Welcome to one of my periodic, “I just can’t take writing about last week’s game” columns, sometimes known as a “Phil’s about to talk about something obscure from a long time ago” column. Because, really, do you need to read more about last Sunday’s game?
Digging through some memorabilia recently, I came across a handful of Bills training camp autographs I got as a little kid circa 1970 and 1972. Yes, they actually played football back then. The helmets weren’t even leather. In my partial defense, I was really young. Of course, that means little when I know many of you weren’t even born yet.
The autographs were each on the back of “Get one free game of bowling” coupons from Frontier Lanes in Lewiston – why my folks had so many of these coupons to spare, I don’t know, but they made the autographs seem even more special because we were giving up a potential savings of 49 cents per autograph, or whatever games cost back then.
Anyway, I thought it’d be fun to sift through those autographs from Bills old timers – whose squads went 3-10-1 and 4-9-1 – and see what we can learn today about the careers they had. I wondered if I held a batch of autographs from forgotten stars, or forgettable duds. As is usually the case with the Bills, the results are a mixed bag.
Dennis Shaw (Quarterback)
My parents and I spotted him playing catch in the parking lot. This was his third of four years as a Bills QB, and his last as a full-season starter. His first year, 1970, was probably his best – throwing for 2,500+ yards and compiling a QB rating of 65.3. This earned him 1970 offensive rookie of the year honors, making him one of only four quarterbacks (the others being Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young and Matt Ryan) to win the award. One other note: rather than on the back of a bowling coupon, this autograph was written on one of my dad’s coveted “Jerry Mann – the ‘Mann’ to see’ matchbook covers from his days selling cars at Russo Oldsmobile. They don’t write ad copy like that anymore.
Donnie Green (Offensive Tackle)
I vaguely remember him. A fifth round pick for Buffalo in the 1971 draft out of Purdue, he had a seven-year career; the first five with Buffalo, and then single years with the Eagles and Lions.
Dick Cunningham (Tackle/Linebacker)
I never would have deciphered his autograph if it weren’t for the #63 he kindly included. Out of Arkansas, this was near the end of a six-year career, which concluded in 1973 with 10 games split between the Eagles and Houston Oilers.
Robert James (Defensive Back)
Now we’re talking. Three-time Pro Bowler, two-time first team All-Pro.
Butch Byrd (Defensive Back)
He came out of the Albany area (Watervliet, specifically) and had seven picks his first season. A five-time AFL all-star, he was named to the second team of the AFL’s all-time team. Byrd returned a punt for a TD in the 1965 AFL Championship game.
Reuben Gant (Tight End)
A random autograph that slipped into the pack – Reuben was my favorite Bill when my dad met him in 1980. A fine tight end, except for the fact that he couldn’t actually catch the ball so well. With the Bills from 1974 to 1980.
Willie Grate (Tight End)
Two seasons, both with Buffalo. Caught eight passes.
Jackie Allen (Defensive Back)
Played college ball at Baylor, then for the Raiders, Bills (two seasons) and Eagles. Retired in 1972.
Paul Guidry (Linebacker)
His eight-season career included seven years in Buffalo. I wish I could tell you something else about him.
Marlin Briscoe (Wide Receiver/Quarterback)
You read it right – a combo WR/QB who would have loved today’s wild cat trend/fad, I bet. Spent three years of a seven-year career in Buffalo, almost exclusively at wide receiver. Marlin was an historic figure of sorts: beginning his career in Denver, he became the first black starting QB ever, throwing 14 TDs for the Broncos. Alas, the Bills already had Jack Kemp when he joined the team, so his QB days pretty much ended. Tragically, he became a heavy drug user after his career, despite having become a successful broker of municipal bonds. He auctioned off his 1972 Dolphins Super Bowl ring to pay drug-related debts (apparently, dealers referred to him as “17-and-Oh” in reference to the Fish’s undefeated squad) and eventually went to prison. Today, he runs a Boys and Girls Club, as well as a children’s football camp. Supposedly, a movie about his life is in pre-production.
OJ Simpson (Running Back)