If you ask people of a certain age their memories of the Buffalo Bills’ "Glory Years," they will likely bring up the "Super Bowl years," when the Bills had a breathtaking team that went to the Super Bowl four successive years, and four stars from that era were enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Those teams, however, in the parlance of the players themselves, "didn’t win their last game." That is, they won conference titles, but failed to win a league championship, now called the Super Bowl. But I, and I’m sure many readers of this magazine, remember the glory years when the team actually did win championships, the only professional titles won by a team representing Buffalo in any major sport.
The 2014 season is the 50th anniversary of the Bills’ first league title, the 1964 American Football League Championship. For unexplained reasons, Bills’ management has decided not to acknowledge this anniversary, reportedly deciding to celebrate next year, since the team actually won two successive titles, in 1964 and 1965. That seems to me like telling your wife that you’ll celebrate your 50th wedding anniversary the following year! Since the Bills won’t celebrate their own accomplishment, this is my homage to one of the best assemblages of athletes in professional football history: the 1964 Buffalo Bills.
A little professional football history is called for here. The National Football League had existed from 1920, and by 1959, it was a hide-bound, predictable league with 12 teams, each playing only 12 games per season. It had received an infusion of excitement in the early ’50s when Paul Brown brought his team from the defunct All-America Conference and dominated the NFL for years afterwards, but by 1959, the NFL’s offensive game plans were best described as "Three yards and a cloud of dust." The league also disdained attempts by "outsiders" to obtain expansion teams in other than the "old-line" cities: Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Washington, etc.
Texas oilman Lamar Hunt’s bid to gain an NFL franchise or establish an NFL expansion team in Dallas was rejected, so Hunt found seven other brave souls (including Ralph C. Wilson Jr.) who purchased franchises in the new American Football League. The league thrived, and caught fans’ imagination with flashy uniforms, go-for-broke offenses, and football teams in such "new" places as Dallas, Houston, Oakland, and of all places, Buffalo. It also introduced the official scoreboard clock, player names on jerseys, the optional two-point conversion, and added two games to the professional football season, playing a balanced schedule of 14 games. It didn’t take long for the NFL and sycophant sportswriters from NFL cities to downplay the AFL. However, when the NFL finally agreed to merge, and to play championship games, the AFL came out as its equal, with a 2-2 record in the four World Championship games between the league champions.
So the Bills’ 1964 AFL Championship was before there were any Super Bowls. There was an NFL champ in 1964, the aforementioned Cleveland Browns. There was no game between league champions. The AFL Championship was not "equivalent to today’s AFC championships." After the NFL merged with the AFL, that league’s records were accepted into the NFL record book. AFL championships were league championships, equal in status to the NFL titles of the day.
The Bills of 1964 had everything: an innovative, driven head coach in Lou Saban; Cookie Gilchrist, the powerful fullback who had been the league Most Valuable Player two years earlier as the first AFL rusher to break the 1,000 yard mark; Jack Kemp, the born leader who, when his hand was broken, had team doctors set it around a football so that he’d be able to grip a ball when it healed, and who would win his own MVP award the following year; and Daryle Lamonica, nicknamed "The Fireman" for the numerous times he came into a game with the Bills behind and pulled it out. Then there were: Ernie Warlick, with a 17.2 yards per catch average, one of the best tight end averages in professional football history; Paul Maguire, who played in five AFL Championship games with the Chargers and Bills and as good a coffin-corner punter as there was in the game; Wray Carlton, the man who scored the Bills’ first touchdown ever, a steady running mate for Gilchrist; and Elbert "Golden Wheels Dubenion," who formed a talented tandem with flanker Glenn Bass.
Those skill players put up a league-best 400 points, behind an offensive line made up of tackles Dick Hudson and Stew Barber, center Al Bemiller, guard Joe O’Donnell, and the only pure AFL player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, guard Billy Shaw. When the team’s offensive drives stalled, the first soccer-style kicker in professional football history, Pete Gogolak, would knock in a field goal.
The Bills’ 1964 offense led the league in scoring and yards gained, but its defense also led the league, allowing the fewest number of points, 242, and yards, 3,878. The defense was a team of all-stars: defensive backs George Saimes, Butch Byrd, Hagood Clarke, Charlie Warner and Booker Edgerson combined for 18 interceptions, and held in check opponents’ star receivers like Lance Alworth, Don Maynard and Chris Burford.
The defensive backfield was fronted by one of the greatest linebacker crews in the game: John Tracey, Harry Jacobs and Mike Stratton, whose 57 straight games as a unit set a professional football record that still stands. And the linebackers, in turn, were fronted by the great defensive line of ends Tom Day and Ron McDole and tackles Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway.
In 1964, that defense started a record streak that was to last into the 1965 season: 17 straight games without allowing a rushing touchdown by an opponent, a record that still stands today. With the league’s best defense and its best offense, the Bills rolled to a 12 victory, two loss season with games like the 48-17 blowout at Houston and a 23-20 nail-biter at the "Rockpile" against the Raiders.
Meanwhile, the defending AFL Champion San Diego Chargers, who had been in the AFL Championship game in three of the league’s first four years, and had won it all in 1963, ended the season with an 8-5-1 record and came to Buffalo for the championship game. They had Tobin Rote at quarterback, the only QB to lead his team to titles in both the NFL (Lions) and the AFL. He had an offense featuring all-star running backs Keith, Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and flanker Lance Alworth, 1963 MVP, Hall of Famer, and the best wide receiver in either league. The game was played at War Memorial Stadium on Dec. 26, 1964, the last professional football championship game played within the city of Buffalo, and the only one in the modern era. It was the only AFL championship game not played on a Sunday.
The game started ominously for Buffalo, with the Chargers’ Keith Lincoln making a dazzling 38-yard run on their first possession, followed by a Rote-to-Dave Kocourek touchdown pass. The Bills couldn’t score on their first possession, and the Chargers were driving again, when Tote threw a short pass to Lincoln. Just as the ball reached him, he was hit a crushing blow by Bills linebacker Mike Stratton, with the "hit heard ’round the world." That deflated the Chargers, and the Bills went on to efficiently score 20 points on touchdowns by Carlton and Bass, and two field goals by Gogolak, winning 20 to 7.
The Bills had done it: overcome adversity and brought Buffalo its first of two League Championships. I’m everlastingly grateful to the Bills who have passed on from that team, Tom Day, Tom Sestak, Jack Kemp, George Saimes, Ernie Warlick, and Cookie Gilchrist. Many of the Bills from that team are still with us: Billy Shaw, Duby, Stratton, McDole, Dunaway, Bemiller, Bass, Lamonica, Hudson, O’Donnell, Barber, Gogolak and Byrd among them. And many settled and remain in Western New York: "utility man" Ed Rutkowski, Paul Maguire, Booker Edgerson, tight end Charlie Ferguson, Al Bemiller, Wray Carlton, and the "baby-faced assassin" Harry Jacobs. To these men and the teammates I could not mention here, I wish that all Western New Yorkers (and the Bills’ management) could offer them these heartfelt words: "Thanks for the memories!"
Angelo Coniglio is an American Football League archivist and historian. To see more about the 1964 AFL Champion Bills, including a complete roster, go to his page at http://bit.ly/1964AFLChampions. For a lecture to your group about the Bills’ glory days, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.