Having worked with Van Miller on Bills broadcasts on the radio and then as his producer at Channel 4, I spent a lot of time listening to his stories.
Van was a tremendous storyteller, and always delighted any crowd gathered around him with his ability to spin a tale about almost anything and make it interesting.
One of his favorites was “The Cookie Gilchrist earmuff story.” Ask people who’ve spent time around Van– Paul Peck, Brian Blessing, John Murphy… and they probably know the story as Van told it by heart as well as Van knew it himself.
The story goes, Cookie Gilchrist wasn’t really happy with the amount of money The Bills were paying him, so he was always looking for a way to make an extra buck. One time, he decided to buy a load of earmuffs and sell them as “Cookie Gilchrist earmuffs” at The Rockpile one Sunday.
“Well,” Van would say with a smile, “It happened to be one of the hottest December days on record, and the sun blazing at kickoff– he only sold about three pairs of earmuffs!”
It’s a classic Van story, quick and neat, and leaves the listener smiling.
The problem is, while there’s probably some basis in truth— Van was always more about telling a good story than about getting all the facts straight.
In a quick internet search, I found three different reports of Van telling the story. The temperature at kickoff was either 69, 57, or 60 degrees depending on which version you read. The number of pairs of earmuffs he had changed too– 5,000 in one telling; 3,000 in another; 15,000 another time.
The point is, there were probably earmuffs. Beyond that, it’s tough to tell where the colorful imagination of Uncle Van took over.
There’s another version of the story told to writer Scott Pitoniak by longtime Bills trainer Ed Abramowski. Published in 2007, Abe’s version is Cookie was trying to sell the earmuffs for the 1964 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial, but the headgear wound up getting caught in customs when Gilchrist tried to bring them to Buffalo from his home in Toronto.
The only contemporary earmuff story I could find was in the Ottawa Journal a few days after the Bills won that 1964 AFL Championship Game.
A reporter asked Cookie about the autographed earmuffs he said would be sold at the game. “I ran into problems there, and didn’t sell them.”– Ottawa Journal, December 28, 1964
That game was played December 26, 1964. It was a mild day with some rain and a high around 45.
Van Miller’s story is the only reason I know that Cookie Gilchrist ever tried to sell earmuffs, and that really makes me smile. Knowing the real story about how and why makes me smile, too.
It’s tough to imagine Buffalo without Jim Kelly… but if he would have had it his way at the beginning of his professional career, he never would have become a Buffalo Bill.
Today, two decades after taking his last snap, Kelly remains one of Buffalo’s most beloved personalities and one of Western New York’s biggest backers.
He was one of us in the pocket. His on-field grit reflects what we hope we see in ourselves individually and as a community.
Our admiration for him was forged as we watched him blow into his hands in Rich Stadium cold– and seemed to enjoy it.
Kelly and those great Bills teams embraced the cold and the snow and made it a part of their physical and mental advantage over the rest of the AFC during the greatest ride Buffalo sports fans have ever known.
Fresh out of college, though, Kelly had another path to greatness planned. It was lined with palm trees and beautiful people, not snowbanks and Zubaz.
It took a couple of turns in the road to get him here.
Jim Kelly was drafted by the Bills out of Miami three years before he made Rich Stadium his home.
There were plenty of very good quarterbacks available in the 1983 NFL Entry Draft. Three of them, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway, are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“My agent looked at me after Elway got picked and the problem that arose from it and he said, ‘Hey Jim, is there anywhere that you don’t want to play?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t want to play for the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers and I don’t want to play for the Buffalo Bills.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
The Bills picked Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with the 12th pick. Watching on TV in his parents’ living room, Kelly celebrated not being picked by Buffalo.
“I remember jumping up out of my seat and I hit my mother who was sitting on the right arm of the recliner and I knocked her right off the chair. I felt so bad, I quick picked her up off the floor and I’m apologizing, ‘Sorry mom I’m just glad I’m not going to play for Buffalo.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
But the Bills also had the 14th pick in the first round. With that pick, they took the Miami quarterback.
“I couldn’t believe it. Within minutes the phone calls came and with me being politically correct I was saying how excited I was to be a Buffalo Bill. And when I hung up I said, ‘We need to call the USFL and see what other options we have.’”
-Jim Kelly to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown in 2010
One of those immediate conversations was with WBEN Radio’s Stan Barron. You can listen to that conversation below.
