The vagaries of the pro football draft mean young men find themselves dispersed all over the country once they leave college. That's as true today, as it was more than 50 years ago.
And in the case of former Bills Center Al Bemiller, being drafted by the Buffalo Bills 54 years ago meant a new career path, and a lifetime of memories made in Western New York. Bemiller reached the culmination of that half-century in Buffalo this past week, when he was selected for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
The longtime center for the AFL Bills, Bemiller is one of 12 members of the Buffalo Hall's Class of 2015. It's the 25th class of the Greater Buffalo Hall of Fame since its inception in 1991.
For Al Bemiller, being drafted by the Bills didn't just mean he'd play pro football in Buffalo. It meant he'd spend the rest of his life in Western New York. After a nine year career with the Bills, he worked in business and in education in the area. Bemiller was a decorated wrestling coach at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs and a certified official for both high school wrestling and football. He was also a longtime recreation director at the Wyoming Correctional Facility.
When asked why he stayed in the Buffalo area after his football career ended in 1970, Bemiller had a quick reply.
"The one main thing was the great people here. I met up with some great people," he said. "Another thing, we didn't make enough money to move."
A native of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Bemiller got All-American recognition in college when he played for Syracuse. In 1961, he was a 7th round pick of the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals, and a 7th round pick for the Bills. He chose Buffalo.
"That was a tough decision," he said this week, in an appearance on The John Murphy Show. "I could have made almost twice as much money. We just through it over and we wanted to be closer to home, so that's why we came here."
When Bemiller was drafted, the Bills and the AFL were in just their second year of existence. And there was a difference in the talent level in the two leagues, according to Bemiller.
"I'm sure there was a difference, absolutely," he said. "It didn't take us long to catch up, but we weren't the NFL then."
Bemiller stepped into the starting lineup by the end of his first training camp and he never missed a game in his nine year career in Buffalo. His first coach in pro football was one of his favorites, Buster Ramsey. And playing center alongside future Pro Football Hall of Fame Guard Billy Shaw was a bonus for Bemiller.
"The center, myself, I was always the one who called the blocking techniques we were supposed to use on the line. Thank God I had a guy like Billy Shaw. When I had a tough guy in front of me, I'd always call him (Shaw) over to help. It worked out very well."
Bemiller started at center in both of Buffalo's back to back AFL Championship wins in 1964 and '65. He was on the AFL All Star Team in 1965. And he was a key part of the Bills success in the mid-60's. But the Bills offense was overshadowed in that era by the strong defense, led by the likes of Tom Sestak, Mike Stratton and George Saimes. Bemiller has no problem with that.
"It's always that way, where one goes before the other," he says. "But I was part of the team and that's what I'm proud of mostly."
The AFL Championship teams began to disband as the 60s came to a close, and Bemiller watched the talent drain away. He played with the Bills through the 1970 season and had a chance to continue his career in Cleveland. But he elected to retire from football and tend to a popular nightclub he ran in Hamburg at the time. Bemiller went on to success in business and coaching and never left the Buffalo area. And he's been an active member of the Bills Alumni Association for many years.
The Monday Quarterback Club presented Bemiller with its' Ralph C. Wilson Distinguished Service Award in 2013. And now, this fall, he'll be enshrined in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, where he'll join former Bills teammates Butch Byrd, Elbert Dubenion, Cookie Gilchrist, Harry Jacobs, Paul Maguire, George Saimes, Tom Sestak, Billy Shaw, Mike Stratton and Ernie Warlick.
"I'm in there and it's a great thing I never thought would happen," Bemiller says. "It's a great thing for me."