Tim Grace loved Josh Allen before the kid quarterback even threw his first NFL pass.
In fact, the Bemus Point resident walked into the team store at One Bills Drive in Orchard Park in the run-up to the 2018 season, found a No. 17 jersey on the rack, paid for it and then walked happily out the door. Moments later, he put it on and promptly posed for a photo, his arms raised toward the heavens, the price tag still hanging from the left sleeve.
The smile that covered his face said it all.
About 10 months later — June 2019 — Tim folded that same Allen jersey into his travel bag for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa where he and his wife, Kathy, were going to embark on a seven-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free-standing mountain.
“His plan was to wear that jersey when he summited,” Kathy said.
Tragically, Tim, a local optometrist, never realized that dream. The 64-year-old father of Rachael and Alex was stricken and died in the early evening of June 4, 2019, Day 1 of the trek.
“He was first class and he lived his last name,” family friend and Bemus Point neighbor Cindy Aronson said. “‘With grace’ is the best description for how he always treated others.”
Tanzanian natives Gabriel and Gideon and members of the tour team assisted Kathy back down the mountain to a hotel where she stayed for a week before returning to the United States.
“All I could think of was Tim being at the top of the mountain,” Kathy recalled last week as she sat in the living room of her home that overlooks Chautauqua Lake. While deep in her thoughts at that time, she still had the presence of mind to open Tim’s travel bag, which Gabriel had returned along with the rest of the Graces’ belongings, and, sure enough, the Josh Allen jersey was right on top.
Noted Kathy: “I looked at Gabriel and I said, ‘Can you still get this back up (to the summit)?’”
Gabriel answered in the affirmative and then promised that he would take a photo of the No. 17 jersey with the traveling party and email her the image. To be certain not to lose the contact information, Kathy wrote her email address on the inside of the jersey collar.
“I never expected to get the jersey back,” Kathy admitted.
But in a journey that went from “bliss, to tragedy, to peace, to beauty and humanity,” Kathy has received nothing but kindness in return.
A week later and finally back at home, Kathy found an email in her in-box from Gabriel, the tour guide she refers to as an “angel.” Attached was the photo of the men standing with the No. 17 at the summit. One of the men in the picture was Ben Lodge, a Canton, Massachusetts native, one of a couple of New England Patriots’ fans in the group.
Consider the irony of that. More than 30,000 people a year from all over the world trek Kilimanjaro, so what are the chances that the Bills and the Patriots would be brought together there?
“It is hard to describe the emotions running through me as we posed for that photo with Tim’s jersey,” Ben said in an email. “We had just spent five and a half days taking on one of the tallest mountains in the world. I was exhausted from the hike, but the feeling of accomplishment and awe-striking views from the top of the mountain gave me the energy to celebrate with our group.
“We had prayed for Kathy and Tim every day before our meals so they had been with us the entire journey, but when we pulled out Tim’s Josh Allen jersey in front of the Mount Kilimanjaro sign it really hit me with a wave of emotions. … Holding his jersey at the top of the mountain filled me with sadness for the tragedy that happened, grateful for the strength that this story gave our group to reach the top, and relief knowing that Tim was looking down on us and we had accomplished his lifelong dream as a family.”
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By virtue of their 48-19 victory over Denver last Saturday, the Bills claimed their first AFC East title in 25 years. For his part, Allen completed 28 of 40 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two more scores in what has become one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in franchise history.
A target of criticism for his sometimes inconsistent play in his first two years, including a wild-card playoff meltdown against Houston last season, Allen has been one of the NFL’s best players this year and finds himself squarely in the middle of the Most Valuable Player conversation.
Tim, Kathy maintained, supported the strong-armed QB through thick and thin, though, and would have been rejoicing after the Bills’ division-clinching victory over the Broncos last weekend. Season ticket holders since Jim Kelly’s first year in Buffalo, Tim and Kathy had seen the best and worst of the Bills since 1986 and have included Rachael, 29, and Alex, 26, in their passionate support of the team.
So imagine how Kathy and the kids felt when a package arrived in the mail in mid-June 2019, less than two weeks after Tim passed away. In it was the Josh Allen jersey, which was signed by the trekkers.
“I just needed a photo to show he was up there,” Kathy said. “That’s all I wanted. When I got the jersey back I couldn’t believe it, and when I saw they signed it, it was so emotional for me, because that’s who we were with and Tim should have been up there.”