The polite young quarterback impressed one of the old salts of Buffalo sports by saying all the right things, though his heart clearly wasn’t in it– because he had an alternative.
The United States Football League was founded in 1982. The original idea was to capitalize on the country’s growing love of professional football by playing games in the spring and summer during the NFL’s off-season. The league wasn’t going head-to-head with games, but they were going head-to-head in trying to sign talent.
Kelly’s agents worked out a deal with the Bills, and then took two weeks to meet with USFL teams. Bills interim General Manager Pat McGroder was unabashedly optimistic.
“They (Kelly’s agents) said we’ve got a hell of a chance of getting him,” McGroder told reporters as USFL brass wined and dined Kelly and crew.
The Bills were taken by surprise when Larry Felser wrote in The Buffalo News that Kelly would sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers “for an enormous sum of money.”
“There are risks in doing what I’m doing, but I made up my mind,” Kelly said. “Everybody has to take a risk once in his life. But I’m happy I did it and I won’t regret it.”
The folks at One Bills Drive were upset that the team was never given a chance to meet or beat the offer from the upstart league.
“We considered three different offers that they threw at us, and they were very happy with the offer we made to them,” McGroder told reporters after Kelly signed the five-year, $3.5 million deal . “I want the fans to know it was not the Buffalo Bills who let them down.”
“It was very cold in Buffalo.”
-Jim Kelly to reporters in Houston
When he signed, Kelly told reporters in Houston that he was never pleased with what the Bills were offering and that part of his decision to join the Gamblers was that he liked the people in their organization better than he did those with the Bills.
When Kelly’s signing was announced in Houston, his agent, Greg Lustig said, “There were several reasons not to sign with Buffalo. For one, it’s one of the most depressed areas in America. The opportunities just aren’t there. I understand Joe Cribbs made under $500 in personal appearances there in the last three years.”
Associated Press, June 11, 1983
The Bills moved on, but the woeful play of the quarterbacks on the roster and a pair of 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985 meant Kelly was never far from the thoughts of anyone connected with the Bills.
Joe Ferguson played quarterback for the Bills in 1983, and part of 1984, until Joe Dufek took the starting job. Bruce Mathison was on the roster at quarterback, too. The Bills also brought in veteran Vince Ferragamo in 1985. The day Ferragamo became a Bill, he was asked about Kelly.
“I think you definitely look at that with suspicion,” Ferragamo said of the possibility of Kelly coming to the Bills. “There’s nothing concrete behind that and your approach to the game can’t be decided on the fact of what happens a year from now.”
The Bills thought of Kelly with hope, but Kelly’s thoughts of Buffalo weren’t happy ones.
“There are a lot of off-the-field endorsements I can get here (in Houston) that I couldn’t get in Buffalo. Plus I could come right in and play and make a name for myself and not have to sit behind Joe Ferguson for three years playing in the snow in Buffalo.”
Jim Kelly, a year into his USFL contract, 1984
Kelly was enjoying his time in Houston– setting league passing records and driving a brand new Corvette every few weeks in a deal with a local Chevy dealer– but the future of the upstart USFL was becoming cloudy.
So with a murky prognosis for the league and the team that Kelly played for, the quarterback’s stance softened somewhat, saying that while the Bills weren’t his top choice of NFL teams, he’d “play for them if necessary and give his best.”
It still wasn’t a homerun. As late as February, 1986, Kelly was still openly hostile to playing in Buffalo.
And month before signing with the Bills, Sports Illustrated started a feature article on the Houston Gamblers quarterback with “Jim Kelly, the best quarterback nobody has ever seen play…”
The article went on to describe the close knit Kelly clan that Buffalonians of the ’80s and ’90s remember well– the quarterback’s parents and brothers who eventually seemed to fit right in here despite their Pennsylvania accents.
During the summer of 1986, the USFL was embroiled in lawsuits and court cases. Play was suspended for the league, and on paper, Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the Donald Trump-owned, Doug Flutie-quarterbacked New Jersey Generals.
The future was up in the air. USFL team mergers could have been haulted. The USFL could have been forced to fold. The USFL could have merged with the NFL.
Kelly talked about all of these possibilities in SI. It didn’t leave Bills fans hopeful.
