Their first trip from Detroit to Buffalo, shortly after Joe Delamielleure was drafted in the first round of the 1973 Draft, was dragging on.
Navigating their way through Canada, his wife Gerri said jokingly, “Joe, where are we driving to?”
“We’re going to Iowa,” Delamielleure said.
Of course, they both knew Iowa was in quite a different direction.
“We were going to my field of dreams," he said. "Buffalo was my Iowa, my field of dreams.”
For the 9th of ten kids growing up in a blue collar Detroit household, the only one of whom went to college, it didn’t matter which city or state was the destination. What mattered was that he was on his way to playing in the NFL.
“I said to Coach (Lou) Saban, ‘Coach, I’m living my dream. My four brothers are working in factories and in a bar, and I’m in the professional football league. If you gave me a really nice t-shirt and a cap, I’d play for free.’ And I mean that, I really would have.”
The fact of the matter was that though any city would have been his Iowa, he quickly connected with Buffalo, a town with many of the same values, traditions, and passions as his hometown.
“I was just grateful to play, but I really understand what the people in Buffalo go through.”
After laying down his roots in the comfortable, football-hungry city and playing five successful seasons for the Bills – highlighted by a number of Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections – he was uprooted in a trade, and sent from a city he so resonated with.
But as fate would have it, his tour of the Great Lakes continued when he landed in nearby Cleveland, Ohio. Soon the future Hall of Famer realized that he innately understood how the people lived and what they valued, and that it wasn’t at all dissimilar from the cities he’d already called home - especially when viewed through the lens of football.
“The attitude of these cities is based on the Browns or the Bills or the Lions wins,” he said. “It’s a diversion for what was happening in the real world. It gives you three hours of a distraction. People are spending time with their families. It’s a tradition. It’s a fiber in your body. It’s part of your life. And I don’t think it’s like that in many other cities.”
Though he didn’t see Buffalo or Cleveland in his future when he was young, instead hoping to play in Green Bay, he’d dreamed of playing in a place with “a grass field, snow, and a game on Thanksgiving Day,” which was what he knew to be the definition of football. He grew up in a place where being a football fan was a way of life, and the pair of cities on Lake Erie where he would spend his NFL career fell into that same mold.
“My wife said it the best," he said, laughing preemtively. "In Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, they would rather buy a ticket to a game than sometimes buy their kids’ shoes.”
Delamielleure matched his five seasons in Buffalo with another five successful seasons in Cleveland, earning him spots on the esteemed Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame and Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor.
So with his name a permanent fixture hanging over tonight’s game in Cleveland, Delamielleure will watch in person as his two teams - but more importantly two cities, with so much in common - face off in primetime.
“It’s kind of like watching your kids fight,” he said. “You don’t pull for one or the other. You just hope they don’t get hurt.”
Though he wouldn't play favorites and pick a side, he added, “I know what a win for the City of Buffalo means to the people, because I’m a fan now. It means a lot.”