (by which we mean, tougher than usual) between 2017-21. An undrafted free agent, he signed with the Colts, was waived, claimed by Buffalo and spent all last season on the practice squad.
This summer he impressed and was still standing when the last cuts were made Aug. 30. He was in for only 38 snaps before getting his eight snaps at Miami, his first chance with the varsity.
“He went in there and he did his job and I am proud,” said Dawkins, a three-time Pro Bowler who, like Van Demark, is from New Jersey. “That’s my Jersey boy, Vandy.”
Van Demark, 6 feet 6 and 307, made a small contribution, but without it the Bills, who won their last five to overtake the Dolphins, might not be where they are now: Playing home games in the playoffs.
In the epic snow that delayed the game by a day, they beat the Steelers on Monday. Having homefield advantage put Van Demark and teammate Alec Anderson in the right place at the right time to help a stranded motorist during the storm, video of which Van Demark posted.
The Bills face the Chiefs in the Divisional Round Sunday at 6:30.
More for your Sunday Read:
Athletic taking shape
Hartford Athletic is continuing its roster overhaul under CEO Nick Sakiewicz and coach Brendan Burke. The first practice, Thursday at the Day Hill Dome in Windsor, brought over 20 new players, some getting invited from open tryouts, others brought in with credentials. Burke wants tough competition for every spot on the field.
“I purposely targeted a handful of guys who had trophies to their name,” Burke said. “Because being a contender and being a winner are two different things. We need winners in this group, guys who can grab this culture and bring it to a place it’s never been.
Among the newcomers is Marlon Hairston, veteran of 140 Major League Soccer matches.
“It happened pretty fast,” Hairston said. “Meeting with Brendan, it just sounded like everything was positive. To come hear his ideas and how he wants to move the club forward was something I wanted to be a part of. I think we’re going to surprise a bunch of people this year.”
Hairston, 29, figures to be right in the middle of Burke’s lineup. He brings winning experience from his college career at Louisville and his four Major League stops.
Hairston was born and raised in Jackson, Miss. — American football country — but began playing soccer with his friend, Marcus Epps, who has also joined Athletic with MSL experience, and their older brothers with a club that brought the sport to the inner city.
“It was a gateway for kids to get out and do something other than football and basketball, and keeping kids out of trouble at a young age,” Hairston said. “And before you know it, we kind of got good at it. It opened so many doors for us.”
Hall of an Honor for UConn’s Tim Tolokan
There’s another Husky Hall of Famer. Tim Tolokan, who worked 38 years at UConn, most of it as sports information director, is going into the College Sports Communicators Hall of Fame this year.
Tolokan, who had been the Norwich Bulletin’s sports editor in the 1970s, joined UConn in 1980, just as things were building toward a national profile and the media horde following the program had grown huge. He was ahead of the curve in many respects, including marketing and corporate relations, and communication as the electronic age loomed, and he was a mentor to hundreds who worked under him.
“Tim brought UConn into the modern age of sports information,” said Mike Enright, who interned under Tolokan, was later head of athletic communications and is now UConn’s deputy spokesperson. “He started UConn’s marketing and corporate relations efforts, now a multimillion dollar source of revenue.”
He was later in charge of licensing and traditions, a special advisor to the AD and, before retiring in 2018, curator of the Husky Heritage Sports Museum on campus, a UConn guy through-and-through.
The Hall of Fame induction will be in June in Las Vegas.
Sunday short takes
*Chris MacKenzie became the winningest coach in UConn women’s hockey program history with No. 164, coming against Boston University on Jan. 13. The Huskies, No. 12 in the Pairwise Ratings, need a strong finish to reach NCAA Tournament at-large territory.
* Josh McGettigan, 6-7 grad student from Southbury, is leading the Southern Connecticut men’s basketball with 19.1 points per game, shooting 42.6 percent on threes. Coach Scott Burrell’s Owls are 11-5 going into Saturday’s game vs. Franklin Pierce.
*Trinity’s men’s basketball team, unbeaten going into Saturday’s game with Wesleyan, was ranked No.5 in Division III this week, the highest in program history.
*New London’s Kris Dunn, after leg injuries, stints in the G League and a series of 10-day contracts, has revitalized his NBA career and the Utah Jazz. Dunn, 29, who signed a two-year deal, took over as starting point guard in December and the Jazz are 13-3 since,
*If you wonder what winning, or losing the offseason means, consider: Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy, the Trinity grad, and GM Craig Breslow (Trumbull, Yale) heard boos as they headed on stage for a Q&A at the team’s Winter Weekend in Springfield Friday night. Later, a moving video tribute to the late Tim Wakefield brought tears, and a standing ovation.
*Connecticut Sun star DeWanna Bonner’s jersey No. 24 was retired at her alma mater, Auburn. Mayor Ron Anders Jr. declared Friday “DeWanna Bonner Day” in the city of Auburn, Ala. Bonner, 36, who has been in the WNBA since 2009, is still the Tigers’ career scoring leader with 2,162 points..
It was rather odd, let’s say, that Paul VI High School coaches and players, including UConn signee Isaiah Abraham, were not available for interviews at the HoopHall Classic in Springfield last Monday. Of course, Connecticut media travels up there in numbers whenever future Huskies are playing, because UConn has that kind of following. If you don’t want media attention, why travel to a showcase event that attracts reporters and influencers from all over the country?