”I’d like to play for the Raiders. I’d like to live in California,” Kelly says. ”But what I’d really like to do is play for the New Jersey Generals and Donald Trump and merge with the NFL and take the run-and-shoot with Herschel Walker in the backfield and just kick ass.”
Kelly himself says he might play for the Bills if the USFL folds, if they pay him a lot, or he might sit out the 1986 season and become a free agent next year and go where he pleases for a trillion dollars. ”Buffalo needs more than me, more than a quarterback,” he says. ”I’d get the tar beat out of me, and it would shorten my career.”
-Sports Illustrated, July 21, 1986
About a month after the article hit mailboxes in Western New York and around the country, Jim Kelly was a Buffalo Bill and the NFL’s highest paid player.
“I’m being paid to play football, and that’s what I want to do,” Kelly told the Associated Press as the USFL stalemate seemed indefinite during the summer of 1986. Kelly and the Bills started the wheels in motion to make that happen.
In mid-August, Bills General Manager Bill Polian received written permission from Donald Trump– whose team owned Kelly’s rights in the USFL– to negotiate a deal with the quarterback. Kelly sat with Ralph Wilson in a suite during the Bills first preseason game against the Oilers in Houston.
In the following days, Kelly signed a five-year, $8 million contract. The approximately $1.5 million per year pushed Kelly’s salary past Joe Montana’s $1.3 million, making the new Bills quarterback the NFL’s richest player.
“What we’re really interested in is rebuilding this franchise to respectability,” Bills owner Ralph Wilson said at the time of the signing. But it was bigger than that for Buffalo.
Jim Kelly’s deciding join the Bills might have been Buffalo’s biggest event of the 1980s. It was a Buffalo prodigal son story if there ever was one. Jim Kelly spent three years sniping at Buffalo and taking shots at our weather– but a switch was flipped when he climbed off a private plane into a limousine and got a police escort down the 33– with fans waving and cheering at overpasses– to sign the contract that would make him not just a million-dollar arm, but our million dollar arm.
Kelly took a break from signing autographs in the lobby of a downtown hotel to officially sign that contract in a spot only blocks from where a billboard sponsored by Bethlehem Steel employees famously asked “the last person leaving Buffalo to turn out the light.”
It hadn’t even been ten years since that billboard had come and gone, but things had grown worse. The steel plant had closed and the Bills had just played two 2-14 seasons in a row.
It was bleak being a Buffalonian.
The signing definitely made Buffalonians hold their heads a little higher. Bills General Manager Bill Polian spelled it out at that first press conference.
“The fact that Jim is sitting here to my left is an enduring monument to Ralph Wilson’s commitment to building a winner for the city of Buffalo,” said Polian.
Jimbo’s arrival rekindled an almost extinguished sense of civic pride and brought a measure of hometown hope to Buffalo, and the feeling is mutual. Kelly has called signing with the Bills “the best decision of his life.”
Three decades removed, its tough to imagine what Buffalo would have been without his presence.
My ol’man took me to my first Bills game at Rich Stadium against the Baltimore Colts in 1982– the players’ strike shortened season.
Gramps was a ticket taker at the stadium, so we didn’t pay– we handed him a matchbook which he ripped and gave back to us in case the boss was watching. Aside from the free admission, Gramps letting us in also meant we could get in with the big bag of home-popped popcorn, which was our only snack for the game.
The fact that we didn’t pay to get in probably means we weren’t part of the 33,900 announced attendance that day, but it doesn’t matter anyway– we left early because I was five years old and cold.
That all sounds better than what happened today, when I turned the car radio on just in time to hear Murph say that first time rookie starter Nate Peterson threw two interceptions in the first four minutes of the game against the LA Chargers.
This photo shows two well-known figures in 1970s Buffalo getting together to talk about jazz in in the WADV-FM studios.
Best known for his time at WKBW Radio, Fred Klestine spent parts of four decades as a disc jockey on Buffalo radio stations WWOL, WBNY, WADV and WBUF. A Lackawanna boy who worked in the Bethlehem plant before turning to radio, his broadcast persona was a deep, melodic voiced blue-collar everyman. Off the air, he was a coffee-swilling funnyman who was one of everyone’s favorite co-workers.
