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The 24 years and 12 days that the Buffalo Bills have waited to host another NFL playoff game are chump change compared to what Valentino Dixon endured awaiting his release from prison for a murder he did not commit. Thanks to running back Taiwan Jones, football and freedom will converge on Jan. 9, 2021, when Dixon watches his favorite team play the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC wild-card round.

Buffalo Bills fans have waited a long time for this day

On Dec. 28, 1996, the Jacksonville Jaguars scored a 30-27 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC wild-card round in Orchard Park, New York. Though the Bills would make it back to the playoffs in two of the next three years, the setback to coach Tom Coughlin’s team was the last home playoff contest for decades and marked the start of seismic change.

That 1996 season was the first of 24 in a row in which the Bills would not win the AFC East. They went 17 consecutive years without a playoff appearance. And the loss to the Jaguars was the farewell for Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, center Kent Hull and tackle Glenn Parker. The heady days of four straight trips to the Super Bowl were distant in the rear-view mirror.

The Bills’ troubles paled in comparison to those of Valentino Dixon. By the time of the loss to the Jaguars n that day in 1996, the Buffalo man had already started serving 38 ½ years to life at Attica Correctional Facility, at the doors of which all hope for freedom ends for many of those convicted of heinous crimes.

Extraordinary developments set Dixon free in 2018, and he will be in the stands courtesy of Taiwan Jones when the Bills take on the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs.

Valentino Dixon served 27 years for a murder he did not commit

Taiwan Jones, officially a running back but almost exclusively a special-teams player in his 10-year career with a trio of NFL teams, was three years old when a late-night fight broke out on the night of Aug. 10, 1991, outside a restaurant in the heart of Buffalo. One man was killed, and three other people were injured by gunshots.

An anonymous tip led police to Valentino Dixon, whom prosecutors would subsequently describe as an “up-and-coming drug dealer.” Facts at the time did not clearly point to Dixon as the shooter, and reports two days after the incident cited a confession by a man named Lamarr Scott. And though police could link the gun to Dixon, there was no direct evidence that he was the shooter.

Still, Dixon was convicted by year’s end on the strength of witness IDs, some of which were later recanted. He received a 38 ½ years-to-life prison sentence. While serving time at Attica, Dixon passed time by drawing thousands of pictures of golf courses.

Intrigued by the drawings, Golf Digest published some of the images with a 2012 story making the case that Dixon’s conviction was the result of sloppy police work. Undergraduate students at Georgetown University made a documentary on Dixon’s conviction, and a Rochester, New York lawyer, took up the case.

In 2018, Dixon’s conviction was overturned. He was released from prison after 27 years behind bars for a murder that he did not commit. He filed a civil suit against the district attorney’s office the following year, The Buffalo News reported.

Taiwan Jones invites Valentino Dixon to the Buffalo Bills’ playoff game

Strict measures enforced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo required the Buffalo Bills to play their entire 2020 regular season without fans at home games. Cuomo relented for the Jan. 9, 2021, wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts, announcing that 6,772 fans could attend and that he would also be present.

The backlash – to both the restrictions Cuomo tied to attending the game and the governor’s handling on the pandemic – resulted in a petition demanding that he stay away. Cuomo subsequently said that business in Albany would keep him in Albany on game day.

While Cuomo won’t be there, Valentino Dixon will be in the stands. Running back and special-teams player Taiwan Jones heard Dixon’s incredible story before the season and has arranged for the wrongfully convicted man to receive tickets for the playoff game. It will be Dixon’s first time seeing his favorite team in person since he attended a preseason game as an 11-year-old.

Jones said he was overwhelmed by a recent conversation with Dixon.

“It was like talking to an old friend. Our conversation was real genuine,” Jones told ESPN. “I think what stood out the most was that he didn’t have any grudge in him. He sounded like he was just real happy with where his life is today. I was just so amazed at where he’s at emotionally and mentally.

“He definitely showed a lot of character of who he is, because he’s just a happy dude. He didn’t know me or what I was going to do for him, and he just had so much enthusiasm. I was happy to be able to do something to make him happy.”

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