It was with heavy hearts that the Buffalo Bills learned that two-time AFL Champion offensive lineman Joe O’Donnell passed away on Thursday at the age of 77. A staple on the team’s offensive line, and a respected voice in the locker room during his seven seasons with the club, O’Donnell will forever be remembered for his unmatched work ethic and dedication to his teammates.
After being drafted by both the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Buffalo Bills, O’Donnell a Michigan product, set his sights on Western New York when he opted to play for the Bills. While undoubtedly recognized for his play on the field, which earned him AFL Eastern Division All-Star honors in 1965, perhaps something more defining was his character.
As explained by his former Bills teammate and friend Marlin Briscoe, O’Donnell was as reliable as he was hardworking.
“In regard to Joe O’Donnell…he was a tenacious player, just a great guy [and] a great teammate,” said Briscoe. “He optimized [an] undersized player who brought the best of his skills to the table week in and week out.
“You could always count on him. He was a very intelligent player and person. He was a heck of a leader back in those days – back in ’69 and ’70 when I was in Buffalo.”
Briscoe, who was drafted by the AFL’s Denver Broncos in 1968, becoming the league’s first African American quarterback to start, formed a special bond with O’Donnell when he came to the Bills in 1969. For Briscoe, transitioning from quarterback to wide receiver had its challenges, but with the help of O’Donnell, who embraced him with open arms, he found his niche.
“He and Jack Kemp were the two leaders on our team…He also helped me and encouraged me, he and Paul Maguire,” said Briscoe. “That was the year that I made All-Pro in Buffalo and Joe was always in my corner. I got to tell you, because he knew what I had experienced as a quarterback...they knew things I had gone through. So, when I got to Buffalo, Joe took me under his wing so to speak [and] allowed me to be successful switching positions there in Buffalo, as did Paul Maguire and Jack Kemp.
“I’m going to miss him. He’s a standup guy. He’s a great leader. He was definitely a leader on that offensive line that we had in Buffalo when I was there.”