Raymond Abruzzese, Jr. died on August 22, 2011, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 73. Even the most well-educated Buffalo Bills fan won't know his name, but he played a key part in establishing the American Football League.
The Bills were part of the American Football League from its inception in 1960 to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The Bills and owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. found themselves in the middle of several great stories during the AFL era, from the Jack Kemp waiver wire claim to Wilson's lending money to the Raiders to stay afloat. This is one of those stories.
Despite suffering a knee injury during his senior year at Alabama, one of the hottest players in the 1965 draft was Joe Namath. The quarterback was drafted first overall by the AFL's New York Jets, and No. 12 overall by the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, players selected by both leagues could choose which to play for.
Namath told Jets owner Sonny Werblin that he would choose the Jets, but gave him a stipulation: Werblin would have to sign Namath's old college roommate, Raymond Abruzzese. The only problem was that Abruzzese was a defensive back for the Bills, and had just won an AFL Championship.
In yet another example of Wilson's commitment to the success of the AFL, Wilson allowed Abruzzese to go to the rival Jets. Namath signed with the Jets, and eventually toppled the NFL in Super Bowl III, firmly establishing the AFL as equals of the NFL. It would have never happened without Wilson or Abruzzese.
Abruzzese was a 23rd-round draft pick for Buffalo in 1962, and played in 35 games for the Bills, starting two at safety. He had five interceptions as a member of the Bills, but made a bigger impact on special teams. He returned 20 punts for the team, averaging 8.5 yards per return, and added 16 kickoffs for 328 yards.
Abruzzese spent two seasons in New York before his career ended - and he missed out on the legendary Super Bowl - but it would have never taken place without him.