It’s only two weeks away now, when the 2014 Buffalo Bills will assemble at St. John Fisher College for training camp.
For those of us who cover the team, and even for many rabid fans, the start of training camp signals the beginning of the end of summer. And for those of us who’ve been lucky enough to be around the team for a while, the approach of training camp brings back a rush of memories.
Here are some of my favorites:
Jack Kemp and the men in dark suits
My first Bills Training Camp was a long, long time ago. As a young boy growing up in Lockport, we were lucky to have the Bills camp right up the road at Niagara University. In the summer of 1967, I made the trip for an afternoon practice and watched closely through the wooden snow fence as the Bills went through their summertime workout. It was only seven months after I attended my first Bills game, the 1966 AFL Championship Game at War Memorial Stadium, the one the Bills lost to the Chiefs.
Needless to say I was all in. And I was especially interested in my favorite player, quarterback Jack Kemp. Despite the fact that the nuns at St. Patrick’s School favored Daryle Lamonica, the Notre Damer, in the team’s raging QB controversy of the 60s, I was all about Jack Kemp. I stood outside the snow fence waiting for practice to end so I could get the only autograph I wanted.
There were only a handful of fans on hand after practice, maybe 40-50 people. So I was certain to get my Kemp autograph. As he made his way to the break in the fence and prepared to walk through the crowd, however, Kemp was met by two men in dark suits wearing sunglasses. The quarterback signed my scrap of paper, but he was deep in conversation with the two men. I listened in to hear what they were saying—something to do with the Patriots, perhaps? A scouting report on the Oilers?
Neither. The discussion was about the 1967 gubernatorial race in California, Kemp’s home state. He was firing questions at the men about Ronald Reagan and his campaign. I’m thinking, “Ronald Reagan—the Death Valley Days guy? What the ...?” Kemp signed, continued his conversation and walked away.
A lasting lesson from Mr. Wilson
For almost two decades, Fredonia State was the summertime home of the Bills for training camp. And what a home it was.
From the wide open fields outside the Fredonia Athletic Complex, to the casual, relaxed atmosphere in the dining hall and around the dorms, to the ever-present chug of the gas-powered golf carts, Fredonia was a perfect spot for training camp from 1981-99.
The golf carts provided the unmistakable soundtrack for the camp. Players got cart rental firms to rev up the engines so they could speed from the dorm complex to the locker room. A five-minute walk would become a 45-second death ride through the fans from the gym to the dorms, and back again. The carts eventually became the preferred mode of transportation for players to restaurants and taverns in downtown Fredonia where they replenished fluids at night before (and maybe after) curfew. Eventually, the local police put an end to the late night golf cart drag race back to the dorms just before curfew.
To me, Fredonia also meant access to players and decision makers in an informal, relaxed atmosphere. When the afternoon practice ended, GM John Butler would often invite me back to his super-air conditioned suite where he would smoke cigarettes and fire questions at me about that day’s workout—who I liked and didn’t like. Imagine what an ego boost that was—an NFL GM asking what you thought of his team.
Before Butler, I had several late night talks with then GM Bill Polian with one standing out in particular. We did the radio show right from training camp for several years, and one night, after an appearance on the show and after we signed off, I sat with Polian for hours and talked late into the night about the impending arrival of free agency in the NFL. As usual, he had a perfect sense of how free agency might work, and what the pitfalls would be. And as usual, he was not shy about voicing his opinions in a forceful manner.
One of the most memorable informal chats at Fredonia training camp came in the late 1990s, when the Bills were busy drumming up business and trying to sell the new dugout suites at then Rich Stadium. Owner Ralph Wilson sat in a golf cart and talked to a group of us about the business of the league and the reality of marketing pro football. I still think back to his main premise.
“The best way to market a pro football team,” Mr. Wilson said, “is to win.” In his mind, it was all very simple.
The T.O. Show
Training camp got a lot less simple and a lot more fan-friendly when the Bills made the move to St. John Fisher College in 2000. The access for fans is unparalled. The entertainment options for young fans are perfect. And the push into the Rochester area has produced dividends for the franchise.
My lasting image of the first Fisher training camp is of Wade Phillips riding in his golf cart wearing a simple, blue baseball cap. The front of the cap didn’t feature a Bills logo. It had one word-“Coach.” Just in case there were any doubts.
There were no doubts that Gregg Williams was in charge the following year. He left his mark with his trademark air horn wakeup call for the players and his on-field, less than PG-rated diatribes for players who mis-stepped. It was a dramatic change from Wade Phillips.
But no one made more noise over the years at Fisher than the fans. And no camp was louder than the one in 2009, when superstar Terrell Owens arrived on the scene. Fans shouted “T-O! T-O!” non-stop during practice and then really pick up the pace afterwards, when they were looking for autographs. I can still hear it five years later.
There’s nothing like Bills training camp. For those of us who follow the team, it’s a chance to totally immerse yourself in the roster and the routine, a perfect way to get ready for the season either as a reporter or a fan.
Get ready to dive in—it’s only two weeks away.