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"Then Levy said to Kelly ..."
The Best Buffalo Bills Stories Ever Told
By Jim Gehman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Jim Gehman
All rights reserved.
The Birth of the Bills
A Golden Start
If nothing else, the Buffalo Bills opened the first season of the American Football League in 1960 with some outstanding speed on their roster. Namely, Elbert "Golden Wheels" Dubenion.
"I don't know how fast I was, but I was faster than anybody there," laughed the free-agent wide receiver from Bluffton College. "[Running back] Willmer Fowler was a Big Ten sprint champion, and I used to beat him. I didn't know who he was, actually. I didn't keep up with the Big Ten. I was fast enough not to get beat."
While Dubenion's quickness was clearly not questioned when Buffalo took the field at New York's Polo Grounds for its inaugural game against the Titans on September 11, his aim, well, that was a different story. "Tommy O'Connell was the quarterback, and I was supposed to get a reverse. But on the handoff, I didn't get close enough to get the ball because the left defensive end broke through, and if I had stayed close to the quarterback, I'd have got killed. I thought it was better O'Connell than me, so I got a little wider," Dubenion said with a chuckle. "That would have been the end of my career, because no one blocked him. O'Connell didn't see him coming. He had his back to him, so he was all right. But I saw him coming! Plus I had three fumbles. I almost got cut after that game. On the plane [after being beat 27–3, head coach] Buster Ramsey told me he was going to send me back home because I dropped several passes, too. I went back to Buffalo and packed my bags, but he didn't call me. So I went to practice. It was a day-to-day thing there for the following week."
Still a member of the team when the next game rolled around, the home opener against Denver, Dubenion made the coach happy that he had not placed the call. With one second remaining in the first half, Dubenion hauled in a 53-yard touchdown pass from O'Connell to put the Bills ahead, 13–6. He added a 56-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter and finished the game, a 27–21 loss, with three catches for 112 yards and a sense that his job was a bit more secure.
"Buster said I was all right then. He wasn't going to send me back home. I felt that I had earned another week. Back then, when the NFL cut a guy, the AFL snatched him up," said Dubenion. "So you were watching the transactions to see if anybody in your position got cut. If you come in the locker room and see a guy about your size, uh-oh, hard practice today because he may be in my position. It was a little nerve-racking."
First Trip to the End Zone
Selected by Philadelphia of the NFL in 1959, Duke running back Wray Carlton did not fare too well during his contract talks, and he opted instead to play for Toronto of the Canadian Football League. But after just four games with the Argonauts, a proposed trade to Vancouver sat with him about as well as the failed negotiations with the Eagles. He packed up and returned home to North Carolina. Discouraged by the politics of the two leagues, Carlton began working for a local bank. His opinion about a pro football career would change, however, by simply answering the telephone.
"Lou Saban, who was with the Boston Patriots, called me. They had just formed a new league, and he came down a couple times and convinced me that I wanted to play," Carlton said. "I kind of wanted to come back and play some more. I was still young and virile and ready to go. I didn't really want to give it up, so he didn't have to convince me too much. When the AFL was formed, that gave a whole new league to a lot of people like me. I didn't really want to go to Philly, and they weren't going to trade my rights to anybody, so I was kind of stuck. I was very thankful that the league was formed because I really wanted to keep playing. I didn't want to quit, not at 22 years old. So I signed with Boston, went through [the 1960] training camp with them, and was traded to the Buffalo Bills. I got here maybe a week before the season started."
Buffalo began the AFL's inaugural season on September 11, 1960, with a game in New York's Polo Grounds, a 27–3 loss to the Titans. Carlton had seven carries for 13 yards. A week later in the home opener against Denver at War Memorial Stadium, he scored the Bills' first touchdown 4:53 into the second quarter on a one-yard run.
"I was listening to the radio a couple years ago, to a Buffalo station, and a trivia question popped up. The guy said, 'Who scored the Bills' first touchdown?' Everybody was saying, 'I don't know. I don't know.' And I'm thinking, 'I don't know who it was,'" laughed Carlton. "Then some guy called in and said, 'Wray Carlton.' I said, 'Whoa! That's amazing! I didn't even know that.' I never really thought about it. It never occurred to me that I was the one that scored the first touchdown."
Unfortunately for the Bills, Broncos cornerback Johnny Pyeatt scored the game's final touchdown on a 40-yard interception return in the fourth quarter. Denver won, 27–21.CHAPTER 2
Welcome to Buffalo, Kid!
Damaged, but Still Works Well
George Saimes played both safety and running back at Michigan State. And initially, he would do the same with the Bills after being selected in the 1963 AFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs and then traded to Buffalo. That, however, would come after reporting to Buffalo's training camp with a rib injury that he sustained in the annual Coaches All-America Game.