Added Lodge, the trekker and Patriots’ fan: “Kathy and Tim were both a part of our group. … We really felt like they were part of our little family and we wanted to make sure they knew they were with us in spirit along the entire journey, and at the top of the mountain when we finally made it.”
And while her husband of 31 years, wasn’t physically at the summit, Kathy believes the series of events that have occurred in the last 18 months are not merely coincidence. So when Alex suggested they investigate the possibility of getting a Josh Allen signature on the back of the jersey, well, that was all it took.
“All I remember saying,” Kathy recalled, “was, ‘OK. I can do anything now.’”
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In early July 2019, Kathy stopped to clean out Tim’s office at Chautauqua Eyecare on West Third Street in Jamestown. It was there that she found an old letter from the Bills concerning renewing their season tickets.
“I wasn’t sure if he had got them for 2019,” Kathy said, “so I called the number on the letter.”
Ultimately, she received a return call from Danielle Gaddis, an account service coordinator who grew up in Lakewood.
“She was amazing,” Kathy said. “I explained the situation to her. She was so kind and helpful, and I just felt a connection with her immediately. After I got off the phone, I got to thinking, ‘I feel I could tell her the story and see if, maybe, Josh Allen could sign the jersey.’”
So on July 15, 2019, Kathy placed a call to One Bills Drive as she sat on a park bench in Brooklyn during a visit to see Rachael, who has lived in the Big Apple for the last six years. Danielle, it turned out, was more than happy to help.
“Marlon Kerner is our director of player engagement and alumni,” Danielle said in an email earlier this week. “He’s our direct link to the players. I knew Kathy didn’t want to be without the jersey, so I had to think of the best way to get it directly to Josh without her having to be without it for long.
“Marlon was at training camp (at St. John Fisher College) and he agreed to help me out. Kathy drove the jersey up to me at One Bills Drive, I drove it to Rochester, handed it off to Marlon and waited until after practice where Josh signed it in the dorms. Then Marlon gave it back to me, I drove it back to Buffalo and Kathy came and picked it up.”
With the trekkers’ autographs on the front and a beloved quarterback autograph on the back, the jersey hangs — framed and matted — in Kathy’s living room.
“When I was 8, 9 and 10 years old,” said Alex, who works for Northwest Savings Bank in Buffalo, “we’d always go to Buffalo Bills training camp, and one thing my dad loved was sitting down near the fence, picking me up and getting autographs of all these players. It’s kind of funny how it comes full circle, with Josh Allen signing the jersey that my dad wanted to bring to the top of the mountain.”
There have been other moments of serendipity, too.
As it turns out, Danielle’s parents are Dan and Sue Moran of Lakewood. Dan just happened to be one of Tim’s patients. Furthermore, Bills’ fans Larry and Lorraine Diggs, friends of Tim and Kathy, met Danielle in 2015 when Buffalo played Jacksonville … in London.
“Talk about a small world,” Danielle said of the chance meeting at a British pub. “I truly didn’t believe it until (Kathy) sent me a picture of all of us.”
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Days before leaving for Africa 18 months ago, Kathy, her sister, Debbie Griffin, and Kathy’s friends, Cindy Aronson, Mary Grace Guarino, Lorraine Diggs and Linda Lampack went on a hike at Allegheny State Park.
During the trip, the women gave Kathy a medallion as well as a bag that read, respectively, ‘Never Give Up” and “Kathy believes she could, so she did.”
“I had both of those things all the way up (Kilimanjaro) with me,” Kathy said. “I never realized how symbolic that medallion was.”
So as she celebrates Christmas, Kathy said the support she has received from her friends and community has been a special gift that has provided her “peace.”
“I think you have to embrace everything around you, you know? Never lose hope, never give up, be open to people,” she said. “That’s huge. With everything happening now, I don’t want people to lose sight of that — the goodness in the world, because I really feel that way. I think that’s what keeps people going.”
A deep playoff run by the Bills or — dare we say it? — a Super Bowl victory with Josh Allen leading the way would be a fitting end to this story.
“There’s literally not another person on this earth or another quarterback I’d want to see hold up the (Lombardi) Trophy than Josh Allen,” Alex said. “It would mean everything in the whole entire world. It would just complete my life, honestly. … I know my dad would be so happy and smiling down.”
While Josh Allen wasn’t available for comment, Kathy said she sent him a photo of the group at the summit of Kilimanjaro last year. It was her way of thanking the quarterback for signing his name on the jersey to honor Tim’s memory.
What did Josh also write on it?
“God Bless” and “Go Bills.”
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