YES, THERE was modern football in Buffalo before the Super Bowl Bills, and in the last few days two men who occupied important places in the early days, Dick Gallagher and Chet Mutryn, both died.
The "old" Bills actually brought major-league sports to Buffalo in 1946 in the wake of World War II, in a league called the All America Football Conference.
The team actually began as the Buffalo "Bisons," but 1947 was a year of renewal with an exciting rookie quarterback from Notre Dame, George Ratterman, and a contest to rename the team. "Bills" was the winning entry.
Mutryn arrived largely unnoticed in a deal with the Cleveland Browns. Years later in his autobiography, Cleveland impresario Paul Brown would call it "the worst trade of my career." Mutryn, along with Ratterman, would be the old Bills' stars. A quarterback with the Browns, he was switched to halfback in Buffalo and flourished.
"We had thought Mutryn would be more successful as a running back," wrote Brown, "but he resisted our suggestions and since he wasn't as good as (Otto) Graham or Cliff Lewis, we had sent him to Buffalo where . . . he became a fine running back. I should have forced him to change because he would have been an even greater player with us."
Mutryn and the rest of those Bills passed out of Buffalo sports history after the 1949 season when four AAFC teams (the Browns, San Francisco, New York Yankees and Baltimore) were merged into the NFL and the other franchises dissolved.
After that, there was a 10-year pro football void in Buffalo which Gallagher helped end when Ralph Wilson hired him late in 1959 as first general manager of the "new" Bills of the fledgling American Football League.
Before he came to the Bills, Gallagher had been the receivers coach for Cleveland, working with two of the greatest of all time, Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie. Brown gave him an extra assignment as the chief talent scout for the team. Gallagher knew where to find players and how to romance them.
It was a masterful bit of salesmanship that helped him outduel the Washington Redskins for Penn State's All-America quarterback, Richie Lucas, the top draft choice in 1960 for both the Bills and Skins. What did it was a combination of Wilson's money and Gallagher's Irish charm. It was hard to resist a guy who said things like "this is going to be as easy as picking apples off a cherry tree."
Gallagher had a terrible time remembering names, but he had no trouble at all recalling times for the 40-yard dash or other football talents. One of his first signings was a wide receiver from a little school in Ohio, Bluffton College. Originally he signed the youngster for the Browns and steered him into a berth on the prestigious College All-Star team that used to play the NFL champions each August in Chicago's Soldier Field.
But the kid couldn't make Cleveland's 33-man roster and so he was out of football for a couple of years until Gallagher signed him for the Bills. "He's the fastest thing you've ever seen," he advised people in Buffalo. The GM was right. The kid's name is on the Wall of Fame in Rich Stadium: Elbert Dubenion.
In 1961, Gallagher drafted and signed almost an entire offensive line, which would became an essential part of the AFL championship teams in 1964 and '65. In the first round came tackle Ken Rice of Auburn, in the second guard Billy Shaw of Georgia Tech, followed by tackle Stew Barber of Penn State and center Al Bemiller of Syracuse. It may have been the only time four-fifths of a championship line was swept up in one draft.
The next spring Rice arrived in Buffalo and was sitting in the office of Chuck Burr, the team's public relations director, when Gallagher ducked his head through the door.
"Hi, Coach!," said the general manager, then disappeared.
Burr knew Gallagher's habits. The tipoff was "Coach!" Gallagher called everyone, even the office secretaries, "Coach!," usually when he couldn't remember their names. So Burr slipped out to cue him.
"Dick, that's your No. 1 draft choice, Ken Rice, in my office," said Burr. "You spent days with him."
"I know who he is, but his name escaped me," said Gallagher.
One name he always remembered was Lou Saban. Saban had been captain of the Browns when Cleveland dominated the AAFC and Gallagher always admired him. Gallagher received a call from Saban early in 1960, asking him for help in getting a coaching job with the Boston Patriots.
"You want an assistant's job?" asked Gallagher who knew Saban was head coach at Western Illinois, hardly a big-time football school.
"I want the head job," said Saban.
"Okay," sighed Gallagher. "I'll talk to Billy Sullivan, the owner, on your behalf."
Saban got the job as first head coach of the Patriots. When he was fired early in the next season, Gallagher hired him as the Bills' personnel director. Within months, Saban was the Bills' head coach and the two Paul Brown proteges were on their way to championship days.