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Fond memories from Alworth to Weller

Former Buffalo News sports reporter Jim Peters covered the Bills from 1963 to 1971 for the Buffalo Courier-Express

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Ah, yes, remembrances. I still can hear the voice of Cookie Gilchrist, as reluctant a flier as John Madden, shouting with relief from his aisle seat every time the Bills' chartered plane landed: "The only way to travel."

Nine seasons of covering the Bills (1963-71) left me with cherished memories, not only of our team but of the American Football League and the proud accomplishments of both.

Those years have been traced in print and on film. But there were countless personal moments along the way, not all of which occurred between the lines.

The Bills' 1963 training camp was in Blasdell and the Camelot Motor Inn facilities made it easier to reach the players. While Larry Felser, the dean of pro football writers, and I were the chief occupants of PR director Chuck Burr's press room, radio and TV personnel were "allowed in" when deemed necessary.

One afternoon, Barry Warner, a young radio man from Van Miller's hometown of Dunkirk, was well into taping an interview with one of the Bills when I quietly opened the bathroom door and loudly flushed the toilet. Barry's furious reaction was "erased" later.

Paul Maguire certainly was one of the Bills' chief comics.

After the team's first-ever game in Houston's Astrodome, Maguire was asked to comment on his excellent punting stats.

"I had the air conditioning behind me," he quipped.

Harvey Johnson, the Bills' director of scouting, twice served reluctantly as head coach, the first time after Joe Collier was dismissed in 1968. He immediately directed the Bills' only win that season, 37-35, over the New York Jets, who went on to upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

The Bills intercepted Joe Namath five times, with Tom Janik (100 yards), Butch Byrd (53) and Booker Edgerson (45) returning theirs for touchdowns.

It was after the Bills' final game of 1968, a 35-6 loss to the Oilers in Houston, that I found Johnson sitting alone having dinner in the team's hotel. I had just joined him when a waitress, perhaps attempting to be consoling, asked Harvey:

"Was this your last game, coach?"

Johnson gulped down what may well have been his third drink and, while blinking, replied:

"You'd better believe it . . . forever and ever and ever."

It wasn't, of course. After John Rauch resigned in 1971, owner Ralph Wilson again called on Johnson to right the ship. He couldn't, and the Bills (1-13) finished a fifth straight losing season.

Upon accepting Wilson's request, Johnson was asked his strategy regarding O.J. Simpson, whom Rauch was considering using as a decoy at wide receiver. Johnson had a better idea for the Heisman Trophy-winning running back.

"It'll be O.J. left and O.J. right," assured Harvey.

Then there was strong safety Hagood Clarke telling reporters about his War Memorial Stadium interception of George Blanda and 66-yard return for a touchdown on Sept. 25, 1965. A winding run that seemed to take forever, it came with 27 seconds left and gave Buffalo a 27-20 victory.

"Goodie was trying to run out the clock," offered Mailon Kent, a reserve quarterback and Clarke's roommate.

During a training camp session at Niagara University, center Al Bemiller trotted out after signing a new contract. Still negotiating with General Manager Dick Gallagher was tackle Stew Barber, Bemiller's roommate.

When Barber finally arrived on the practice field, Bemiller asked him if he also had signed.

"Yep," beamed Barber, "for one dollar more than you."

In Week Four of the 1965 season, Barber had a tough afternoon against Oakland defensive end Ben Davidson. In the rematch in Oakland, Barber was dominant.

"What did you think of Davidson today?" he asked me.

"Who?" I smiled. "I don't remember seeing him all day."

Joe Auer, a rookie running back out of Georgia Tech, liked to remind anyone: "I may be No. 43 in your program and No. 3 on the depth chart, but I'm No. 1 in your heart."

Defensive end Ron McDole had this description of Buffalo weather: "Buffalo has only two seasons . . . winter and the Fourth of July."

Tom Sestak, the all-time All-AFL defensive tackle, joined Maguire to operate a popular bar in Cheektowaga.

Sestak didn't have the bartending experience of his partner, but one afternoon found himself tending a group of Bills wives having lunch and ordering a number of fancy mixed drinks that had him consulting his guide.

"Doesn't anyone order beer anymore?" Sestak finally bellowed.

One of my fondest memories of the Niagara U. training camps was the night the newly-signed Simpson arrived in Buffalo.

I was told by my editor not to leave camp until I had interviewed O.J. The Bills were planning a news conference the next morning, so Jack Horrigan, their PR man, told me I'd be limited to five questions.

When Horrigan introduced me to Simpson, I shook hands and offered, "Hi, O.J., how are you?"

"That's one," reminded Jack.

There were numerous Game Day memories, too, of course.

*Like Jack Kemp, forced in 1967 to enter the Bills' first-ever home preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles when Tom Flores was injured, was greeted by the WMS fans with unmerciful boos. Seconds later, Kemp hit Charley Ferguson with a first-play, 80-yard touchdown pass and the boos turned to cheers.

*Like Gilchrist, after knocking Patriots safety Chuck Shonta cold on the opening play of the teams' 1964 Fenway Park showdown in the snow, standing tall and shouting at the remaining Boston defenders:

"OK, WHICH ONE OF YOU [BLEEP-BLEEPS] IS NEXT?"

I like to think that set the tone for their 24-14 victory that day that vaulted the 12-2 Bills (the Pats finished 10-3-1) into their first AFL title game.

*Like Steve Weller, the late News columnist and best word-for-word writer I knew but a funny man with an incredibly short fuse, typing away in Oakland's Frank Youell Field press box. Reaching for his paper cup of beer, Steve suddenly exploded in cuss words. I understood why when I saw his face, covered with cigarette ashes from a cup someone else had been using for an ashtray.

*Like probably the most memorable tackle in Bills history, in the 1964 AFL title game against San Diego in WMS. Who could forget Mike Stratton, timing perfectly Keith Lincoln's reception of a Tobin Rote swing pass, jarring Lincoln and sending him to the bench with fractured ribs. The Bills won, 23-7.

Stratton's thunderous tackle may rate higher historically, but to me the greatest defensive play I ever saw occurred on Thanksgiving Day 1965, in San Diego's Balboa Stadium.

Lance Alworth, the Chargers' great flanker (yeah, they weren't called wide receivers in those days) had just taken a John Hadl pass and was streaking toward the end zone.

Nary a Bills defender was in sight. Giving chase, from across the field and at an angle, came Edgerson. But catch Lance Alworth? No way!

Alworth had to have been even more startled than the 27,473 Balboa viewers when Edgerson tackled him, causing his fumble into the end zone where Bills linebacker John Tracey recovered for a touchback.

Then there was the cartoon in the San Diego Union that Dec. 26, 1965 morning of the AFL title rematch against the Chargers. The cartoonist boldly emphasized how remote San Diegans considered Lou Saban's team's chances of repeating. He portrayed massive Chargers defensive tackle Ernie Ladd hovering over Bills Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw like King Kong over Fay Wray.

Shaw, en route to the team's bus and obviously furious, hurried by me in the Stardust Hotel without uttering a word. The look in his eyes foretold what was to come -- a 23-0 Buffalo romp.

There were other memorable moments from those years, but topping them was the feeling after the Jets shocked the Colts and the entire sports world that Jan. 12, 1969 day in Miami's Orange Bowl.

My pride was two-fold -- from Namath & Co.'s 16-7 victory in Super Bowl III and from having been one of six writers there to cover the game who had predicted it in that morning's paper.

It meant the AFL had arrived, no longer to be looked down upon by the "older, established league."

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