East Tennessee and Western New York? Closer Than You Might Think...

From the title alone, you may infer this to be about Terrell Owens’ collegiate career at the University Of Tennessee at Chattanooga, or maybe about the Bills tendency to draft or sign players from the University of Tennessee. It is about neither. This FanPost is meant as addendum to Matt’s chronicles of the Buffalo Bills history up to this year’s 50th anniversary. This is about their first head coach. You know him as Garrard "Buster" Ramsey. His two year stay in Buffalo was crucial to the team’s current existence. I just called him "Pop".

The Short History

My grandfather was born in 1920 in the hills of East Tennessee, the son of a Methodist preacher. During his time at Knoxville High School, he excelled in track and field as well as football. He played on the 1937 Knoxville High School Trojan football team that won the National High School Football Championship by a score of 37-0 over Miami (Florida) High School. After his graduation from high school, little interest was shown in his talent by then coach, but not yet General, Robert Neyland of Tennessee. Instead, Buster took a trip to William & Mary and committed to play football for them on the spot.

His time at William & Mary sparked a revival of their football program as he became the first first-team All-American the school has ever produced. He starred at offensive guard and played linebacker/defensive line as well. Buster made two All-American teams for William & Mary and led them to a defeat of Oklahoma in a bowl game to finish his senior season 9-1.

Buster was drafted by the New York Yankees (yes, a football team) out of college, but enlisted in the Navy for the duration of World War II instead. While in the Navy, he played for the Bainbridge Naval Station football team. Bainbridge was a service team that actually became ranked in the top ten of the national college football polls.

After his time in the Navy, Buster signed with the Chicago Cardinals NFL team, where he made All-Pro numerous times and was a member of the Cardinals’ 1947 World Champion squad. He was traded from a player-coach position with the Cardinals and took over as Defensive Coach of the Detroit Lions beginning in 1952.

Defensive Mastermind

During my grandfather’s time with the Detroit Lions, he was responsible for all aspects of the Lions’ defense. He developed legendary defensive players such as Yale Lary, Jack Christensen, Jim David, and numerous others. His development of the 4-3 defense, which Tom Landry would later lay claim to, and his propensity for blitzing linebackers out of the formation - a package he called Red Dog - helped lead the Lions to three World Championships in the 1950s. His defenses were known for fast, hard-hitting linebackers and defensive linemen and agile defensive backs ball hawking in the secondary. I have his defensive playbooks from those years in my possession and it still amazes me how much scouting, preparation, and ability to adapt he was able to achieve to create successful defensive plays and alignments. It was during his time in Detroit that Buster became friends with minority team owner Ralph Wilson.

As a Detroit area resident, businessman, and longtime Lions fan, Wilson knew that Lions Head Coach Buddy Parker had remarked on numerous occasions that the key to the team's dynasty of the ‘50’s was the most unique trade in NFL history when the Lions traded a player to the then-Chicago Cardinals in 1951 for a player-coach, Buster Ramsey, to coach his defense. So, Wilson knew he had to look no further than his own backyard to find a great coach.

My grandfather could have continued his position with the Lions and possibly enjoyed further success, or retired to his farm at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, but he chose to sign up with Ralph Wilson and create the Buffalo Bills franchise in Lamar Hunt’s new rival league, the AFL.


From The Ground Up

If it is possible to underestimate what it takes to start up a professional football franchise, I can tell you that I did for a long time. I had always been told that my grandfather performed nearly every job for the team from scouting to washing the uniforms, but I never realized exactly what dedication and hard work it took until his correspondence from those years came into my hands after his death in 2007. My grandfather literally built the Bills from scratch.

Those first two years of the Bills existence were more primitive in terms of money, facilities, staff, and players than a modern day middle school program. He had only his trainer, Eddie Abramoski, and one assistant coach who actually moved to the Buffalo area, Breezy Reid. In addition to all the administrative duties which fall to a head coach, Buster had to evaluate all personnel, handle all equipment and scheduling decisions, and game plan both offense and defense. His family would see him home for dinner at 6, and then he would go to the basement in their home in Hamburg, study film on a used 16 millimeter black and white projector until 4 in the morning, leave the house at 7, and start the whole process all over again. 

As I reviewed his letters from those two years, I could certainly see why he had to work so many hours. My grandfather reviewed resumes for potential coaches and trainers, rosters and scouting reports from colleges across the nation, catalogs of film and field equipment, uniform sizes and colors, medicinal supplies, and the list goes on and on. The decisions he had to make are mindboggling. On top of these seemingly menial tasks and decisions that form the basis of a new franchise, Buster was dealing with the formation of an entirely new football league and the inherent problems that came with the AFL’s creation. He was involved in disputes over players with other new franchises that were ultimately resolved, confidentially, by Commissioner Joe Foss. Scheduling conflicts arose. Scouting players, and negotiating draft and signing rights to those players were a source of contention. There were even disputes into the manner in which games were filmed by various teams as the teams were to share their game films. Through all of this, my grandfather still had to be ready to lead the Bills in that first game and every game thereafter on the field as well as his office in a Buffalo hotel and then War Memorial Stadium after completion.

It is no secret that my grandfather’s first two years may be considered failures in terms of wins and losses, but I consider them great successes given the fact that the Buffalo Bills are still around and are still relevant even in such a relatively small market. Every decision my grandfather made in those early years has had an impact on today’s Buffalo Bills, 50 years later. By the end of Buster’s second season, he and Ralph Wilson disagreed about the direction of the team and parted ways. They did, however, remain friends for life. It takes money to be successful in sports, even in the 60’s. Former original Bill and later excellent coach in his own right, Richie McCabe said he had no players and coaches and could not do the impossible. With Buster gone, the team did not right the ship until money finally was spent to acquire the quality players of the championship years, most notably quarterback Jack Kemp.

My grandfather continued his career by reuniting with Buddy Parker as Defensive Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers until his ultimate retirement from football in 1965. He would have other chances to get back in the game later in life as he was in negotiations with Ralph Wilson to take back the Bills into 1969, but that never came to be. He was also offered the fledgling Atlanta Falcons, but turned them down as well. Ralph Wilson told my grandfather on numerous occasions as late as the early 90’s that firing him in 1962 and not rehiring him in 1969 were the two biggest mistakes he ever made as the owner of the Buffalo Bills.





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