Buffalo in the ’60s: Bills players stand up to racism

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.”

Buffalo in the ’80s: When Bills fans tore down the goalposts

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Pensive flight home for the Bills

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.

Buffalo in the ’90s: $3 beer, no waiting at Rich Stadium

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Answers abound and imaginations run wild when Bills fans are asked what they’d most like to have about the 1990 Bills for today.

Buffalo News archives

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.

Buffalo in the ’50’s: Does football trump the important stuff?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.

Bob Curran and the guy who named the Buffalo Bills

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The first football team ever to be named the Buffalo Bills got their name from an essay contest in 1947, and in a move that seems to echo the sports of today more than the sports of four generations ago, Jimmy Dyson won the contest by appealing to the sponsors.

Dyson, who lived on Norwood Avenue while working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, made the connection between Buffalo Bill, the Wild West, football and — most importantly, perhaps — the contest’s sponsor, Frontier Oil.

The Buffalo Bills played in the All-America Football Conference for three seasons. When Ralph Wilson brought an American Football League team to Buffalo in 1960, another contest was held, and “Buffalo Bills” was the most popular entry. As Ralph Wilson told Bob Curran in this piece, “I could not see any reason why we should change the name.”

So the next time you say “Go Bills,” thank James F. Dyson. And in Bob Curran’s memory, say a prayer for the guys Over There.

 

Buffalo’s original QB controversy– Kemp vs Lamonica

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s the Buffalo battle that pitted brother against brother, father against son, bartender against guy on the third stool to the left.

In a manner that seems to echo in our own day, longtime friends were becoming estranged over the question, who should be the Bills starting quarterback?

The back and forth over the wise old sage Kemp and the young gunslinger Lamonica was really a win-win — both were talented and capable leaders and all-league passers.

The 1965 Buffalo Bills used both quarterbacks though the season on the way to winning the team’s second-straight American Football League title.

The Bills are the only undefeated team in professional football because of a young Notre Dame quarterback named Daryle Lamonica.

Whether the Bills are great or terrible, nothing seems to excite Western New York football fans more than being able to argue about which of the team’s quarterbacks is better — or at least less terrible. It’s played out over and over, especially when an understudy steps into the starring role.

Think of all of the time spent on gin mill barstools fighting over Ferguson or Marangi, Ferragamo or Mathison, Kelly or Reich, Collins or Van Pelt, Flutie or Johnson, Edwards or Losman, or Fitzpatrick or Edwards through the decades. And then remember Buffalo’s first real quarterback controversy, one that pitted brother against brother over cans of Genesee beer in the stands at the Rockpile.

While many of these arguments seem futile, silly or mismatched in retrospect, the Jack Kemp/Daryle Lamonica discussion of the mid-1960s set two championship level quarterbacks against one another in the hearts of Bills fans.

Kemp was the senior statesman in the Bills backfield long before he held that title in Washington. Having spent 1957-59 as a backup on NFL rosters, he led the AFL Chargers to the championship game in 1960. He was an AFL All-Star for Buffalo in 1962. Kemp was under center as the Bills won AFL Titles in 1964 and 1965. His last season with the Bills was in 1969, when injury limited him to three appearances.

Lamonica was drafted by the Bills in 1963 out of Notre Dame. He was Kemp’s backup, and when he came in to relieve Kemp, he usually made the most of it with dazzling long passes that always ignited the imaginations of Bills fans. Vexing many to this day, Lamonica was traded to the Raiders in 1967 and was named the league MVP that year. He led Oakland to a losing effort in Super Bowl II.

This article, written as the Bills were the only undefeated team in football, does some measure of introducing Lamonica to Bills fans, many of whom are still arguing his case 50 years later.

 

Buffalo in the ’90s: Bills’ future in Orchard Park in jeopardy?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

While renovations at Rich Stadium continued, Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski was looking toward the end of the Bills’ 25-year lease in Orchard Park.

The Bills would go on to sign a 15-year lease to remain in the stadium in December 1998. The deal, which included renaming the facility Ralph Wilson Stadium, called for $125 million from New York State and Erie County public funding.

More recently, a 10-year lease extension was signed in December 2012. That deal involved a total of $130 million being spent — $35 million of it from the Bills — on stadium upgrades.

April 24, 1994: Erie County, Bills have not met about lease

“County Executive Gorski and Bills owner Ralph Wilson agreed last Oct. 4 to do $23 million in renovations at Rich Stadium this spring. That work has begun. It also was announced then that the agreement committed the Bills to begin negotiations on a new lease in January.

“That was 4 1/2 years before its expiration date in August 1998. But both sides confirmed this week that this has not happened.”

Buffalo in the ’60s: Bills All-Pro is also a top car salesman

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With football as big business in 2014, it’s tough to imagine any Buffalo Bill — let alone an All-Pro — having to work in the offseason as a car salesman. But Bills safety George Saimes spent at least three offseasons selling Chevys for Glen Campbell at a site now occupied by the Walker Center and Tim Hortons at the junction of the 290 and Main Street in Williamsville.

This ad was on the sports page of the April 24, 1969, edition of The Buffalo Evening News:

Buffalo in the 00’s: DiCesare warns the Bills: Don’t take a quarterback

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The News’ Bob DiCesare warned the Bills not to take a quarterback with the 13th pick in the 2004 NFL draft. The Bills listened — but took one instead at No. 22. Wide Receiver Lee Evans was taken 13th and, against the wishes of DiCesare, J.P. Losman was taken with the 22nd overall pick. Since Losman was drafted, the Bills have had nine starting quarterbacks, including Losman.

April 22, 2004: 13th pick wrong spot to find QB

“The Bills will get a shot at nothing better than the third quarterback in Saturday’s draft, with Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers, if not all of them, sure to be gone. One quarterback — one — in the last 17 years has met expectations after being, at best, the third quarterback picked in the first round. That was in ’99, when Minnesota struck gold at No. 11 with Daunte Culpepper, one pick before Chicago fanned on Cade McNown.”