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Watauga Democrat




Former Bills great recalls AFL days
By Steve Behr

JEFFERSON — Of everybody in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Billy Shaw stands alone.

Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw signs a helmet at the NFL Shriner’s Charity Golf Classic. Photo by Scott Nicholson

Shaw, the star offensive guard for the Buffalo Bills from 1961-69, is the only player in the Hall to spend his entire career in the American Football League. In his nine-year career, he never played a down in the NFL.

Shaw and several former standout pro football players, including five Hall of Famers, were at Jefferson Landing Tuesday to play in the Third Annual NFL Alumni Shriners Golf Classic. Shaw, who is a Shriner, just retired from his concrete manufacturing business in April.

Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 258 pounds while with the Bills, Shaw carved out a reputation for being able to block the best defensive tackles the AFL had to offer, such as Buck Buchanan and Jerry Mays of the Chiefs, Ernie Ladd of the Chargers and Tom Keating of the Raiders just to name a few.

He also had to block Boston’s mammoth defensive tackle Houston Antwine, who not only had good size, but also quickness to go with it.

“He was a good football player,” Shaw said. “Not only did he give me problems, but I talked to other guards around the league and he gave everybody fits.”

Though the AFL went through a war with the more established NFL to sign players, Shaw signed with the Bills on the advice of his college coach, Georgia Tech legend Bobby Dodd. He was flagged in the second round of the 1961 draft by Buffalo and signed with the Bills before the Dallas Cowboys had a chance to draft him.

The Cowboys knew that Shaw had been drafted by the Bills, but took him anyway just in case the upstart league folded. The Cowboys also considered the idea of converting Shaw, who played defensive end and offensive guard in college, to linebacker.

“I had never played linebacker in either high school or college, so I was a little apprehensive as to the thought of playing linebacker,” Shaw said. “Buffalo wanted to play me on the defensive side of the football at either defensive tackle or defensive end, so it was sort of a natural decision for me to go to Buffalo.”

Shaw was playing defensive end during practices leading up to the College All-Star Game in Chicago while his rival-to-be Antwine was playing guard. All-Stars coach Otto Graham switched Shaw to guard and Antwine to defense and the two staged several battles in the AFL’s Eastern Division for the next nine years.

“I was stinking the place up at defensive end and he was stinking it up at offensive guard,” Shaw said. “Otto Graham switched the two of us and it’s history from there.”

Graham’s move proved to be the best thing that could have happened to Shaw and Antwine. Antwine enjoyed a standout career with the Boston Patriots, making the All-Time AFL All-Star team after making the All-AFL team six straight seasons.

It helped Shaw’s career, too. A solid pass and run blocker, Shaw was All-AFL five times and played in eight AFL all-star games. He’s a member of the All-Time AFL-All Star team and was named to the pro football team of the decade for the 1960s.

Shaw was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and takes pride in the fact that he made the hall without playing a down in the NFL.

“I get kidded about it a lot,” Shaw said. “A lot of people said it’s the NFL Hall of Fame, but it’s not the NFL Hall of Fame. It’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So I get kidded a lot by not playing in the NFL.”

Shaw feels he represents several talented AFL players who are good enough to make the Hall, but are not in. He said Buffalo linebacker Mike Stratton, who is on the second-team All-AFL team, was hands-down good enough to get in. Others, such as Antwine, Buffalo defensive tackle Tom Sestak and former Kansas City safety Johnny Robinson are also deserving.

“It’s such an honor,” he said. “How many guys have toiled and played in obscurity in the AFL for years and I represent those guys at that level. That’s really an honor and to get cards and letters from guys in the past echoing what I said really makes it special.”

Back in its early days, the AFL was known for many things, including its passing offenses and roster instability. Teams like Houston, led by Hall of Fame kicker-quarterback George Blanda, and San Diego, led by coach Sid Gilman, quarterback John Hadl and Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth, piled up huge numbers that critics scoffed at, saying AFL defenses were too weak to stop them.

The AFL had the first two receivers, Denver’s Lionel Taylor and Houston’s Charlie Hennigan, to catch at least 100 passes in a season. Kansas City’s  Len Dawson, Boston’s Babe Parelli and Denver’s Frank Tripucka provided  experience at quarterback for AFL teams.

But the Bills won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964-65 with a balanced attack. Led by the blocking of Shaw and the running of Wray Carlton and one of the AFL’s top stars at the time, fullback Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist, and the passing of Jack Kemp, the Bills bullied their way over opponents with a balanced offense much like the Green Bay Packers did in the NFL.

Shaw’s speed allowed him to lead the Bills’ power sweep. Often times with fellow guard Joe O’Donnell, Gilchrist and Carlton would join the caravan of blockers and lead Kemp (the future senator and cabinet member) or backup quarterback Daryle Lamonica in to the end zone.

One of Shaw’s biggest disappointments was when his Bills lost to Kansas City 31-7 in the 1966 AFL championship game and a berth in the first Super Bowl — against the Packers.

“We had a running team in Buffalo and they had a running team that featured two guards, Fuzzy (Thurston) and Jerry (Kramer),” Shaw said. “We all ran sweeps and that would have been fun to match up with them. They were a mighty good football team.”

The highlight of his career was the 1964 championship when the Bills finished 12-2 and beat San Diego 20-7 in the AFL championship. It was the game when Stratton delivered his famous “shot heard around the world” by crushing San Diego fullback Keith Lincoln after Lincoln tried to catch a pass in the flat during the first quarter.

“It was the first championship for the city of Buffalo at the time, so it was very special,” Shaw said.

Shaw also wishes the Bills could have played the NFL champion Cleveland Browns in a dual-league championship game. One year earlier, the AFL champion San Diego Chargers challenged the NFL champion Chicago Bears to a game, but the Bears refused.

Because Cleveland is located so close to Buffalo, Shaw felt the game would have generated a lot of interest. Shaw is not exactly sure if the Bills would have beaten the Browns, but he would have liked to have had the chance. However, he feels that the Bills’ 1964 edition was the best the AFL produced in its 10 years of existence.

“It was arguably the best team ever in the AFL, including the Jets team that won the Super Bowl and the Chiefs in ’69,” he said. “It was a really good football team. We all felt like we could play with them. A lot of fans in Buffalo were also Browns fans and with the close proximity of the two towns, you had a lot of people who went to Cleveland to see the Browns play from Buffalo and people from Cleveland to come to Buffalo to see the Bills play.”

It would have been a match-up of similarly constructed teams. The Bills, quarterbacked by the scholarly Kemp, would have matched wits with Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan, who has a PhD in mathematics.

“Jack is one of the more intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Shaw said. “A great leader, he did not get the credit he deserved as a quarterback. He was way above the average quarterback. To this day, he is still a good friend.”

The Browns had bruising running back Jim Brown while the Bills had Gilchrist, a bruising-type runner who was 234 pounds of solid muscle.

Buffalo also had defenders like Stratton and underrated defensive tackles Sestak and Jim Dunaway.

“The best football player I ever played with, not athlete but football player, was Cookie Gilchrist,” Shaw said. “Our defense was the best thing about our teams. We had two great tackles in Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway and a defensive end in Ron McDole who ended up playing many years in Washington.”

Along with the highs of a championship, there were the strange happenings that went along with the formation of a new league. There were several colorful characters in the league, including Boston defensive tackle Larry Eisenhower, who tackled a children’s television personality, Pablo, during a taping of a show that was supposed to have Pablo score a touchdown against the Patriots.

Then there was Wahoo McDaniel, the Denver and New York linebacker who achieved greater heights of fame as a professional wrestler than as a football player.

And then there was Gilchrist, who played in Canada before playing in Buffalo, Denver and Miami in the AFL. One of the first stars in the league, Gilchrist was also a kicker when necessary.

“He would completely undress at halftime, take every stitch off,” Shaw said. “He would sit there and cool off and rest. The first time I ever saw him do that, we were playing an exhibition game in New Haven, Conn. We took a bus from Buffalo to New Haven and played the ballgame and he knew two plays and they were off-tackle plays. We knew after the first couple of plays that he was going to be a player.

“So we went into halftime and he took all of his clothes off. And Coach (Lou) Saban told him, because he came to us from the Canadian Football League, he said ‘Cookie, in the United States, we play two halves.’”

During the early years, the Bills worked out hundreds of players who would arrive one day and be released the next. It was typical for an AFL team to bring in several players a week during training camp and only have a handful remain on the roster.

“We had over a hundred in training camp at one time and I wouldn’t even get to know them because one would be at practice in the morning and not be there in the afternoon,” Shaw said. “That’s just the way it was back in those days. There were lots of guys who were beyond their prime trying to get in an extra year or two.”

There were other adjustments the Bills had to make, especially in the early years of the league when money got tight. They were forced to share plane trips to the West Division with their bitter rivals, the Patriots, toward the end of the season. The Patriots would fly to Buffalo and then pick the Bills up before heading to either Oakland, San Diego or to Denver.

It did not lead to any trash talking or fisticuffs, according to Shaw. But it only added to the rivalry of the two teams that often battled for the Eastern Division championship.

“The Bills and the Patriots did not like each other,” Shaw said. “If we had a rival — a hated rival — it was Boston. They were our nemesis. Houston Antwine was my personal nemesis. We just didn’t get along very well.

“The thing about it is that they would get all the good seats because they were picking us up and we got all the bad seats.”

As for the AFL’s rivalry with the NFL, the players themselves didn’t dislike each other personally, according to Shaw. The competition for players before the common draft, which began in 1967, helped drive players’ salaries up.

The biggest contract was when the New York Jets signed quarterback Joe Namath to a deal worth a reported $427,000, a fortune back in 1965.

Shaw also said the NFL’s players had respect for their AFL colleagues.

“I’m sure there were NFL guys who looked down their nose at the AFL, but I didn’t have any conversations with them.”

But when the two leagues started playing each other in exhibition games in 1967, the urgency to win increased than during a normal preseason game.

Buffalo lost its first game against an NFL team, falling 19-17 to Detroit in 1967. Just nine days earlier, the Lions had lost 13-7 to Denver in the first AFL-NFL showdown.

Still, the NFL held a 13-3 advantage in intraleague games during the 1967 preseason.

The Bills, after losing 38-30 to Philadelphia after holding a 30-24 fourth-quarter lead in 1967, got their revenge with Detroit in 1968 with a 19-9 win.

The AFL held a 13-10 advantage in the series with the older league in 1968, but in 1969, the NFL won the series 19-13-1.

According to the Website, Buffalo’s 21-17 victory over Washington on Aug. 8 was the only time legendary coach Vince Lombardi ever lost to an AFL team.

“To be quite honest, we wanted to win it,” he said of those games. “They wanted to win it. The coaches had a responsibility of building a team, so it was treated somewhat like an exhibition game. But deep down, they were Super Bowls.”

After his career, Shaw went back to his hometown of Natchez, Miss., to work in the family business with his father. When his father died, Shaw and his wife settled in her hometown of Toccoa, Ga., where he owned a concrete manufacturing business.

He was happy to come to Ashe County and raise money for the Shriner’s Hospitals. Several former NFL greats made the trip to Jefferson Landing for the event.

“These golf tournaments are special,” he said. “They’re special for us because at every tournament, we see some person we haven’t seen in years and years, so that makes it special. But the cause is what’s special. The Shriners do such great work around the country.”

Shaw did some great work in Buffalo. It’s what separates him from everybody else.

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