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Team history full of pleasant surprises

Former Buffalo News Sports Editor Larry Felser covered the Bills from 1961 to 2001

If the Buffalo Bills' past means anything, there may be something ahead for the team that will end the dreariness of the last decade. There is a sunshine pattern of happy surprises in their history. Check it out.

Consider what happened in July 1962, their third year of operation. They trained in East Aurora then, with the players billeted at the historic Roycroft Inn. On the evening the rookies were arriving, Harvey Johnson, the chief scout, sat on the inn's porch in a rocking chair waiting to greet them.

A taxi pulled up and out stepped a tall man with a physique that made Superman look like a 98-pound weakling. Johnson's companion asked "who's this guy?" Johnson himself was puzzled. The American Football League had a 35-round draft that year. "I drafted him," he answered, "but I don't recognize him."

It was Tom Sestak, who was a 235-pound tight end from McNeese State when he was drafted in the 17th round. Now he was a 6-foot-5, 272-pound giant.

The next morning Lou Saban, the team's new coach, introduced him to a prized rookie from the season before, guard Billy Shaw.

"You're a defensive tackle now, or you will be by the time camp closes, because you're going up against Shaw every day," Saban said.

Shaw ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and those who played or coached against Sestak said he, too, would have been elected if a knee injury hadn't prematurely ended his career.

Saban wasn't finished. He had been fired as head coach of the Boston Patriots midway through his second season, then received a second chance from Ralph Wilson so he was determined to do it his way.

The '62 draft wasn't very fruitful, but in the 13th round came another tight end, Mike Stratton, whom Saban converted to linebacker. Stratton's name is now on the Bills' Wall of Fame.

The coach also traded for Harry Jacobs, whom he had converted from an all-star college guard to middle linebacker with the Patriots. He signed a third tight end, John Tracey, who had been an All-American at Texas A&M but didn't fit into the scheme of the NFL Cardinals. Saban converted him to complete a linebacking trio that would be central to winning two AFL championships.

The acquisition of quarterback Jack Kemp is probably the best-remembered golden surprise but the next draft, 1963, produced another one in the 24th round when quarterback Daryle Lamonica was plucked from Notre Dame. Lamonica had been lost in one of the most muddled periods in Irish football history.

Saban made one of his confounding departures from the job after the 1965 title year, but he came back in 1972 to produce another startling surprise with the Bills at their depths. At the time of his return, the sports world was on the verge of declaring O.J. Simpson an inglorious flop. Saban saw him as a ticket back to prosperity.

He called a meeting of his wide receivers and ordered them to have their helmets fitted with face masks. Pointing to Simpson he told them, "this man is your meal ticket and you're going to block for him."

In the 1973 draft he used two first-round choices to draft guard Joe DeLamielleure and Paul Seymour, a terrific college tackle whom he converted to tight end. He drafted quarterback Joe Ferguson and put handcuffs on him as the rookie starter, allowing him to pass sparsely. Fergy threw four touchdowns his first season but 25 in his third. The Bills were once again a playoff team.

The 1979 draft was one of the most successful for the Bills, bringing Jerry Butler, Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett and Jeff Nixon to Buffalo. But it was also one of the most aggravating. They had the first pick in the draft and used it on Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau. Cousineau then spurned Buffalo and signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Four years later Cousineau wanted to return to the U.S. and play in the NFL so Buffalo traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns.

In return the Bills received a package of draft choices, including the Browns' first rounder, which they used to select Miami quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly also spurned Buffalo, signing with Houston of the new USFL, creating more aggravation. In 1986 the USFL folded and Kelly signed with the Bills, creating euphoria, starting with the hordes of people who lined the Kensington Expressway from the airport to downtown Buffalo to welcome him.

The man who maneuvered Kelly to the Bills was their new general manager, Bill Polian, an unknown who introduced himself at his introductory news conference as "I'm Bill Who."

The year after Kelly arrived, Polian masterminded the biggest trade in Bills history, involving three teams -- the Bills, the Los Angeles Rams and the Indianapolis Colts. In it Buffalo sent running back Greg Bell and draft picks to the Colts for the rights to Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who would become a keystone to the pass rush of the Super Bowl era. The Colts took the picks and Bell, added a player and picks of their own and sent them to the Rams for all-pro running back Eric Dickerson.

Polian's staff included John Butler and A.J. Smith, who would make their own marks later on. They had already made the '87 draft a success by selecting Shane Conlan, Nate Odomes, Jamie Mueller, Leon Seals, Keith McKellar and Howard Ballard.

The next year saw another golden surprise when the draft drifted into the second round with Oklahoma State's great running back, Thurman Thomas, still on the board. Thomas had suffered a serious knee injury early in his college career and the pros were leery that he might not hold up in the NFL. The Bills, however, had done their due diligence and were sure Thurman was a steal. They were right. He ended up in the Hall of Fame.

It's time for more happy surprises.

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