Isaiah McDuffie grew up as a Bills fan, dreaming of one day playing an NFL game in his hometown. Late in the summer of 2021, McDuffie got his wish when he played a preseason game in Buffalo as a Packers rookie. He played well on defense and was Green Bay’s player of the game that night.
At the time, McDuffie wasn’t aware that he would be returning to Buffalo just a year later. Only this time, it’s the real thing — a regular season Sunday night game on national TV against the high-flying Bills at Highmark Stadium. Suffice it to say, it’ll be a tad more intense.
“Oh, yeah, I’m super excited,” the former Bennett High star said from Green Bay on Tuesday. “The atmosphere is going to be electric. Sunday night, I’m expecting it to be real rowdy and super fun.
“Just getting the chance to play in my hometown two years in a row is special,” said McDuffie, a backup linebacker and core special-teamer. “But at the end of the day, this is a business trip. We’re going there to win the game.”
That’s not quite how the oddsmakers see it. Business is tough in Green Bay these days. The Packers have lost three in a row to fall to 3-4 on the season. The Packers opened as a 10.5-point underdog, the largest negative point spread of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ illustrious career.
So, McDuffie has more pressing concerns than how comfortable his family and friends are in their seats at Highmark Stadium. Coming off three straight 13-win seasons, the Packers had high hopes for this year. Now they’re reeling from losses to the Giants, Jets and Commanders in successive weeks. It’s hardly an ideal time to be facing the Bills at Highmark in prime-time.
“We take the same approach every week,” McDuffie said, dismissing the point spread. “Next game is the next game. It’s our most important one, because it is the next one. We’re going to have each other’s backs and come together and do what we have to do.
Still, when a team with Super Bowl aspirations is a double-digit underdog and being written off as so much roadkill against the Bills, it has to sting.
“Obviously, no one wants to lose three games in a row,” McDuffie said. “Everyone is pissed off. But at the same time, we know that we have the right pieces to do something special this season. So, it’s just a matter of time. We’re going to get back to work and grind and do what we have to do to get better.”
McDuffie continues to grind in his second season after being drafted in the sixth round out of Boston College. He’s a backup inside linebacker, but for the second year in a row he’s been mainly a special-teamer. As a rookie, he had one defensive snap all season. This season, he saw some time at linebacker in the opener, but has been assigned to special teams since.
There was talk in the summer that McDuffie was one of the most improved players on the Packers. He had a big game at linebacker in preseason against the Saints and seemed to be bidding for time in the defensive rotation. Some might find the lack of defensive snaps disappointing.
“I wouldn’t say disappointing,” he said. “I embrace the role I’m in. I always take the approach that you’re one snap away from going into games. I prepare every week like I’m a starter. That’s the professional thing to do, anyway. So, that’s the approach I take, and it’s the right approach.”
He feels a responsibility as a role model for his home city. He trains here in the offseason and said he gets to Buffalo every chance he gets. The Bennett football players revere him and often seek him out for advice. He knows people are watching him and is careful not to say anything that makes him out like a whiner or a malcontent.
“At the end of the day, I’m always going to be who I am,” McDuffie said. “I feel I have character and integrity, and if my role is to contribute on special teams, I’m going to be the best special teams player I can be. I’m the next one in. I prepare every week like I’m going to get snaps on defense. So, I’m always ready.
“I feel like everyone’s story is different. Everyone has a different road, and when it’s your chance you have to make the most of it. Everyone eventually gets their shot. It’s a matter of when you get it and if you’re ready when it comes. That’s the way I look at it.”
McDuffie only wishes he could come to Buffalo a day early to be with his father, Steve, on Friday night. As a proud former Tiger, he was chagrined to hear that Bennett had to forfeit four wins for failing to file paperwork on a transfer.
“I feel it’s not right,” he said. “There’s a lot of higher-ups who need to be evaluated, in my opinion. I think it’s a very poor decision and it was kind of rash. I felt it was not right to put those kids through that, especially the kid who it happened to.”
But at least Bennett was able to advance to the Section VI playoffs despite the discipline. There’s always a chance for a storybook ending. The same holds true for Green Bay. The Packers haven’t lost four straight since 2016, when they fell to 4-6. They won six in a row, made the playoffs, and went on to the NFC championship game before losing to the Falcons.
“You never know,” McDuffie said. “The NFL is a crazy game.”
What he never forgets is how fortunate he is to be the first Bennett High player to reach the NFL. It was the dream of his late grandfather, Stevenson, who raised what I like to call “The First Family of Football in the city.”
What does McDuffie have to complain about? Now and then, he’ll look to the sky, think of his grandfather and marvel at the fact that one of them actually made it to the NFL.
“All the time, all the time,” he said. “I thank God every day. It’s a blessing just to be in the position I am. I’m really blessed.”
On Sunday night, he comes home to play in a meaningful NFL game in his hometown. A special moment for a special-teamer.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.