Remember when the Buffalo Bills actually played in Buffalo?
Only Bills fans old enough to have attended games before 1973 would recall what NFL football was like at the stadium that the team’s late owner Ralph Wilson once called “totally inadequate,” according to a story in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
Wilson was referring to War Memorial Stadium, nicknamed the Rockpile, the 1937 Works Progress Administration project built at the corner of Best Street and Jefferson Avenue on Buffalo’s East Side.
In its early years, the Rockpile hosted civic gatherings, parades, boxing matches, college sports and high school sports. The Buffalo Bisons also played there for a stint of that minor-league baseball team’s history.
The Bills began playing at War Memorial Stadium in 1960 as a member of the American Football League. The facility was expanded in 1965 from 36,500 to 46,206 seats, according to the Bills’ official website.
The Rockpile eventually became unacceptable by National Football League standards. As the Democrat & Chronicle tells it:
The AFL and NFL had announced plans to merge leagues and the War Memorial was deemed unsuitable for NFL play. Bills owner Ralph Wilson …was quoted in a 1968 news story saying, “All owners who bring their clubs into Buffalo are appalled by the stadium.”
The locker rooms were tiny with sometimes-functioning showers. The neighborhood was rough. Parts of the field froze. Girders used in the construction made it difficult to see the action on the field.
And then there was the infamous Dodge Street Tunnel through which players entered the field. Fans were extremely close to the players and beer cans frequently rained down from the stands.
Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson called the Rockpile “nasty” in the book, "The Little League that Could/A History of the American Football League" by Ken Rappoport.
“You would wonder, what would they throw at you?” said Dawson, who played much of his career for the Kansas City Chiefs. “They threw stuff at their own players, so you know they were going to throw stuff at you.”
The place was basically a baseball stadium converted to a football field. One player quoted in the book said the Bills ran patterns that had other teams’ defensive players back-pedaling – and often stumbling – over a pitcher’s mound. Talk about a home-field advantage.
The Bills moved in 1973 to what is now New Era Field in Orchard Park. The Rockpile was demolished and is now home to the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion.