Booker Edgerson is Buffalo to the bone.
He was a shutdown corner on the Bills’ AFL title teams of the mid-1960s. He was an administrator for nearly a quarter century at Erie Community College. And he remains, at age 80, a leading light in raising money for local charities through the Bills Alumni Foundation.
It is hard to imagine Buffalo without him, but how he came to us in the first place was a matter of pure luck — ours more than his. And it all revolves around a contract he signed with the Boston Patriots in the early 1960s that got shredded before he could ever play for them.
We’ll get to all that, but let’s start at the beginning.
Booker Tyrone Edgerson was born in Arkansas and raised in Rock Island, Ill., where he was a high school football star. He had offers from 30-some Division I programs but didn’t like school much and thought he’d forgo college football and join the Navy.
That’s when a familiar name in Bills history entered the picture. Joe Collier was from Rock Island, too, and he convinced Edgerson to come to Western Illinois for a workout during the summer before the school year began in 1958. Collier was an assistant coach at Western who worked under Lou Saban, another familiar name in Bills history.
“Look, you’re out of shape,” Saban said, as Edgerson recalls it, “but I’m looking at your ability and I think I can use you.”
Edgerson started as a freshman. In his sophomore year, the Leathernecks went undefeated. Saban left to coach the original Patriots in 1960. And then Saban signed Edgerson to a Patriots’ contract after his senior season.
But Edgerson was still playing college baseball — he also wrestled and ran track — and he knew he’d lose his eligibility if it came out that he’d signed a pro deal. So, he says, Saban stored the contract in a bottom desk drawer.
Edgerson eventually had a falling out with the baseball coach and quit the team, but he got a call from Saban, who said he’d been fired by the Patriots. And here, as Edgerson recalls it, is how that conversation went.
Saban: “What do you want me to do with your contract?”
Edgerson: “Tear it up. I’ll go where you go.”
That ended up being Buffalo, where Edgerson was reunited with Saban and Collier. Edgerson was passed over in the AFL and NFL drafts, so he signed a free-agent deal with the Bills and won the starting job at left corner. In his first game, he intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback George Blanda twice. By year-end, he had been named to the AFL All-Rookie team.
Edgerson had a sprinter’s speed, and that served him well in the pass-happy AFL. The story goes that Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth was caught from behind just once in his pro career — by Edgerson.
The Bills had the AFL’s dominant defense of the mid-1960s, with Butch Byrd and Edgerson at the corners. Byrd wound up with 40 career interceptions, the Bills’ record. Edgerson had 23, partly because teams were wary of throwing his way.
“I sort of mentored Butch,” Edgerson says. “He was more physical. I was more finesse. I always said I was 5-11, but I was really 5-10 1/2 and 177 pounds.”
Larry Felser covered the 1964 and 1965 AFL title teams for The Buffalo Evening News. I once asked him who among those mid-’60s Bills could have played in the NFL’s faster, bigger modern era. Felser didn’t hesitate. He said Edgerson was the answer.
“I agree with that,” Edgerson says, “without bragging or anything of that nature.”
Among his career highlights was a tackle on which Edgerson stole the ball from a Cincinnati Bengals runner and returned it for a game-winning TD in a blizzard at the Rockpile in 1969. “It was petty larceny,” he said that day. “That ball’s only worth $25.”
Edgerson was traded to Denver the next year, reuniting him with Saban yet again. He wasn’t happy about it, though. He says the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles also were interested and if he had to leave Buffalo, he wanted to be closer to his adopted home.
A knee injury in Denver ended his career, so he returned to the City of Good Neighbors and has been our good neighbor since. He has worked, among other gigs, as an administrator with Erie County’s CETA employment program and as director of equity and diversity at ECC, where he retired in 2007.
Edgerson has three children, eight grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. “They’re all over the USA, including in Buffalo,” he says. “I’ve had a great life.”
Edgerson has beaten prostate cancer twice, and now is an advocate for men to get screened.
“Marv Levy was my mentor,” he says. “Now I speak to organizations and I always tell men to go and get checked.”
He says the Bills Alumni Foundation gave $100,000 to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for research on prostate cancer and that the foundation has raised more than $2.5 million for a range of local causes in the last two decades.
“I always want to give back to the people of Buffalo,” he says, “because the people of Buffalo have made my life richer and better.”
Edgerson believes the Bills’ AFL championship teams should be remembered as much as the Bills’ Super Bowl teams — and says he tells that to Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas all the time.
“Those were great teams, no doubt,” Edgerson says. “But they didn’t win their last game. We did. I always tell them their rings are bigger, but ours are better.”