Oddly enough, Malcolm Koonce has felt right at home this week, with the team practicing at Greenbrier Sports Performance Center in West Virginia. With the silent, calming forest in the distance, it struck an eerily similar chord to Buffalo, New York, for him.
Not only is Buffalo where the Raiders will be traveling next, but also where Koonce found himself as a football player.
Growing up 35 miles from New York City in Peekskill, he describes the community as "very sports-oriented." Koonce's football journey began as a fifth grader playing for the Titans in the Peekskill Pop Warner Football League. He remembers always stalking the quarterback on defense - a precursor for what was to come.
While Koonce had passion for the game of football, he was also a top tier rugby player. He picked up the sport in eight grade, trying to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who introduced him to the sport. As Koonce worked to become an imposing figure in a new field, his role was vastly different.
"In football, I was always a defensive end or playing defense in some type of way. In rugby, I was one of the premier ball carriers," said Koonce. "It was very different. I kind of had more of an offensive mindset when I was playing rugby compared to football. Football was all about creating negative plays and being disruptive and rugby was like, 'What's the quickest way to score?' or setting up plays to score.
"I throughly did enjoy rugby, but it was always a hobby."
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Despite being an offensive juggernaut in rugby, it took some time for Koonce to develop as a football player. He played at Archbishop Stepinac High School under Michael O'Donnell, winning a New York State championship in the process. He drew some attention late in his prep career, earning a Division I football scholarship to the University of Buffalo.
Koonce experienced serious culture shock after arriving to Buffalo, despite it being located in the same state he was raised. In Koonce's case, the differences between Buffalo and Peekskill weren't necessarily bad ones.
"It was definitely different going from an urban area to a place that reminds of West Virginia, where we are right now," said Koonce. "People from Buffalo are very inviting people, they're very kind and I feel like people from [NYC] are kind of the opposite. People from the city are kind of more to themselves and introverted, where people from Buffalo are more extroverted and want to get to know you."
The people of Buffalo got to know Koonce well in his four seasons with the Bulls, where he accumulated 109 total tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. His fondest memory was defeating the Charlotte 49ers 31-9 in the 2019 Bahamas Bowl, winning defensive MVP with two sacks and a forced fumble.
Now in his third season with the Raiders, he's carved a role for himself on special teams and as a rotational edge rusher.
"Malcolm is a guy that wears a lot of hats for us and does a lot of different jobs," Josh McDaniels said recently. "Had some pressure on the passer and did his job, I'd say for the most part, in the running game and in the pass rush."
Nearly three years after his last game at Buffalo, Koonce will return to the gridiron in his home state. He'll also be lining up against his former Bulls teammate Cam Lewis, now a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills.
It will certainly be a family affair for the New York native.
"It's definitely exciting," said Koonce. "I've got a lot of friends and family coming, I've got old teammates coming, I've got friends from UB [University of Buffalo] coming, so it's definitely exciting."
Other notable connections Raiders senior defensive assistant Rob Ryan served as the Buffalo assistant head coach/defense under his brother Rex Ryan in 2016. Raiders starting right guard Greg Van Roten spent the 2022 season with the Buffalo Bills, playing 16 games (four starts) there. Bills wide receivers coach Adam Henry spent five seasons (2007-11) with the Silver and Black, the first two as an offensive quality control coach and following three as tight ends coach. Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer began his NFL career with the Raiders from 2001-04. Bills running backs coach Kelly Skipper served as the Raiders tight ends coach from 2007-14. Bills RB Latavius Murray was selected in the sixth round (181st overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Raiders, playing three seasons with the team. He received a Pro Bowl nod in 2015.