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ONCE AND FUTURE JOY
THE BILLS HAVE CAPTURED THE IMAGINATION OF A SPORTS-MAD PUBLIC LIKE NO OTHER QUEEN CITY INSTITUTION. BUT LONG BEFORE THE CURRENT TEAM, A BUFFALO BILLS SQUAD PLAYED HARD -- AND THEN BROKE THE FANS' HEARTS.

The V-J Day celebration was over. The IRC streetcars could make their way down Main Street again without fear of bumping revelers. Johnny and Jane came marching home to shed their World War II uniforms.

In Buffalo, along with many other American cities, it was time to look to the future, which appeared limitless. In a relatively short time there would be 18,000 people employed at Bethlehem Steel. The parking lot at Republic Steel was full. So were those at Houdaille, Chevy, Ford, National Gypsum, Trico, Bell and a Chamber of Commerce list of other important employers.

For the first time in its history, Buffalo was full of workers with a new concept -- "disposable income." The idea in almost everyone's head was, "Let's have some fun."

Then, as now, to a lot of Western New Yorkers, fun meant sports.

Memorial Auditorium approached capacity attendance for its Little Three basketball program, one of the most prestigious in the nation. The University of Buffalo had a football team back then, but so did St. Bonaventure University, Canisius College and Niagara University. On Elmwood Avenue, students were wearing buttons that read "Football at State in '48." There would be a 40-year wait for that.

But along with limitless optimism came a lust for big-time professional sports.

The universal desire was to see major-league baseball in Buffalo. The sport's westernmost outpost was St. Louis, where the American League Browns shared Sportsman's Park with the National League Cardinals. The Braves were in Boston along with the Red Sox; the Phillies and A's shared Shibe Park in Philadelphia. The Dodgers seemed destined to spend the rest of the century in Brooklyn's Ebbetts Field and the Giants in the Polo Grounds.

The National Hockey League was an even more exclusive club -- just six teams.

Buffalo was to get a quick taste of postwar pro basketball, but that sport was a floating crap game then. Just when the Buffalo franchise floundered enough to get a crack at drafting a great player, Bob Cousy of Holy Cross, the team was moved to the Midwest, where it would play in three small markets in Illinois and Iowa, the "Tri-Cities," the largest of which was Moline, Ill. Cousy's rights were traded to the Boston Celtics.

Football was a different story -- and a better fit for a blue-collar, corner-tavern city like Buffalo.

There was a nationwide surplus of football players. The war veterans whose college playing careers had been interrupted returned to campuses in platoons. Notre Dame and Michigan fielded such strong teams that some players who failed to make the traveling squads nevertheless were signed to pro contracts.

Besides, there was a sports revolution coming. Football led it in 1946 when the National Football League champion Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, the first major-league team to stake claim to West Coast territory. The founding that year of a new league -- the All-America Conference -- caused even larger upheaval. Paul Brown, the great Ohio State coach, would bring many of the players he coached at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station to Cleveland, where the new AAFC team would be named after him, the Cleveland Browns.

Jim Breuil, a Buffalo man who made his wealth in oil, would join with Sam Cordovano to introduce major-league sports to Buffalo with an AAFC franchise they named the Bisons. A year later, 1947, a public contest was held to give the team a new name and a new identity. The winning entry was "the Buffalo Bills."

The name, and the teams behind it, would produce once and future joy along the Niagara Frontier. The AAFC Bills instantly became a contender, with Notre Dame's George Ratterman at quarterback, Alton Baldwin of Arkansas as his favorite receiver and a converted quarterback obtained from the Browns, Chet Mutryn, as their star running back.

The game that validated the Bills, along with the city's abiding love for professional football, occurred Dec. 11, 1948, in Baltimore, with Ratterman dueling the Colts' Y.A. Tittle, a future Hall of Famer, in a playoff for the AAFC's Eastern Division championship.

The Colts led, 17-14, with less than three minutes to play. Then Ratterman connected with Baldwin on a 25-yard touchdown pass to put Buffalo ahead, 24-17. With the clock running down, Tittle tried desperately to rally Baltimore, but the Bills' home-grown star, linebacker Buckets Hirsch of Williamsville, intercepted his pass and returned it 20 yards for the clinching touchdown.

After the final whistle, there were brawls among the players and Colts fans attacked the officials. Sideline judge Thomas Whalen suffered a black eye. Also pummeled were referee Sam Giangreco and linesman Fay Vincent, father of the future baseball commissioner, who were rescued by police.

The game aroused passion for the Bills in Buffalo. However, the team never won a league championship. In their final season, 1949, they twice tied the Browns, who dominated the AAFC for its entire existence. But in their last game ever, they lost to Baltimore, 38-14. It was the only game the Colts won that year.

