Bills celebrate AFL Championship teams 50 years later
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) It’s rare they get to celebrate a championship in Buffalo.
On Sunday, the Bills will celebrate two, honoring the 50th and 51st anniversaries of their American Football League championship teams.
”It’s not often, and this is one time they will,” said former Bills cornerback Booker Edgerson, a member of both teams.
Buffalo’s 1964 and 1965 AFL Champions will be honored at a special halftime ceremony during Buffalo’s season opener against the Indianapolis Colts, with several former players expected to be in attendance.
”It’s going to mean a lot,” Edgerson said. ”We were supposed to have done this last year but unfortunately (Bills founder) Ralph Wilson Jr. passed away. We definitely had to scrap this and do a tribute. Fortunately, we won the championship two years in a row, so it gave us an opportunity to come back this year and present the 50th anniversary of the championship years. And it means a whole lot.”
The Bills are largely known for their four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl in the early 1990s with Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and coach Marv Levy. But their AFL championship teams from 1964 and 1965 also had plenty of star power and a legendary coach of their own in Lou Saban.
With quarterbacks Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica, running back Cookie Gilchrist and wide receiver Elbert Dubenion, the Bills led the AFL in points and yards in 1964. Their defense, which featured Edgerson and Butch Byrd at cornerback, defensive tackle Tom Sestak and linebacker Mike Stratton, led the league in points, rushing yards and total yards allowed.
The 1964 AFL Championship Game turned in Buffalo’s favor following a legendary hit by Stratton on San Diego running back Keith Lincoln. Down 7-0, Stratton leveled Lincoln with a clean hit on a short pass, and the Chargers’ star playmaker was out for the game.
Buffalo won, 20-7, at home.
”I was standing right there,” said former Bills punter/linebacker Paul Maguire. ”I was 15 feet away from it. I thought he killed him. He broke all the ribs on the right side.”
With Gilchrist no longer on the team in 1965, Buffalo’s offense took a step back — but the defense picked up the slack. In a rematch of the previous year’s title game, this time the Bills traveled to San Diego and upset the Chargers in a 23-0 victory.
”That `64 and ’65 team was so, so, so special,” said Bills Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw.
The celebration on Sunday will be bittersweet. Several key contributors have passed away, including Kemp, Gilchrist, Sestak and safety George Saimes. Wilson, Buffalo’s Hall of Fame owner, passed away in March 2014.
”It’ll be sad on one hand to celebrate and then on the other hand to be missing those guys,” Shaw said. ”Each one had a very, very special part in making those two teams successful.”
Said Edgerson: ”You’ve got to believe that they will be looking down on us and we will be feeling them … we will be introducing each one of those individuals up on the stage and giving them their props. And rightly so.”
Saban will be another important figure missing from the celebration. The legendary coach passed away in 2009, and his former players believe it’s time he gets his due on the Bills’ Wall of Fame. Saban had a falling out with Wilson after he returned to coach the team in 1972 before abruptly quitting in the middle of the 1976 season.
”Whatever happened with Lou and Ralph, the man should go on the wall,” Maguire said. ”He really should because he did bring the only championship team here. We’ve got enough of the guys who played on those teams up on that wall, but the guy that put it all together was Saban.”
Sunday will be a celebration for Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, as well. It will be their first season opener as owners after purchasing the team last October. Their presence has ensured the team’s long-term future in Western New York and reignited a passionate fan base.
Under the Pegulas’ watch, the Bills hired coach Rex Ryan and made a splash in free agency in a bid to end Buffalo’s 15-year playoff drought.
”It’s great that the Pegulas are coming in with a great past history of the Bills,” Edgerson said. ”And hopefully in the future, they will put a stamp on their ownership and end up with a championship team somewhere down the line.”
NOTES: The Bills have re-signed veteran defensive tackle Andre Fluellen after releasing him on Friday. Fluellen has played in 77 career games.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed to this story.