"It took about five or six weeks to get over that, so I didn't do anything [on the field] for the first three weeks," says Saimes. "So what I was doing was going to the offensive meetings and learning the offense as a running back. Then when I got healthy enough, they had me go to the defensive meetings and learn the safety spot. I was learning two positions! I played the last two exhibition games at safety, but I didn't start. And all of the running backs got hurt over a period of time during the exhibition season."
Because of those injuries, Saimes put attending the defensive meetings on hold for the time being and concentrated on the offensive game plan for the regular-season opener in San Diego.
"Cookie [Gilchrist] started that game, and I'll never forget, I'm on the sideline, and he says, 'Get ready! I may not be able to go.' He played the first series and then came out. He couldn't play! So I played the rest of the game on offense," said Saimes, who rushed for 40 yards on 10 carries against the Chargers. "The second game [at Oakland], I started on offense. And then we came home for the third game against Kansas City, and I went back to the defensive meetings. Back and forth, back and forth. I started the third game at safety" — and intercepted Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, his first of 22 career picks.
Stealing in Broad Daylight
There's an old tongue-in-cheek adage that cornerbacks are wide receivers who cannot catch. That, however, would not have applied to George "Butch" Byrd. Selected by the Bills in the fourth round of the 1964 AFL draft, the Boston University cornerback arrived in Buffalo with his eyes and ears open.
"Joe Collier, the defensive coach, taught me the strategy, taught all of us the strategy on how to play defense. But the game preparation, how to really one-on-one play cornerback, was Booker Edgerson," said Byrd. "Booker was my mentor. He had been playing, I think, two years. He had a great deal more experience than I did, and he was playing the left corner. He would take me aside and just show me different pointers. I just soaked it up because I didn't want to get cut."
Byrd should not have worried too much about being let go. He started at right cornerback in the season opener against Kansas City, a 34–17 victory. And when the Denver Broncos arrived at War Memorial Stadium a week later, the league's four- time leading wide receiver Lionel Taylor was prepared to test the wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Byrd passed the challenge by holding Taylor to three catches, though one — a pass that Byrd deflected — was for a 16-yard touchdown. Buffalo won, 30–13.
In the first quarter of the third game, at home against San Diego, Byrd collected his first career interception and scored his first career touchdown on the same play. He picked off Chargers quarterback Tobin Rote and returned the ball 75 yards in what would actually turn out to be the game-winning touchdown in the 30–3 victory.
"I owe that one to Booker," says Byrd. "Tobin Rote had a habit. If they were on a drive, at some point he would drop back two or three steps, pump to his right, and then immediately come back and throw to his left side, our right side. They were driving and got pretty close to our 30, and sure enough, he dropped back two steps, pumped it toward Booker, and just automatically threw it back blindly to my side. I saw it all happen and said, 'Well, Booker said this was what was going to happen.' So I stepped in front of it."
Byrd would step in front of six more passes during his rookie campaign and lead the team with seven interceptions. He'd finish his seven-year Bills career as a five-time AFL All-Star and the team's all-time leader with 40 interceptions for 666 yards and five touchdowns.
Making a Cover Corner
Elbert Dubenion not only possessed speed and sure hands as a wide receiver for the Bills during the 1960s, but he was also a valuable college scout for the team after he retired as a player. A case in point is when he spotted Robert James, a 6'1", 188-pound defensive lineman/linebacker at Fisk University, and envisioned him as a defensive back in the pros. In 1970, his second season, James became one of Buffalo's starting cornerbacks and soon thereafter a star in the league.
"Really, my first year there was kind of a learning experience. I had to develop defensive back skills, work on increasing my speed and coverage skills. I focused a whole year just on that right there. Once I developed those skills, then I was able to make the transition," James said. "It was easy in terms of being physical and making contact. The problem was the agility skills of being able to cover some of the fastest guys in football. That's where I had to make an adjustment. I had exceptionally good speed even though I was a lineman; it's just that I didn't know how to use that speed and apply it to my skills. Once I was able to acquire that, then I was able to be competitive as a cornerback in the NFL."
Competitive and then some! James developed into an outstanding cover corner despite having to play for three different head coaches — John Rauch, Harvey Johnson, and Lou Saban — and never winning more than four games per season during the first four years of his career.
"It was kind of a strange experience. I wasn't used to losing. It's not a part of my personality. We went through some losing seasons, and up until Lou Saban came [in 1972], everybody else had had problems trying to put the program together. It was a very hard experience, a very depressing experience," said James, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. "I won't ever forget my second year starting. We only won one ballgame, and that one ballgame really felt like it was the Super Bowl to me, simply because losing was very depressing, and when you work hard and you train hard, you expect to win. You believe you can win. Any game you go in, you play beyond and above your talents and ability. You think that just on your ability that you can win, and I think that's the way every football player should think.