The following Saturday, an Associated Press story began this way: "Professional football's four-year war was settled across a conference table today. The All-America Conference merged into the National Football League."

It was obvious that rather than a merger it was a swallowing, with the established NFL the swallower. The race was on to determine which AAFC franchises would survive to play in the NFL. Buffalo was at a disadvantage because of Civic Stadium. A bowl built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, Civic didn't impress many NFL owners, who thought there were too few premium seats to sell. There were, in fact, more seats behind the goal lines than there were between them.

Still, thousands of fans stood in a line that stretched down Main Street and ultimately through the doors of Memorial Auditorium, where they would put a down payment on ticket pledges they hoped would keep the Bills in Buffalo.

Their gesture was futile. Eleven days after announcement of the AAFC's death, this was the headline: "Buffalo Bid Turned Down by Grid Loop."

According to NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, "practically the whole discussion was on Buffalo. Nobody was opposed to Buffalo, providing a satisfactory schedule could be worked out."

Dan Reeves, president of the Los Angeles Rams, led the opposition to Buffalo. The vote was secret. Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore were the only teams admitted to the NFL. The rest went out of business. Buffalo's best players scattered to the Browns, the Canadian League and various other NFL teams. The 1950 season would be the first of Buffalo's 10 winters of discontent.

The city's sports fans were teased each August by the prospect of getting an NFL franchise "if the yearly exhibition games were supported well enough." More seriously, it was obvious that Chicago could not support two teams, the Bears and the Cardinals, so it seemed certain the latter would relocate. Buffalo was one of the two or three cities most often mentioned.

In fact, four games were played here in 1958, including the Cardinals' regular-season opener against the New York Giants, who would end up winning the championship in the first official overtime game ever played. The first "real" pro football game played in Buffalo since 1949 drew more than 22,000 to Civic Stadium. Walter Wolfner, general manager of the Cards, was disappointed. Wellington Mara, president of the Giants, observed, "It was 4,000 more than we would have drawn in Chicago."

The most influential NFL owner, George Halas of the Bears, also brought his team here for an exhibition that summer. The game drew just 14,000 spectators. "Buffalo is a dollar town," sniffed Halas.

When the Cardinals decided to stay in Chicago, Buffalo's case seemed hopeless. But as the NFL was in the midst of its 1959 August exhibition season, an announcement came out of a meeting on Chicago. A young Dallas multimillionaire named Lamar Hunt said a new league, the American Football League, was being formed and that it would begin play the following September.

Two months later, a Detroit businessman named Ralph C. Wilson Jr., frustrated at his inability to obtain playing dates in the Orange Bowl for an AFL franchise he wanted to put in Miami, visited Buffalo for the first time at the urging of his old commanding officer in the Navy, contractor George Schaaf. Wilson's host was Paul Neville, the dynamic new executive editor of The Buffalo Evening News. By the time Wilson and Neville parted, Buffalo's 10-year absence from major-league sports had ended.

Civic Stadium was renamed and remodeled, twice. As War Memorial Stadium, it could accommodate more than 35,000 spectators for football, eventually more than 45,000.

The new team, like the lost one, was named the Bills. Its coming, however, was not perceived as the return of a prodigal. Sports fans had become more sophisticated. The NFL was on television now, and the number of sets in Western New York had multiplied.

Pro football was on its way to becoming a national passion. In Buffalo, the fans knew their new team was unlikely to be as polished a product as the ones they had been watching from Cleveland and New York on their TV screens.

The opening of the AFL Bills' first season drew a crowd of just 15,229 for a game against the Denver Broncos. The 30,000 figure wouldn't be broken until the team's third season, 1962, under a new coach and a new star, former Canadian League star fullback Cookie Gilchrist. By October, the team would have the quarterback it needed to become a contender when a freak waiver transaction brought Jack Kemp from the Western Division champion San Diego Chargers.

The day the "new" Bills were validated was postponed for two months while Kemp's injured finger, which put him in Buffalo in the first place, healed. He made his debut in Buffalo on Dec. 2, 1962, against the AFL champions-to-be, the Dallas Texans, before a record crowd of 35,261.

Kemp's passing cut apart the Texans' defense like a surgeon. After the Bills won, 23-14, thousands of fans surged onto the field, hoisted Kemp upon their shoulders and carried him up the Dodge Street tunnel. A lot of those fans were Democrats, but in eight years they would help elect Kemp, a Republican, to Congress in a Democrat-dominated district and then keep electing him.

The Bills had become a Western New York institution. The Sabres, founded by Seymour and Northrup Knox, would follow them.