As the outgoing public face of “The Electric Company,” Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Reggie McKenzie and his fellow guard Joe DeLamielleure were given plenty of credit for O.J. Simpson’s ability to run for a record 2003 yards in 1973. As the man who helped make the way for “the Juice,” McKenzie even became a spokesman for Niagara Mohawk.
On this day, McKenzie dropped by the Buffalo studios of “beautiful music” WADV-FM to promote two jazz albums that were recorded in the Hotel Statler’s Downtown Room. The call letters of WADV-FM were changed to WYRK-FM in 1981.
The 1965 American Football League All-Star game was scheduled for 52 years ago this week in New Orleans, but it never happened.
Dave Dixon, who had been trying to bring the AFL to New Orleans, organized the game with promises that there wouldn’t be any problems in the still-segregated city. Players were promised testimonial dinners and golf tournaments, and even told to bring their families. But trouble began as players landed at the airport.
Cabs lined up for the White All-Stars, but the 22 black players weren’t so lucky. A porter called black cabbies from downtown for several players, but there were a few who were picked up by white cabbies — only to be driven out to the boonies before being ordered out of the cab. Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist was warned by a friendly white cabbie, “Be careful in this town.”
Ten members of the AFL Champion Bills were on the East All-Star team, and Bills Head Coach Lou Saban was East coach. Four of the 10 Bills were black: Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Butch Byrd and Ernie Warlick.
Bills quarterback Jack Kemp and linebacker Mike Stratton were also among the all-stars, and were joined by their teammate Warlick in the French Quarter. In several different places, Kemp and Stratton — both white — were allowed in, but Warlick was told with hostility that he wasn’t welcome.
In his book “The Birth of the New NFL,” Larry Felser tells the story that Warlick packed his bags after an incident the following morning.
“Warlick was able to order breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, ‘but I lost my appetite when an older woman said loud enough for me to hear, that she didn’t want to eat in the same room with monkeys.’ “
There were many other black players who had similar or worse experiences. Many didn’t want to spent the rest of the week there and play in such an environment.
There were several meetings of players over the coming days. The black players voted at one meeting to skip practice. Then there was a meeting with the game organizers and the NAACP, where Gilchrist did much of the talking.
At a larger meeting, with many players of both races, Bills tight end Warlick was nominated spokesman of the black players. It wasn’t unanimous, but the black players voted to not play.
Immediately after the meeting, Warlick told reporters that the fact that they’d been promised there wouldn’t be any segregation made it that much harder to deal with. Players were told that the better night spots, restaurants and hotels would greet all the players equally with open arms.
“Actually, this came as a complete surprise to us,” Warlick said of the way he and his teammates had been treated. “We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens. Maybe if we had been alerted to the fact that we wouldn’t have the run of the town, we could have avoided this unpleasant situation.
“If they had told us this before, we’d have looked specifically for those cabs and sought out our entertainment in those places,” Warlick continued. “But they led us to believe everything was going to be OK. And it wasn’t.”
Kemp was the backup quarterback for the East All-Stars, had just won the AFL Championship with the Bills, and was also the president of the league’s players’ union. He and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Ron Mix were among the white players at that final meeting. The two agreed to lead white players to stand by their teammates — but not all white players embraced the move. Patriots linebacker (and later Hall of Famer) Nick Buoniconti called the walkout a “raw deal” which “hurt the league a great deal.”
Later a Buffalo congressman, HUD Secretary and vice presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp was also influential in the negotiations to move the game to Houston, where it was played days later.
Immediately following the vote to not play, Gilchrist found a Mexican cabbie to take him to the airport, but snow in the northeast had flights delayed. News of a player revolt came on a TV in the terminal, and “Suddenly, people are all looking at me,” Gilchrist told Murray Olderman of the Jamestown Post-Journal. “I can sense the hostility. For the first time in my life I’m scared. I’ve been brainwashed about the South.”
He finally got on a flight for New York and was comforted that he was among friends when someone asked him for an autograph.
“We weren’t out to correct anybody,’’ then-Bills cornerback Butch Byrd told the Sporting News in 2015.
“We were just thinking, ‘They’re showing us no respect. This is just pure hatred. We have to get out of here,’ ” said Byrd. “We weren’t thinking about making history, so to speak. We just knew we were treated badly, and we wanted to leave.’’
