This is the eighth in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015.
By Owen O’Brien
News Sports Reporter
How does one become an anchor on a championship offensive line? Sometimes it’s with a little bit of luck.
Al Bemiller, who played center and offensive guard for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s for nine seasons, went to Syracuse University as a defensive end. He used his wrestling background to swim past offensive linemen to take down a ball carrier or quarterback.
But Syracuse needed a center. The coach held a rather unconventional contest to see who the team’s starting center would be going forward. There were no pads, no sprints, no weight-lifting competitions.
Just one task. One test that required pinpoint accuracy. A football snap.
“They had everybody come to a certain distance and said, ‘Whoever hits the doorknob is going to be the center,’ ” said the 77-year-old Bemiller, who will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 4. “And I guess luckily, somebody upstairs was there with me and I was the only one who hit the doorknob.”
And that snap opened the doors to the rest of Bemiller’s championship career. His Syracuse squad upset University of Texas, 23-14, in Dallas to win the Cotton Bowl and a national championship.
“We weren’t even supposed to be there,” Bemiller said. “They said they were going to, you know, whip us up and we went down there and kicked butt.
“We were all motivated by going down to Texas and playing the University of Texas because they had a reputation and we were sort of awed by it, but we went down there and did our job and came out victors.”
Winning seemed to follow Bemiller throughout his life. Even before Syracuse, Bemiller was a state championship wrestler at Perkiomen Prep in Pennsylvania, where he went for a year after high school. Bemiller’s son, Todd, said his father was even a better wrestler than football player but “obviously football was what paid the bills,” Todd said.
Bemiller was first spotted by the Syracuse wrestling coach. Bemiller always wanted to play football and wrestle in college, so when there wasn’t a wrestling scholarship available, he was given a football one instead.
But after his college days were over, Bemiller was faced with another major decision. In 1961, the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and the AFL’s Buffalo Bills both drafted Bemiller. The Cardinals were an established team in the more competitive league. The Bills were a new team in the AFL. Bemiller knew the Bills would give him a better chance to play, so that’s the team he chose.
It didn’t take Bemiller long to connect with his new city – located 321 miles from his hometown of Hanover, Pa., (south of Harrisburg).
“I thought the city was great because it was like a small town where I came from,” Bemiller said. “It’s not a big, big city and the people here were very good to us and I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Nothing was handed to Bemiller when he arrived in Buffalo. He earned his position. But if you ask him, he earned it again in a rather unconventional way.
One night, Bemiller and the starting center at the time went out drinking. Bemiller can’t exactly recall the player’s name (or maybe he’s just trying to save the man some embarrassment). Embarrassment from what? Well, when the two went out on the town that night, Bemiller had to carry his teammate home.
“I figured from that point on, I had the job,” said Bemiller with a laugh. “I was from Pennsylvania, we’re beer drinkers, you know.”
And wouldn’t you know, Bemiller became the team’s starting center. And once the job was his, he never let it go. He never even let the possibility arise that somebody could take his position. Bemiller never missed a game in his nine-year career.
“I didn’t want to miss any games because I figured anybody would get in there, they may be a little bit better than me,” Bemiller said. “I made sure I was there for every game.”
But then the decision to play was no longer his. Buffalo hired John Rauch, who coached the Oakland Raiders before Buffalo. Todd said that Rauch cut almost every player over 30 by 1970. Bemiller fell in that category and was suddenly out of football.
Bemiller received offers from other teams, but his family opened up a nightclub that Bemiller said was “doing fabulous” and he didn’t want to uproot his family and leave that business behind.
But while he was a Bill, he played in the team’s most successful decade. Bemiller’s Bills won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965. They were a game away from playing in the first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers in 1966.
And possibly best of all, Bemiller was able to enjoy it with his family. Todd, 55, said his mother, Wanda, began taking him to games when he was 7 months old. Todd was a toddler for the AFL championship seasons, but his best memory is actually after the loss before Super Bowl I.
Todd remembers his father coming over after the game, taking him out of his mom’s arms and bringing him back to the locker room. It’s a moment that sticks with Todd.
Bemiller remained in Western New York after his career. He was a substitute teacher and wrestling coach at St. Francis High School. He also worked 25 years as a recreation coordinator at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica.
Bemiller still goes to Bills games with Todd. He’ll sign autographs for fans before the game. Bemiller hasn’t left Buffalo since being drafted in 1961, and now that he’s been enshrined in the Greater Buffalo Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania native will always be a part of Western New York.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Nov. 4 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets are $95 each, $850 for a table of 10 and includes a 25th anniversary book. RSVP by Oct. 30 at www.gbshof.com.