1962 Buffalo Bills – The Arrival
by Bill Choinski
The AFL’s third season was a stormy one. To get the jump on the rival NFL in signing college talent, the 8 owners conducted a “secret” under the table draft in which each team selected six top shelf college prospects. The draft took place before the season was even finished, in November of 1961. It was so secret, even AFL commissioner Joe Foss was in the dark about it. When Foss learned of the draft, he voided the results and ordered a new draft to take place. The New York Titans and their owner Harry Wismer threw a fit and wanted Foss fired. They had drafted Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. In the second “official draft” Davis became the first round choice of the Buffalo Bills. Cooler heads prevailed and Foss not only kept his job, but won a 5 year extension. In a bizarre moment later that year, Foss appeared as best man at Wismer’s wedding 3 months later.
Meanwhile, the great Ernie Davis went on to sign with the rival NFL Cleveland Browns. Coach Paul Brown wanted to build what would have been the greatest backfield duo in the history of the NFL. The Browns already had Jim Brown, one of the top players in the entire history of the league. Tragically, Ernie Davis contracted leukemia that struck the brilliant rookie down before he ever took a play in professional ball.
After playing the 1960 and ’61 seasons in their original silver/gray and blue uniforms, the Bills made a switch prior to the 1962 regular season. In the July 14, 1962 edition of the Buffalo Evening News, Bills beat writer Jack Horrigan reported that, “(Coach Lou) Saban decided to ‘brighten up’ the Bills new uniforms by adding scarlet and making more use of white than the former silver-blue combination.” The team first wore the new look for the 1962 regular season opener vs. Houston and though the Oilers won 28-23, Evening News reporter Larry Felser described the new outfits as “the Bills sharp new uniforms.” The new look also saw the team’s silver helmet replaced by a white one with a red standing buffalo and a single red stripe down the middle.
The uniforms weren’t the only thing to get a major face lift. Ralph Wilson and Lou Saban made some major player moves in the off season as well. The biggest was the addition of Canadian Football League legend Cookie Gilchrist . Gilchrist quickly became one of the AFL’s biggest stars. He was a bruising fullback that was the complete package- a bruising runner and a receiving threat- the Marshal Faulk of his time. His fiery temper made him a demon on the field, but a handful for his team mates and coaches off the field.
Saban teamed with his new replacement as director of player personnel, Harvey Johnson to overhaul the roster. LB Mike Stratton (13th rd), Tom Sestak (17th rd) and Ray Abruzzese (23rd rd) were late round gems. Other rookies brought in to camp that made the roster were DB Booker Edgerson, and DB Carl Charon. NFL Veterans DT Sid Youngleman and LB John Tracey were also added for leadership.
Another brilliant move was the addition of top flight QB Jack Kemp. The Starting QB for the high flying West Division champs the past two seasons, Kemp was the vital leader the team lacked. Breaking his finger early in the Chargers 1962 campaign, Charger coach Sid Gillman tried to sneak Kemp on waivers to get a backup QB on the roster. His grievous error was Buffalo’s gain. Saban knew his QB situation was precarious at best. Veteran QB Tom O’Connell retired from playing to join the Bills coaching staff, leaving a weak position even weaker. The Bills had used 6 different signal callers in 2 seasons without success. Stashing him away until the final month, Saban was confident he finally had the nucleus of a champion.
All the new faces took some time to meld into a cohesive unit. Lou’s crew dropped their first 5 games and it was looking like the same old slow starting Bills. But in the 5th game, Saban’s staunch defense held the 2 time AFL champion Houston Oilers (and the leagues highest scoring team) to a mere 17 points. They lost the game. 17-14, but it was the watershed moment. They finished the year on a tear, going 7-1-1. The only blemishes on the record were a loss and a tie to Saban’s old employers, the Boston Patriots.
The Bills finished the year with a 20-3 drubbing of the New York Titans, giving them their first winning season. Their 7-6-1 record was good for 3rd again in the AFL East. The star of the show was Cookie Gilchrist. His 1,096 yards rushing and 15 TDs led the AFL. TE Ernie Warlick led the team with 45 receptions. Dubenion again led the team with 571 yards receiving and 5 TDs, and Glenn Bass wasn’t far behind with 555 yards receiving and 4 TDs. Warren Raab started most of the season at QB, passing for 1,196 yards, 10 TDs, and 14 INTs. But he knew what his role was- hand the ball off to Cookie and keep the seat warm until Kemp healed. Kemp took over late in the season and amassed 984 yards passing, added 10 TD passes, and rushed for 2 more.
The Buffalo Bill defense was turning into the league’s dominant unit. Rookie Carl Charon lead the team with 7 interceptions, with 2 returned for TDs- on a defensive unit that led the league with 36 INTs on the season. That was an incredible average of 2.5 interceptions a game! The Bills possesed the most intimidating defensive line in the league with Tom Sestak and LaVerne Torczon anchoring the ends.
The Buffalo Bills would send seven representatives to the AFL All-Star Game. On offense, FB Cookie Gilchrist, QB Jack Kemp, TE Ernie Warlick, and G Billy Shaw were selected. On the defensive side of the ball, DE LaVerne Torczon, rookie DE Tom Sestak, and making his second consecutive appearence, LB Archie Mastos were honored.