Tom Telesco laughed the other day when he was asked whether the Chargers would have a meaningful advantage Sunday at StubHub Center, their 27,000-seat temporary home in Carson, Calif., when the Bills roll into town. He didn't need to be reminded many in the stands will be rooting for the visiting team.
"We know Buffalo travels well, including my family," Telesco said during a segment on – cheap plug alert! – "The Bucky & Sully Show" on CBS Sports Radio 1270 The Fan. "They're coming out to the game, but they will be wearing Charger gear or else they will not be in the stands for the game."
Telesco grew up in Hamburg and was raised on the Bills before making the steady climb from St. Francis High of Athol Springs to general manager of an NFL team. He's in his fifth season with the Chargers, who left San Diego and are awaiting the completion of a stadium they'll share with the Rams starting in 2020.
The Chargers are better than their 3-6 record suggests, especially when considering what they've endured. They relocated to a soccer stadium, hired a new head coach in former Bills assistant Anthony Lynn and lost their first four games. They won their next three and dropped their last two. Four of their losses have come by a field goal or less.
Last week, the Chargers had a 17-14 lead over Jacksonville before Philip Rivers threw an interception that led to the tying field goal with three seconds left in the fourth quarter en route to a 20-17 loss in overtime. If a few more plays this season had gone their direction, they could be 6-3 or better.
"I wish it worked like that, but it doesn't," Telesco said. "… Really, from here on out, every week is the biggest game of the year. That's what happens when you start 0-4 like we did. This is a big game for us against Buffalo. We know Buffalo is a good football team."
Telesco would know. He has watched them closely since he could tie his shoes. He graduated from St. Francis in 1991 after playing under Jerry Smith and John Scibetta and was a Bills intern for part of their glory days. He also was one of the branches that sprouted from Bill Polian's tree of coaches and administrators.
Others include Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell, former NFL assistant coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Polian's sons, Chris and Brian. Chris Polian, director of player personnel in Jacksonville under Caldwell, is expected to become a GM sooner than later. Brian is special teams coach at Notre Dame.
Bill Polian was a terrific mentor and major influence who opened doors, of course, but all five earned their keep and proved they belonged at the highest levels of a competitive, unsentimental industry. Polian wouldn't have hired Telesco as a scouting assistant with the Panthers in 1995 and invested 17 years in his protege if he didn't believe Telesco had the chops to become a successful executive.
"In less than a year, it was very obvious that his intelligence, his temperament and his passion for the game was going to be extraordinary," Polian said Tuesday. "That's when we decided that Tom would be a guy we would fast-track to becoming a general manager. He's low-key and very analytical, but he's also on top of every single detail."
Telesco played wide receiver for John Carroll University, where he was joined by Caldwell and Chris Polian. Other teammates included former Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, former Bills linebacker London Fletcher, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Pats director of player personnel Nick Caserio.
For that much success to come from a small private high school and a Division III program in Ohio, which also produced Don Shula, is remarkable.
"Sometimes, you get lucky with geography, with the fact that I grew up in Buffalo and relatively close to Rich Stadium, at the time," Telesco said. "I obviously loved sports growing up. I could have grown up in Omaha, Neb., and not had any thoughts of working in the NFL.
"My football knowledge was second to none when I got to college because of what I learned at St. Francis. Now, my talent level was not second to none, but I always felt my knowledge was second to none when I got to college. I was able to take that forward."
Many times over the years, Telesco has counted the steps, knowing one rung led to another while he climbed the ladder. Polian gave him a taste of the NFL, and Telesco took advantage of the opportunity. He learned every facet of the front office from one of the best in the business.
He followed Polian to Indianapolis, became the Colts' director of player personnel and helped build a Super Bowl winner. San Diego hired him as general manager in 2013, one day before Jacksonville hired Caldwell as its GM.
"He pays very close attention to even the most minute details and is very passionate," Polian said. "When you have that combination, it's almost a can't-miss."
Last month, Telesco was in town visiting family and caught the first half of the epic battle between UB and Western Michigan before flying to New York for the Chargers-Giants game. He watched on his smartphone while Western Michigan won, 71-68, in seven overtimes.
Last weekend, he reunited with Caldwell while their teams met in Jacksonville. This weekend, he'll see familiar faces in the crowd when his hometown team visits his new home in a big matchup for both teams. Thirty years ago, who would have guessed he would take a road less traveled for a chance to beat his boyhood team?
"Without being in Buffalo, none of it ever happens," he said. "It's a journey. It really is. Most of it, or almost all of it, has to do with Bill Polian and Chris Polian. I learned so much from them when I was with the Carolina Panthers and the Indianapolis Colts. I felt like my base of football knowledge was good, but they taught me the NFL and roster building and how to lead a team and everything – transactions, trades, all that stuff. That's what I learned from them.
"Not that this is the most stable job in the world, working in the NFL, but it's so fun that you get to come in every day and compete every week. I've been on a team somewhere since I was 8 or 9 years old playing (Hamburg Little Cagers basketball) at Cloverbank (Elementary). I've been on a team somewhere, at some point, that long. There's nothing better than being a part of that."