Whatever happened to ... ?
You always hear us know-it-all pundits declare how a certain player will be "a big part" of his team's future plans, or something along those lines.
Remember how Pierre Turgeon was supposed to key the Sabres' resurgence following his selection at No. 1 overall in 1987? He never made us forget about Gil Perreault, but he was parlayed into Pat Lafontaine.
History has a funny way of defying prediction and setting its own course, rendering our crystal ball defective and consistently humbling us. But hindsight is always 20-20, with clear skies and 100 percent visibility, so with kickoff of the Buffalo Bills' 2010–11 season less than a week away, let's we'll rifle through the dustbin of Buffalo Bills history, and ask "Whatever happened to...?"
• Robert James? How many times have you gazed at the Wall of Fame at The Ralph and posed the question, "Who?" It's a fair question; the wildly talented cornerback played on some pretty nondescript Bills teams of the early to mid-seventies. James was a three-time Pro Bowler from 1972–74, and while his nine career interceptions never threatened the Buffalo record books, his legacy was successfully keeping star receivers' names out of Monday's highlights. Wonder where the phrase "shut-down" corner comes from? Your quest for answers should lead you back to James, now a high school administrator in Tennessee. I had the pleasure of interviewing the soft-spoken, studious James on the day his name was posted on the Wall in 1999, and to hear him say he had no regrets about his truncated career (his knee was irreparably shredded in a preseason game in 1975), was truly refreshing and remarkable.
• Greg Bell? The fleet-of-foot tailback was perhaps the lone bright spot of the miserable 1984 season, running for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns, and being named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie—an astonishing feat playing for such a spectacularly inept team. He took the opening play from scrimmage eighty-five yards to paydirt (er, payturf?) in the highlight of that 2-14 season, a 14-3 upset of Dallas. Tony Dorsett called it "one of the darkest day in the history of the Dallas Cowboys," which on its own is enough to earn Bell a warm, permanent place in Bills fans' hearts. Bell was one of the centerpieces of the watershed 1987 deal that sent him to the Los Angeles Rams, Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis, and Cornelius Bennett to Orchard Park. So Bell shares a unique kinship with Turgeon: a first-round pick who performed well in Buffalo, but whose legacy was being dealt for two of the most beloved figures in Buffalo sports history.
• Dennis Shaw? The consensus top all-time Bills quarterbacks go something like this ... 1. Jim Kelly, 2. Jack Kemp, 3. Joe Ferguson, and 4. Daryle Lamonica. But what about Shaw, who bridged the gap between the Kemp and Ferguson eras? Shaw, a second-round pick, received 1970 NFL Rookie of the Year honors and established some nice chemistry with Marlin Briscoe and Haven Moses. The reason Shaw can't be considered one of the best was his penchant for throwing picks. Lots of 'em. Like 68 in nine seasons (compared to 35 touchdown throws) with the Bills, Cardinals, Giants, and Chiefs. Also, he played on some rotten Bills teams in the early seventies, before Lou Saban returned to the sidelines, drafted Fergie and actually used O. J. Simpson to run the ball.
• Ronnie Harmon? I remember being excited to hear that Buffalo drafted Harmon, who dazzled with Iowa in his senior year, as a top pick in the '86 draft. Unfortunately for Harmon, he'll always be a villain among fans for infamously dropping the potential winning touchdown in the Dog Pound in 1989 AFC Divisional Playoffs, leading to an acrimonious departure from Western New York. Harmon went on to a decent career with the Chargers, racking up 8,850 totals yards, 34 touchdowns and a 1992 Pro Bowl selection, in a dozen seasons. He's easily forgotten because his replacement, Thurman Thomas, had nowhere near the football pedigree but turned out to be a much more effective player.
• Donald Wilson? OK, maybe I'm really reaching on this one, but Wilson had some highlight-reel interceptions and kickoff returns in his two seasons in Buffalo (yeah, those forgettable '84 and '85 campaigns), and was a big, fast safety who looked to be a key cog in the present/future Buffalo secondary. Alas, he instead went on to star in the Canadian Football League, playing into the mid-nineties. So what happened? My guess is that there was some sort of falling out with management, or that newly anointed GM Bill Polian determined that Wilson simply wasn't good enough to play in the NFL. Larry Felser surely knows the full story, but I don't know him well enough to find out.
We know the outcomes of the James, Bell, and Harmon sagas, but I'll admit I'm decidedly fuzzy on Shaw and Wilson. I wasn't even alive during the Shaw days and was eight when Wilson left town, so I'd welcome feedback on them. Have an obscure favorite player or some fun facts about bygone Bills, or perhaps your own picks for "Whatever Happened To..."?