Brandon Watson for The Players' Tribune

I needed a few weeks before I could do this. I hope you all understand.  

It was just too raw at first. Too sad, too much to process in real time. I’d be lying if I tried to sit here and tell you guys that I wasn’t shook by what happened. That I just powered through and stayed tough. 

I didn’t.

From the moment I learned about the horrible tragedy that took place over on the East Side, I was completely devastated. I was absolutely torn up inside. 

And I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. 

We were all hurting — everyone who reps for this place, for the people of Buffalo, for what this community stands for. Because in this town, we’re all tied together. We have a bond that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I noticed it right away after getting drafted by the Bills. I immediately felt the energy of this place, the love. I saw firsthand how Buffalo is a city of helpers, of people who are willing to put in work to make things better every day. I saw the connection that people have, how they band together to overcome challenges. And before long, that stuff … it became part of who I am. It got into my bones. 

Everyone here, we lean on one another to get through.

Dion Dawkins

Buffalo draws you in like that. It’s just something about this place. The weather may not be the best or whatever. It may not be for everyone. But that’s O.K. Because everyone here, we lean on one another to get through. It’s like, Three feet of snow? Rain for 13 days straight? Whatever. We’re good. We’re in this together. We GOT this. 

Anyone who was born and raised here, they’ve built up this toughness within themselves to withstand anything. And people like me, who come here later in life and choose to make this city our home … we can’t help but have that rub off on us. So it’s like everyone who lives here has this superpower — it’s a town of a million Supermans and Wonder Womans, basically.     

 Then on one Saturday in May, someone came for us.

And that’s exactly what happened, too. Let’s tell it like it is: Someone with nothing but evil in his heart, he literally came for us. He got in his car and drove 200 miles to our city, to try and destroy what makes this community so special. 

He tried to destroy our bond. 

Dion Dawkins | Buffalo | The Players' Tribune
Brandon Watson for The Players' Tribune

When I think back to that Saturday, things just seemed to come in waves. With each new bit of information, it was like taking another punch. I’m sure y’all reading this know what I mean. It was like every 10 or 20 minutes, we’d get new details, and more hurt.

One of the most heartbreaking updates for me was when I found out what it was all about. I mean, what it was really about.

That this was all rooted in racism? Hatred for people like me? To do something so vile and so terrible to people, for no other reason than because they were Black? That crushed me. It hurt me deep down in my soul.

And it continues to hurt just as bad, even weeks later. Someone coming into our community, the place that we love, and targeting people based on the color of their skin … that will stick with me FOREVER. Maybe I was naïve in the past, or what have you — honestly, I probably was. But I never could’ve imagined something like that happening so close to home.

I keep thinking about all the victims. One thing that really hit hard for me was how so many of those taken from us on that day were older folks. You have to understand the role of elders in the Black community to fully grasp why that resonated so deeply with me. These are people who mold a family and pass down wisdom. They’re the folks who are in our churches … who are organizing our BBQs on the weekends … who are looking out for all the kids playing in the front yard, nodding their heads to soul music on their little old-ass radio, while telling the funniest stories about how things used to be “back in the day.” It’s just like: Damn … you really had to go and take people’s Grandma away from them? Their Pap pap? Those aren’t just our family trees — they’re the roots of those trees.

We were all hurting ... because in this town, we’re all tied together.

Dion Dawkins

It’s so sad, obviously. But also it’s just so unfair. You know what I mean? Everything about this just feels unfair. The fact that one evil, heartless person can impact so many other people. It runs so deep. It’s so layered. 

Even now, weeks later, on a day-to-day level, as folks in that community are trying to grieve and heal and restore some sense of normalcy, you’ve got a situation where this monster also actually took away their main source for food. 

That grocery store, Tops … it’s still closed. And it’s gonna be closed for a couple more months yet. Now, obviously, that pales in comparison to the loss of life that families are struggling with, but it’s just another terrible part of all this. It’s real. It matters. Because now you have issues of food scarcity, too. For the people in that East Side community, Tops was a place they relied on. And now you’re dealing with inequity in terms of access to nutrition. Because not everyone there has a car. Many people shopped at that specific location because they could get there using public transportation. Then you also have lots of people who would just walk to that store to get what they needed. It was the closest, best option for getting food. So now what?    

The ripple effects are so extensive. So many lives have been affected by what happened. On so many different levels. It’s not right.

Thankfully, though, that’s not the end of this story. 

Dion Dawkins | Buffalo | The Players' Tribune
Brandon Watson for The Players' Tribune

Because here’s the thing, Buffalo. Here’s the thing I want to say more than anything else right now. This guy, the individual who did what he did to our brothers and sisters, our neighbors….

He severely underestimated us. 

He doesn’t know the first thing about our toughness, or our power. 

So now it’s up to us to show how badly he misjudged this community. We’re going to show the whole country, the whole world, really. It’s up to us to make sure we do all we can to bring about the exact opposite of what that person was trying to achieve. We have to look out for our bond, protect it, fortify it. We have to make sure that his efforts not only fail — they actually backfire

And while I was already confident that we can do what needs to be done, my experience in the days following this tragedy made me feel certain. 

When me and my teammates decided to show up in the neighborhood where this happened, right there on Jefferson … it was very tough. I’ll put it like this: As players, especially in this community, people usually love seeing us. It’s that connection with the Bills, you know what I mean? Their faces light up. And I feel so lucky about that.

Dion Dawkins | Buffalo | The Players' Tribune
Brandon Watson for The Players' Tribune

But this time around, it wasn’t like that at all. You could immediately tell how much everyone was hurting. You could see it on their faces, in the same way you can usually see that light. People were struggling bad. There were a lot of tears — from little kids, moms, muscled-up tough guy dads, everyone. They were just letting it out.    

But at the same time: They weren’t defeated. 

Confused? Yeah. Heartbroken and sad? Sure. 

Defeated? No way. 

That community showed up in full force. People were out in the street, out on their front porches, filling up the sidewalks — they were making it clear that this guy messed with the wrong folks. That he was mistaken if he thought his hate and his violence were going to break our spirits. It was an energy that was just like: We’re not going to let this take us down. We’ll make it through even stronger. We’ve got each other’s backs.

I’ll never forget the conversations I had that day, or the resilience and determination I saw. It’s the kind of thing that gives me goosebumps. It’s inspiring to me. And it made me want to get out into the community in an even bigger way than I was before.

When we were out on Jefferson, one thing I kept hearing people say was “This is BUFFALO!” And maybe that doesn’t sound like much … but the longer I live here, and the more I think about those words, the more I’m beginning to understand what they mean. This is BUFFALO. In other words, this will not break us.

This is our home.

If you’re looking for a way to help those impacted by this tragedy, Dion’s Dreamers is directing every new dollar raised to the families of those lost on May 14 and to help fund youth programs in the East Buffalo community. To donate to Dion's Dreamers, please click here.