Ernest "Ernie" Warlick, a member of the Buffalo Bills championship teams of the 1960s and arguably the best tight end in Bills history, died Saturday in his Williamsville home after a brief illness. He was 82.
"Of all of us that played during that era, he was the most beloved," said Ed Rutkowski, the former Erie County executive and a teammate of Warlick on those Bills teams. "Everybody loved Ernie."
Warlick was an all-star with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League before he signed with the Bills of the old American Football League in 1962.
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Warlick was a hard worker and good blocker, but immediately became a receiving threat, leading the team in that category as a rookie.
"In those days, a tight end was strictly a blocking individual," said former Warlick teammate, Booker Edgerson. "But (head coach) Lou Saban had the great presence to utilize Ernie, with his speed and catching ability, as a primary receiver. It threw a lot of guys off-balance on the defense."
During his four years with the Bills, Warlick used his huge hands to haul in 90 passes. He accumulated 1,551 receiving yards for an average of 17.2 yards a catch.
Warlick was a member of the 1964 and 1965 AFL championship teams, catching a touchdown pass from Jack Kemp in the '65 title game for the only offensive touchdown in a 23-0 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
He was selected to the American Football League all-star team in each of his four seasons with the Bills.
"He was a good target for Jack, and if there was anything of a sure-handed catcher, it was Ernie," said former teammate Charlie Ferguson. "He was that type of athlete."
Off the field, Warlick was a humble and stable presence in the Bills locker room. He was an older player with a family when he came to Buffalo, and the other players looked to him for leadership and guidance, Edgerson said.
"Ernie came in as a very mature player," said Ferguson. "He was just a good person, and he knew how to get along with people. That's why I use the word ‘mature,' because he really knew how to deal with everyone."
"Ernie was a big brother to me," Rutkowski said. "When you're a family like the Buffalo Bills, the friendships you made during those days last a lifetime. We're really going to miss him."
Born and raised in Hickory, N.C., Warlick attended segregated schools before the dawn of the civil rights movement. He graduated from North Carolina Central University, where he starred in football and basketball, before serving four years in the military and playing four seasons in Canada.
After Warlick retired from the Bills, he briefly took up sportscasting at Channel 2, becoming the first African-American sportscaster in Western New York.
He was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 1998, when he reminisced about going out to do speaking engagements during the Bills' early days.
"A lot of times I was the only black person present," he said during his induction. "And I would thank the people for allowing me to come and add some color to the event. I was thinking of that line tonight, as the first black sports announcer on Buffalo television.
"There always has to be someone to break the barrier, and I broke the barrier. But after all, you still need a little color in this room. I'm just elated to be given such an honor."
Warlick owned a Henry's Hamburger franchise on Main Street for a while, and was regional sales manager for Chromate Industrials of Long Island.
He also was active in the Buffalo Bills alumni organization.
Throughout, Warlick continued to make his home in Buffalo, and people often asked him why.
"I didn't make enough money to get a flight back home," Warlick cracked.
"He stayed here because the people were great; the fans were great," Edgerson said.
Survivors include his wife of nearly 52 years, the former Louise Alexander; two sons, Chester and Christopher; a daughter, Lynn Warlick-Sloof; and a sister, Sally.
A memorial service will be held at a date to be determined in Randall Memorial Baptist Church, 6301 Main St., Amherst.