“The stand the AFL and its players took against the city of New Orleans was unprecedented,” wrote Pro Football Hall of Fame researcher Jon Kendle in a piece for the Hall of Fame’s website. “The boycott was clearly a milestone event that went beyond the world of sports and was more of a reflection of American society at the time. It helped shine a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.”
As a community, Buffalo Bills fans have been largely and vocally disappointed in the network analysts and play-by-play announcers and their treatment of our team and our city. At the end of a game, there is quite often a lengthy list of mostly perceived, rather than outward slights against us.
With Howard Cosell, there was no need to read between the lines. Like the time he called Buffalo a “lesser clone of Cleveland.”
Bills Fans display a Howard Cosell puppet at a Monday Night game in 1983. (Buffalo News archives)
While he’d say things on the air that would earn him rebuking letters from folks like Mayor Jimmy Griffin, Buffalonians and even Griffin himself, were often charmed by the intelligent and thoughtful Cosell outside the play-by-play booth.
Howard Cosell, wearing a “Talking Proud” pin, speaks with Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin. (Buffalo News archives)
Eventually, it wasn’t just Buffalo that had had enough of Cosell. Early in the 1983 season, he made reference to an African-American player running like a “little monkey.” Cosell said he was referring to the player’s tiny stature, not his race. Videotape showed him using the same term about a diminutive white player, and Cosell’s grandchildren remember the TV big mouth calling them “little monkeys” as small children.
Howard Cosell speaks to the Buffalo Quarterback Club Luncheon, 1981.
The furor was the last chink in Cosell’s armor, and he’d leave Monday Night Football at the end of the season – but not before one more appearance at Rich Stadium. It was Oct. 3, 1983, when the Bills lost to the Jets, 34-10 on Monday Night Football. Howard Cosell called the Bills action for the final time.
Twenty-seven years ago, an overtime field goal win over the Jets was enough to clinch the 1988 AFC East title for the Buffalo Bills and enough for fans to take down the goal posts at Rich Stadium.
Buffalo News archives
It wasn’t the first time the uprights came down.
In 1980, when Bills fans stormed the field following the team’s first win against Miami in more than a decade, team owner Ralph Wilson famously told reporters he shared in the fans’ excitement and would be happy to buy new goalposts.
But team officials had grown weary of the tradition by the time the Bills were making it to Super Bowls every year.
When the Bills clinched the division against the Dolphins in 1990, fans wanted to take down the goalposts again. The perimeter of the field was lined with police on horseback. It was promised that fans would not be allowed to take down the posts.
As public address announcer and then-WBEN disc jockey Stan Roberts implored fans to “please stay off the field,” goal posts were passed over the mounted deputies and through the crowd. Somehow hacksaws showed up and were used to divvy up the uprights — which, Stan reminded the fans, to no avail, were needed for playoff games.
An undated look, likely from the mid-’60s, of a tired flight home for the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo News archives
Among those in the photo are future Erie County Executive and Bills halfback Ed Rutkowski, standing; in the foreground to the left is the wide receiver best known as “Golden Wheels,” Elbert Dubenion; and to the right is defensive back Butch Byrd, the five time AFL All-Star, drafted by Buffalo from Boston University in 1964.
Answers abound and imaginations run wild when Bills fans are asked what they’d most like to have about the 1990 Bills for today.
Jim Kelly? Thurman Thomas? The hope and expectation of great things about to happen with the team?
Before you get too far ahead of yourselves, think about stadium prices. The best seats at Rich Stadium in 1990 were $35, but you could get into the game for $20. Parking was $4, and an 18-ounce beer was $3.
Sure, Hall of Fame owner, Hall of Fame general manager, Hall of Fame coach, five Hall of Fame players — but think about walking into the stadium with a 20, buying six beers, and still having enough for a $2 tip for the beer guy.
Bruce Shanks, the first of three Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists for The News, was wondering 60 years ago this week if Buffalo was paying too much attention to football and not enough to the events that shape our world.
It’s easy, perhaps, to see parallels all these years later, but like most things in life, it’s a bit more complicated than it was 60 years ago.
The idea of sports has grown both as a big business, but also plays a much larger role in our community’s idea of civic pride. Politics, meanwhile, has become more difficult to talk about as more Americans on both sides of the political spectrum become more extreme in their ideas and more entrenched in that extremism.
In our social media-driven world, saying “Go Bills” might help you gain friends, while saying “Go Candidate X” might get you unfriended or unfollowed.