Billy Shaw is one of the most celebrated players in Buffalo Bills history. The Hall of Fame offensive guard played in 119 games for Bills from 1961 to 1969, was selected to the All-AFL team five times, and appeared in eight All-AFL All Star Games.
Over the course of an athlete's career, teammates come and go, but the close friendships last beyond your playing days. Shaw has personally kept in touch with many of former teammates over the years through alumni events and other team functions. But there was one teammate that he completely fell out of contact with, it haunted him for five and a half decades. Their relationship began in the 1962 season.
"Manch was a walk on free agent quarterback and he ended up making the team as a practice squad member," Shaw recently explained over the phone to BuffaloBills.com from his home in Georgia. "As the season progressed, towards the end, the last four games, we had some injuries, and he was on the roster, and he played. He threw three passes for seven yards."
Shaw was describing the professional career of quarterback Manchester Wheeler, a Maine native who played his college football at the University of Maine and made it onto the Bills practice squad for the 1962 season. Shaw was a star player and team captain, and Wheeler was a practice squad guy just trying to make it, but the two developed an unlikely bond.
"We became friends. Me being from Mississippi and I had my brogue, and him being from Maine and it was quite the opposite of mine," Shaw said in his thick Southern accent. "We just became friends. Our wives became friends. He was a very enjoyable person."
Billy and Manch lived nearby one another. They sometimes carpooled to practice and games, and would hang out on their days off. Shaw wasn't the only person who felt a close connection with the quarterback. He remembered how excited his teammates were for Wheeler when he was elevated to the active roster late that season.
"He was such a nice kid, and that's what we were back then in '62, we were kids," said Shaw, who is now 78 years old. "He was such a nice young man. A very intelligent young man, too."
Wheeler returned to try out for the Bills the following season, but didn't end up making the team. He and his wife left town. Even though the two had been close friends, Billy and Manch completely fell out of touch. This was long before the internet and cell phones made it effortless to contact friends and family who were far away.
Fifty-five years had passed since Shaw and Wheeler spent that season together, and Shaw still held out hope. Enough hope to suggest his daughter try to track down an old teammate of his, who he played with for one season, five and a half decades ago, just because she happened to be traveling to his home state.
"Those are personal relationships that you make during that time," Shaw explained. "I can say for the era in which we played during the 60's that those team members, those teammates were all really, really close. That was one of the reasons that I was personally trying to reach out to Manch, because he was a teammate back in '62, and he's one of the few that I hadn't been in contact with, or didn't know exactly where he was."
Shaw finally got his answer late last fall, when he got a phone call from One Bills Drive. It was alumni manager Jeremy Kelley with a question. He wanted to know if Shaw remembered a former teammate named Manch Wheeler. Shaw's mouth dropped to the floor. All the time he spent wondering, and this phone call came out of the blue.
Kelley, a product of the University of Maine football program himself, had recently been in touch with another Maine Alumnus and former Bills linebacker Chris Keating. Keating had informed Kelley that Wheeler, who is still living in Maine, was going through a tough battle with cancer.
"Chris called me to ask if I knew Manch, and at first I didn't know who he was speaking about," Kelley said. "But as he continued describing Manch and his involvement with the Maine program, it all came back to me. I knew exactly who Manch was but failed to recall his name. Manch and I had great conversations during my time on campus, but I mistook him for a local booster. A very nice guy, but I had no idea he was a former QB at Maine, let alone the Buffalo Bills."
Kelley reached out to Wheeler on behalf of the Bills, and sent a care package, which delighted Wheeler. He called Jeremy to express his gratitude, and when he did, they got talking about his old teammates, including Shaw. Kelley offered to reach out to Manch's old friend for him.
"Jeremy gave me Manch's phone number and I called him, left a message, and Manch called me back, and we talked for the better part of an hour," Shaw explained. "Now I have his number and his address, he has my number and address, and he has promised that we will stay in touch. If it weren't for Jeremy, we would have probably never made contact again."
"Billy Shaw was my best friend. It was awesome," Manchester Wheeler told BuffaloBills.com about picking up the phone and hearing Shaw on the other line. "It meant an awful lot. Teammates are friends forever."
Over the course of the conversation, Shaw and Wheeler were able to catch up about their lives post-football.
"We talked about life and the good things that have come our way. We talked about his kids and his grandchildren, and I bragged on my grandchildren. That's where the conversation went," he said.
Wheeler had a chance to personally congratulate Shaw on making it into Canton.
"He was proud. He congratulated me and just told me how proud he was of the honor that came my way and that he could tell his friends that he played with a Hall of Famer," Shaw said with a chuckle.
Wheeler told Shaw about a couple accomplishments of his own, such as being honored by the University of Maine's Hall of Fame. They also spoke about some more difficult topics, like Manch's wife Sandy passing away, and his current health struggles. Before they hung up that day, the former teammates promised not to lose touch again. Wheeler is still as appreciative of Shaw's friendship today as he was in 1962.
"He was a wonderful person," Wheeler said. "Still is. I was just on the reserve squad and he treated me like I was a regular. The captain of the team cared about me."
"It was fun getting to know him during that period of time, and after all these years to learn that he was successful in his life and had a great family, and has been recognized for his college play and that he is doing okay," Shaw said. "That's just kind of the way the sport in general was back early on. The Bills were only two years old back in '62, so it was a new family, and that's exactly how it turned out. All the guys that you played with and got close to became family," Shaw said.