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Top 50 All-Time Bills, No. 32: OT Will Wolford

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Wolford was one of the best linemen in Bills history. <a href="">(photo source)</a>
Wolford was one of the best linemen in Bills history. (photo source)

OT Will Wolford (1986-1992) | 6'5", 294 lbs

Notable Achievements: Two-time Pro Bowl Selection

William Charles Wolford was born on May 18, 1964 in Louisville, Kentucky. He attended St. Xavier High School in Louisville, where he was honorable mention All-State in basketball, before heading to Vanderbilt University.  He played for the Commodores from 1982 through 1985, where he played left guard and right tackle before earning All-SEC honors in his senior year.  He was also named captain of the team in 1985 and played in the Senior Bowl that season.  The Bills made Wolford the No. 20 overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft; he would spend the next seven seasons as the team's starting left tackle. He played in the team's first three Super Bowl appearances before leaving for Indianapolis in free agency.  Wolford spent three seasons with the Colts and another three with the Steelers before retiring; he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.

Career Highlights
After being an immediate contributor at Vanderbilt - where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 1982 - Wolford was also an immediate contributor for the Bills.  The Bills had traded second and fourth round picks to the San Francisco 49ers to move into the first round to select Wolford:

On draft day of that year, the San Francisco 49ers were preparing to make their first-round pick, the 20th overall; Will and Jude were watching the draft on TV when the telephone rang. It was the Bills calling for Wolford. "Would you be interested in playing for us?" asked a voice.

"I'd be interested in playing for anybody," Wolford replied.

"I went crazy," Wolford says. "I couldn't believe it." Jude looked over and teased, "Buffalo? Where's that?"

Just six days after he signed his rookie contract with the team, Jim Kelly came to town to save the team. Wolford went on to start all 16 games at right guard in his rookie season pushing the prior year's starter, Tim Vogler, to the bench.  Wolford had a solid rookie campaign, but was better suited to be playing on the outside.  Marv Levy shifted him out to left tackle where he started nine games during the strike shortened 1987 season. 

As Wolford became more comfortable at left tackle, Jim Kelly and the offense really began to take off. After the strike shortened season, Wolford was a part of a Bills offense that finished in the top half of the league offensively each year, including in the top three in his final four seasons with the team.  He would miss just three starts in his Bills career, including two because of a knee injury towards the end of the 1990 regular season.  Wolford earned a Pro Bowl selection following the 1990 and 1992 seasons.  After seven quality seasons with the Bills, Wolford was fortunate enough to be a part of the first NFL free agent class after his three-year, $2.1 million contract expired following the 1992 season.  He was just 28 years old and in his prime making him one of the hottest commodities that first year of free agency.

The Colts signed Wolford to a controversial three-year, $7.65M deal that included escalator clauses on March 28, 1993.  The contract made him the league's highest paid offensive linemen and richest Colt.  He was a restricted free agent that the Bills deemed their transition player, so they had the right to match the offer, which they attempted to do.

"It was [an offer] I certainly couldn't refuse. Not only were they making me the highest-paid lineman in the league, they were making me the highest-paid lineman in the league times two! And they were putting in playing-time clauses that would guarantee me to be the highest-paid player on the team. It was hardly an offer that I could turn down," Wolford said. "It was a great contract and all that, but I was extremely sad to leave Buffalo. I was there year-round for seven years, so it was very difficult to walk. But looking at it, being an offensive lineman and having that kind of contract thrown in front of me, I had to sign it." ~Then Levy Said to Kelly by Jim Gehman, p.71

Those playing-time clauses were the root of the controversy.  The contract stated that Wolford's base salary was to be the highest of any offensive player on his team.  With stars such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed in place, this made is virtually impossible for the Bills to pay him.  Obviously, the Bills tried to protest that this "poison pill" addition to the contract was illegal - but to no avail:

The Bills protested to the NFL, which ruled that the offer sheet was illegal. The NFL Players Association then demanded arbitration, and on April 22 the arbitrator, Arthur Stark of New York, ruled the offer sheet legal. The Bills then declined to match it.

Thus, Wolford was a Colt.  For more information on Wolford's signing and a pretty good story about him, check out this Sports Illustrated article from September of 1994.

Best Moment(s)
Wolford's best individual moments were undoubtedly his two Pro Bowl selections for the Bills (along with another in Indy) and his shiny, new contract he earned in that first year of free agency.  Playing for all those winning teams in Buffalo was also a thrill for him:

"It was a great feeling to play a home game those last couple years," said Wolford. "We knew we were going to win, the team we were playing knew we were going to win, and we all knew that afterwards we were going to Jim Kelly's house for a party. To have that kind of control and that kind of confidence, it was a lot of fun. It's the greatest city in the world to play in if you're winning. I've got friends who've played in the Super Bowl every year. So I was very fortunate to be a part of all that." ~Then Levy Said to Kelly, p.71

Oh, those were the days...

Parting Shot
Will Wolford left Buffalo as one of the best offensive linemen to ever don a Bills jersey.  He was a major part of the Bills offenses that were some of the best in the league as he helped protect Kelly's blindside and open holes for Thurman Thomas in the running game.  Despite leaving the team on unfavorable terms, also known as "just business", Wolford's stellar play makes him one of the franchise's best.

Career Stats with the Bills
102 games, 102 starts