As an athlete, you could hang your hat on any single one of those achievements.
Former Bills quarterback Daryle Lamonica has done them all.
“My first real sports thrill ever was playing in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania,” Lamonica said. “Baseball was my first love. I always wanted to play baseball.”
But when he was offered a $50,000 signing bonus along with a lucrative contract to play professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs out of high school in 1959, he turned it down to get an education and play football at the University of Notre Dame.
“I think I chose the right way to go,” he said of the decision that set his career and legacy into motion.
After a successful college career at Notre Dame, Lamonica was drafted by both Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and the Buffalo Bills in 1963 – a situation made possible by the pre-merger structure of the AFL and NFL. A former Notre Dame coach with the Bills convinced him to sign with his team over a Packers club that didn’t seem as interested.
Lamonica says his experiences and friends in Buffalo wholly validate his choice, though one run-in with a living legend showed him the Packers might have been more interested than he thought.
“I was at the Touchdown Club in Washington D.C. and Vince Lombardi sat right next to me,” Lamonica reminisced. “He said, ‘Daryle, I’d like to ask you a personal question. How come you didn’t sign with the Packers right out of Notre Dame?’ So I told him the same story: that the Packers scouting didn’t really get back to me. He said, ‘You know, Bart Starr got hurt this year. You would have been my starting quarterback.’ Still to this day, that’s one of the best things a coach or person, with my great respect for him, has ever said to me.”
Instead he played backup to Jack Kemp during four memorable and very fruitful years on the Bills; both the ’64 and ’65 squads won the AFL Championship.
“I learned a lot from Jack Kemp but I also learned a lot from our coaching staff and from our players,” he said. “It was all about us and we didn’t have any one individual who was the guy, and we just knew we were going to win. We didn’t care whether it was the defense or the offense or special teams. We just had that chemistry of players.”
He was quickly nicknamed “the Fireman” for the occasions when Kemp wasn’t playing well or was injured and he was able to “put out the fires” and hold the games together.
“I think that’s the special thing that I walked away from Buffalo with. I learned how to be a winning quarterback there,” Lamonica said. “Yes, I would come off the bench and help out a little bit, but I only tried to do what I knew that I could do from staying in the game from the very first snap. I wasn’t always in the game physically but mentally I was. I would try to just do the things that I thought we could score points with.”
He was surprised to hear that he was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1967, having thought he’d finish out his career with the Bills, but he quickly became a successful starting quarterback for the Raiders, earning another AFL Championship win, three division titles, and a trip to Super Bowl II. Lamonica found Oakland and Buffalo to be similar in both their fan culture as well as their style of play, so he says his transition was easy in addition to the fact that California had always been home.
“The first time we came back and played in Buffalo though was tough mentally because I wanted to do well,” he said. “I remember the fans gave me a standing ovation when they introduced the Oakland offense and that was very special to me.”
Lamonica now lives in his hometown of Fresno, California, with his wife, a Buffalo native. They have one son who also lives in the area. Lamonica will return to Orchard Park to Lead the Charge over the tunnel before this weekend’s Kansas City Chiefs game, calling the weekend a happy reunion for some of his old friends and former Bills teammates.
“I have nothing but fond memories of my days in Buffalo as a Buffalo Bill. We were family. When you talk about the Bills family, that’s exactly what we were.”