About 10 months before they suited up in their Honolulu blue and silver Detroit Lions hand-me-downs, Buffalo’s American Football League franchise had to pick a name. They could follow the local baseball and hockey teams and go with the Bisons or they could look to their local football history and pluck a name familiar to the gridiron fans of the Queen City.
Flash back to 1946.
The Buffalo Bisons football team (yes, there was a time that Buffalo had three teams named the “Bisons”) had just wrapped up their inaugural season in the All-American Football Conference, the latest pro league to try to challenge the well-established NFL. Bisons owner James Breuil wanted to try the radical idea of giving a team in Buffalo its own unique name -- clearly a man ahead of his time. Breuil announced the Bisons would be holding a name-the-team contest, encouraging fans to submit their ideas. A cash prize awaited the lucky winner.
On June 16, 1947, the winning name was chosen, the “Buffalo Bills.” Local Merchant Marine and railroad clerk James Dyson claimed the top prize of $500 for his name. Dyson used his prize money to take a vacation and pay for an unspecified surgery for his wife.
The Bills name was selected in honor of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a 19th century celebrity most notably known for his travelling Old West shows. Cody, for what it’s worth, received his nickname while under a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to provide buffalo meat for their employees; during this time he hunted over 4,000 buffalo in a little over a year. Later, Cody won a shoot-off in which 116 animals were killed against another “Buffalo Bill” for the exclusive rights to use the alliterative nickname.
Buffalo’s football Bills played three seasons in the AAFC before the league folded and all the teams shifted over to the NFL in 1950 -- every team except Buffalo, which was suspiciously denied entry into the league and then lost out on a subsequent expansion bid despite having a two-thirds majority of owners in support of it. (The league required unanimous support to expand.)
Fortunately no shoot-offs were required 10 years later when pro football returned to Buffalo. On November 30, 1959, the new American Football League team announced its name with owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. choosing “Bills” as a nod to the old AAFC club, who couldn’t quite crack the NFL a decade prior.
Of course, in 1970, the entire roster of AFL teams (yes, and Buffalo, too) successfully merged with the NFL, forming the American Football Conference in the process, where the Bills still play today.