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Bills AFL Champs appreciate 50th team honor

The Buffalo Bills held a ceremony during halftime of Sunday's home opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to commemorate their 50th season all-time team. There were 26 members in all, including several players of the Super Bowl teams in the early 90's. Also honored were five players from the AFL teams who were the foundation of two consecutive league championships in 1964 and 1965—a symbol of the Bills first half-century as a franchise.

All were present except the late Tom Sestak, represented by his son at the ceremony. The only offensive player from the group was guard Billy Shaw, an eight-time Pro Bowler and the only enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame that played his entire career in the AFL. Despite being the most decorated player in Bills history, Shaw was proud to be a representative on the 50th team with the other old-timers.

"We represent all of the guys that played in somewhat obscurity in the AFL," said the Hall of Famer. "But to be here with this group of guys, it brings back fond memories, and a lot of friendships that have lasted 50 years."

Linebacker Mike Stratton, who played in 142 games over ten seasons (1962-1972), said his passion for the community made the honor special. If not for the cold winters, he would have made Buffalo a year round home. 

"Looking back over a number of years, it was very nice that not only we got players to help win us those championships, but Buffalo really got a sense of pride," Stratton said, who is best known for his "hit-heard-round-the-world" tackle on the Chargers' Keith Lincoln in the 1964 AFL Championship Game. "We all have a sense of affinity for the area."

Buffalo's Super Bowl teams of the early 90's are revered in the eyes of Bills fans across Western New York, with nine Wall of Fame members and five enshrined in Canton. So it came as no surprise that 16 players in all were voted to the 50th team by the fans. That's why Buffalo's AFL champs that were voted onto the team by the fans felt all the more respected for what they achieved more than 40 years ago.

For safety George Saimes being recognized by the fans was an honor in itself. In five seasons with the Bills (1963-1969) Saimes started 91 games and collected 21 interceptions. He and the fourth member of the AFL honorees, Butch Byrd, formed half of what was an impressive defensive backfield. Byrd still holds the team record in career interceptions (42).

Saimes said the honor was a tribute to a passionate fan base, including many who only have highlight reels to base judgment. He said in a conversation with Marv Levy Saturday night, they both spoke at length about the importance of the fans recognizing the old-timer's accomplishments.

"It's great to still be noticed. When you were winning, it was a good time and people were cheering for you," Saimes said. "I know there are a lot of fans who went through the good times and bad times. Luckily the Bills have loyal fans.

"What people should remember is that we got a lot of help. The one person who you could point to in our era and forward is Ralph Wilson. He took a chance to have the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo. He's gotten a lot of criticism over the years, but he stuck with it, and didn't move the team."

Shaw said there are similarities between the fans of his era compared to today's game. He noted that other players still receive mail in support.

"The fans don't recognize a time difference. If they're football fans, they're football fans whether it's 1969 or 2009," Shaw said. "The difference I see is there are more fans today because of the size of the stadiums. Our fans were extremely passionate playing in the Rockpile. Almost to a detriment because sometimes we didn't play very good, which makes them mad in a hurry. But I would never say the fan today is better than the fan was in the 60's. Our fans were loyal, courteous to a point, and really knowledgeable."

Although the players have gathered for several functions in the past, they never get tired of sharing memories and maintaining friendships. Saimes recalled his favorite highlight as winning the back-to-back titles while Stratton remembered the "error" of falling at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966—one game from playing in the inaugural Super Bowl.

Shaw shared the same thoughts as the other honorees, but labeled the 50th team honor among his proudest.

"All of these people are personal friends who are here today and that means a great deal. When you go back and look at how the team was assembled, it's a great personal accomplishment to be voted in by the fans," he said.

Added Stratton, "It's probably the most special recognition I have ever had. Just to say that in a 50-year span you are one of the people that fans admire most, it's a truly uplifting experience."

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