"But in reality, we realize it takes 11 people on the field at the same time giving 100 percent. In the process, they have to be coordinated by a coach. We were falling short somewhere along the way, and we weren't winning, and it was a very depressing experience."
A Rough Start
Buffalo's top draft choice in 1971, J.D. Hill, a wide receiver from Arizona State, experienced a plethora of emotions at the start of his career, beginning with the fourth preseason game on August 29 in Atlanta.
"I was sitting on the bench with [quarterback] James Harris, and I said, 'I wish they'd put us in. We'd show them what we can do!' Just about a minute after that, they called us in," said Hill. "The first pass he threw to me was a 67-yard touchdown pass. We kicked off to them, they fumbled, and the next pass he threw to me was a 69-yard touchdown pass. After the game, I got a message. It said, 'J.D., your mother has died.' So I flew to San Antonio, Texas. I'm embarking upon my career and what have you, I'm excited about things, but emotionally now, I'm wrecked. I buried my mother. I hadn't had any sleep. I had to drive from San Antonio to Dallas, got on an airplane, and flew to Detroit [for the next preseason game]. I met up with the team, and the next night I shouldn't have even played. I hadn't practiced. I was emotionally distraught, and I got my knee tore up and my back hurt.
"I remember running a slant pattern, and I jumped to catch a pass, and [Lions defensive back] Dick LeBeau hit me on my left knee. [Back on the field for a kickoff,] in the process of all the hurry-up and what have you, I went out there and somebody missed a block, and a guy speared me right in the back with his helmet. They carried me off the field, and in the locker room at halftime I hear O.J. [Simpson] saying, 'Let's go out there and get them for Hill.' Well, Buffalo won the game, and I ended up going to the hospital and had my first knee surgery."
After an exhaustive rehabilitation that included getting advice from basketball star Wilt Chamberlain — "Follow everything they tell you to do, but whatever they tell you to do, do a little bit more" — Hill's regular-season debut occurred on November 28, when the 0–10 Bills hosted the Patriots at War Memorial Stadium. The rookie caught three passes for a game-high 82 yards and scored touchdowns of 11 and 47 yards less than six minutes apart in the second quarter. Buffalo won, 27–20, for its only victory that season.
Late-Round Pick to Starting Linebacker
Merv Krakau knew that it was a long shot to even make it through his first training camp with the Bills in 1973 without seeing his name on the league's waiver wire. Selected in the 14th round of the draft, the 344th player chosen overall, the Iowa State defensive end quickly found he would be playing as a linebacker.
"They felt that they wanted a little bit more size as far as height and weight," said the 6'3", 230-pound Krakau. "I think one of the things that really helped me was that I played in the Senior Bowl that year, and the coaches from Buffalo — Lou Saban and his assistants — were the coaches of the North team, which I was on. So they got the opportunity to watch me practice for a week and then play the game and see what I could do. I probably made enough of an impression on them to give me that opportunity."
Having made the roster, when the season opened against New England, Krakau had the unexpected opportunity to be the starting middle linebacker.
"The linebacker that was going to start, Jim Cheyunski, had hurt his knee in a preseason game," Krakau said. "So I had the opportunity and, believe me, it was an experience, because at first you weren't planning on it. To come in and think the chances of making the team were pretty slim and then changing positions and then starting the season opener. ... It was a thrill."
And it turned out to be a thrilling game. The Bills won their season opener for the first time in six years by pounding the Patriots, 31–13. Buffalo's O.J. Simpson set an NFL record by rushing for 250 yards, and fullback Larry Watkins added 105 more yards. Meanwhile, Krakau and his defensive teammates held New England's star running back Sam Cunningham to just 53 yards on the ground.
Into the Fire
Much was expected from Mario Clark, an All–Pac Eight cornerback at Oregon and Buffalo's first-round draft choice in 1976. However, being named a starter as a rookie on a team that had just experienced three consecutive winning seasons caught him a little by surprise.
"My first year, they just threw me out there like on-the-job training. I remember that I got burnt a lot of times," said Clark. "On a [season-opening] Monday night game against Miami, [wide receivers] Howard Twilley, Nat Moore, and those guys were having a field day on me. And then I ran into [fullback] Norm Bulaich and got a slight concussion. I was sitting on the bench with my head down, and I'm not knowing this, but [ABC television analyst] Howard Cosell is saying, 'He's just a rookie. He will get better. He is just a rookie.'
"I'd started all my life, even in the All-Star Games, so I just felt like I could start. It was just the mental part of pro football that I really had to get used to. I could have all the physical attributes in the world, but mentally, if I didn't know my plays or if I didn't know the different speeds of the game, then I would be pretty lost. But I had a lot of confidence. I just felt like I could play."
Excerpted from "Then Levy said to Kelly ..." by Jim Gehman. Copyright © 2008 Jim Gehman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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