Pete Metzelaars played for the Buffalo Bills. His great-grandmother performed for Buffalo Bill.
And therein lies a tale.
It’s a tall tale, in the case of Metzelaars, who is 6 feet, 8 inches, and a small one in the case of his great-grandmother, who was about the length of fourth-and-one.
Mathilda Cajdos, better known by her stage name of Princess Nouma-Hawa, is variously described, depending on the source, as having been 32 inches or 38 inches tall. She was a circus performer in her native Hungary in the late 1800s and immigrated to the U.S. to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the early 1900s.
“I’m blessed to be the size I am,” Metzelaars says. “It works out well for me, except when I have to get on an airplane.”
He parlayed his full frame into a 16-season NFL career that included Buffalo’s Super Bowl run in the 1990s — and he is the best tight end the Bills have ever had.
Measure that any way you like. There are his stats; he’s tops in team history among tight ends in games played (156), receptions (302), touchdowns (25) and receiving yards (2,921). There are the accolades; he was named to the Bills’ 50th anniversary team in 2009.
“It’s a nice honor,” he says. “I was nothing flashy, more of a blue-collar guy.”
Suffice it to say, no one has played the position well enough since to be even in the running as his replacement should there be a 60th anniversary team.
Metzelaars was born in 1960, just like the Bills — who are named for Buffalo Bill, the sharpshooting showman who employed his great-grandmother. Metzelaars told of his tiny forebear at the Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation Golf Classic in July. Some alums wondered if maybe he was making it up.
But Mathilda Cajdos was very much a real person, and one with a poignant life story. She was born near the border of Hungary and Romania in 1877. She began touring with circus companies in the late 1880s, where she was billed as the World’s Smallest Woman.
As Princess Nouma-Hawa, she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when it toured in Europe. Then, in 1902, she came to the U.S. with the show. Its main event took place under the big top; she was part of a sideshow under a smaller tent. It cost extra to see what were cruelly called “freak shows” in that benighted era, and cost still more to shake the tiny hand of the tiny princess.
But Cajdos was more than a curiosity. She was a trouper whose act included song and dance and who spoke English, Hungarian, German, French and Italian. She also worked for touring circuses and, in 1904, married Maurice Andrew Gowdy, a fellow circus performer who would become Metzelaars’ great-grandfather.
“He was the circus barker,” Metzelaars says. “And he was 6-3. We have pictures of him standing next to her.”
Cajdos died tragically in childbirth in 1909 in Hot Springs, Ark., at the age of 32. Her only child would become Metzelaars’ grandmother. Hilda Gowdy was raised by nuns in a convent in Hot Springs because her father’s circus life required constant travel.
Metzelaars’ football life demanded travel of a lesser kind. He played pro football for the Seattle Seahawks (1982-84), the Bills (1985-94), the Carolina Panthers (1995) and Detroit Lions (1996-97), and has coached pro football for the Barcelona Dragons (2003), Indianapolis Colts (2004-11), the Bills (2012) and San Diego Chargers (2014-15).
Oh, and earlier this year, he coached the offensive line for the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football until the league folded.
“I’ve been here and there, and there and here,” Metzelaars says. “Sometimes it has been frustrating, but I still love the game of football.”
Today, he is offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Charlotte Christian School in Charlotte, N.C., where he’s coached before. He still roots for the Bills, for whom he played 10 of his 16 NFL seasons. He even got that bonus year in Buffalo in 2012 when he was tight ends coach on Chan Gailey’s last staff.
“It was great to be back in Buffalo,” Metzelaars says. “We were close to being pretty good, but we just couldn’t quite get it done.”
Hilda, his grandmother, was named for Mathilda, his great-grandmother. Hilda named her first son Maurice, after her father. And that son, Maurice Metzelaars, was Pete’s father.
Pictures of his great-grandmother are a click away on the internet, so there’s a sense in which she remains a curiosity to be gawked at. Metzelaars, though, sees something else.
He sees a woman who gave birth, and gave her life, for her family’s future. Without her, he would not exist.
“Here I am,” Metzelaars says. “I feel blessed by God.”