Never is there a more optimistic moment in the season of the Buffalo Bills than right before the season actually gets started. The team hasn’t lost yet; the division title is still within reach; limitations haven’t been revealed.
It seems a bit of history repeating, where the Bills are somehow the champions of the off-season, ready and able to make a charge at the playoffs with franchise leaders and years of success to come. It happened last year, inexplicably, and almost seemingly unintentionally, that the Bills actually made the postseason. While for most rebuilding teams that would be a step in the right direction, the Bills are all but set to regress as they rebuild anew. The Bills are, more or less, where they always are: determined yet disregarded, hopeful yet plagued, and with the odds stacked against them, stuck in the mediocrity.
At a moment when we look forward with rose-coloured glasses, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the past, and specifically on how the Bills came to be the Bills.
Buffalo was granted a team in the All-American Football Conference upon its founding in 1946; that team was known as the Buffalo Bisons (perhaps because Buffalo Buffaloes was too on the nose). The following year, for better or for worse, owner James Breuil put it to the fans of the team at the time to give them a nickname. Among the choices, including Bullets, Blue Devils, or the Nickels (my personal favorite, if only because it’s a silly name with a strong reference), Bills came out on top. The name is in reference, and deference it would seem, to frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody.
Curiously, William Frederick ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody was born in Iowa, lived in Toronto, and settled in the midwest. He never lived in or around Buffalo. He was a frontiersman, and a city nestled around two great lakes in the northeast of the U.S. isn’t exactly what people think of when they conjure the frontier. His nickname came from the fact that Cody was renowned for slaughtering buffalo and bison, making money off the sale of the meat. Essentially, Bill killed buffaloes--maybe that’s why the team is cursed. Or maybe because of the suggestion that Breuil, of Frontier Oil Company, wanted to have branding across all platforms, which included the famed frontiersman Cody, and rigged the fan vote on the name.
So in 1947, the football team in Buffalo became the Bills. In what would be a precursor to all the bad luck the Bills would have for many, many more decades to come, the AAFC disbanded only a few years later, with three teams being absorbed into the National Football League--but not the Bills. Without a team, Breuil left for Cleveland, and Western New York would not have a team for ten years.
Enter Ralph Wilson, who acquired the team and entered them into the American Football League in 1959. He kept the name ‘Bills,’ and he would take that into the NFL when the merger between the two leagues occured in 1970.
That ‘Bisons’ had been the predominantly used nickname for Buffalo sports franchises prior to the Bills reflected, at least in part, an identity and a history in Western New York (although there is a theory that the naming of the city of Buffalo, in reference to Buffalo Creek, was the result of a mistranslated native word meaning ‘Beaver.’ Go Buffalo Beavers!). There is a nice theme sometimes: the city has the Bisons baseball team now, and many Bisons teams in the past. There have also been the Stampede and the Wings. And we have the Sabres, but even that name takes a backseat to the city name, with a Buffalo featured prominently in all iterations of the logo.
In football, where superstitions, routine, and a whole slew of other random thoughts and notions abound for no practical or logical reason, we should add to the mix the inauspicious and uncreative naming of this team as one of the reasons they suffer so persistently. At least until we realize this week that the offensive and defensive lines are porous, we downgraded our quarterback, and we have no depth. Go Nickels!