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by Doug Carpenter

A lot of us are Western New Yorkers by chance, having either been born here or brought here by work or marriage. But how many of us would choose to call this home?

Take professional athletes, for instance. As a whole, they’re a pretty nomadic lot, what with leagues and contracts to deal with and the prospect of being traded always looming over the locker room. Sometimes, though, a player and the town he plays for just seem to click, forming a special bond that makes moving on after the game is over just not an option.

That says a lot about both the team and the town. What says even more is that it’s not just a “sometimes” occurrence here in Buffalo. It happens a lot. Take Buffalo’s premier home team, the Buffalo Bills, for instance.

With this being the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest chapters in the history of Buffalo Bills football… their 1964 AFL Championship season, the members of that legendary team are understandably the topic of a good deal of conversation. But when the inevitable “Where are they now?” question is asked, try this answer on for size: A lot of them are still right here.

As familiar as their faces were as gridiron greats in the ’60s, you can’t help but appreciate and respect guys like Buffalo Bills alumni Ed Rutkowski, Charley Ferguson and Ernie Warlick for what they’ve accomplished in the years since they wore their team’s trademark red, white and blue. Like so many of their fellow Bills, none of them were originally from this area. But when their personal postgame wrap-ups began, they each decided to stick by the town that stuck by them and put down roots right here.

Given his high-profile role in area politics following his 1963-1968 career with the Bills, Rutkowski is probably one of the best-known of the talented people the Bills organization has permanently imported to our area. For him, though, staying on in Western New York was almost inevitable.

A Notre Dame graduate, Rutkowski grew up in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a small mining town about 20 miles South of Scranton. With so many people from that area migrating North after the coal industry’s demise to find work at places like Chevy and Bethlehem Steel, he says Western New York felt like “a home away from home.”

But he says it was the region’s unexpected beauty that really clinched the deal for him and his wife, Marylou, who together have raised three daughters, who in turn have given them five beautiful grandchildren. “I discovered something I never knew about back in Pennsylvania: the magnificent Lake Erie sunsets. We just fell in love with the area.” So much so that, when fate opened the door for him to enter public service after his playing days were over, he walked through it with enthusiasm.

Working on the successful 1970 Congressional campaign of his teammate and close friend, Bills Quarterback Jack Kemp, led to a job as Kemp’s Administrative Assistant. From there, it was short yardage to a political career of his own, which he converted into two terms as Erie County Executive.

“They used to tell me that if I could take the heat of 40,000 booing fans in War Memorial Stadium, a campaign would be a piece of cake. Plus,” he adds, “they don’t throw beer cans at you at a Candidates Night.” But even though he’s now moved on from both football and elective politics, he still sees his share time in the field and on the stump… quite literally.

As Western District Director for the New York State Parks system, he’s responsible for 27 parks and recreation areas across the Niagara Frontier. And though he kiddingly describes himself as the guy who “mows the grass, waters the flowers and feeds the squirrels,” considering how much time he spent trying to reach the tantalizingly green grass of the end zone, it seems like a natural fit.

As familiar as Ed Rutkowski was with the area he’d end up calling home, Charley Ferguson is the first to admit that he knew pretty much nothing about the second-largest city in the state. On his way to Buffalo from Minnesota to join the Bills in 1963, he had geographically-overoptimistic visions of being able to fit in some side trips to New York City between games. “But when I saw the Thruway sign that said ‘New York: 427 miles,’ I said ‘Well, I guess that’s out.’”

After he was here, however, he says that he “grew with the city” as it grew on him. And once that happens, he says, “this is a tough place to leave.” Marrying a local girl and raising a family here helped, too, of course. It all added up to the Galveston, Texas, native’s decision to stay and build a future here. Today, his wife Janet is Assistant Superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, and his 22 year-old daughter Victoria is working on her graduate degree in Theology.

With so much enthusiasm for education in the Ferguson household, it’s not surprising that one of Charley’s off-season jobs was as a substitute teacher in the Buffalo schools… not in Phys. Ed. as you might expect but in Remedial Math. After his six-year run with the Bills came to a close in 1969, Ferguson ended one career only to start a second.

After 32 years with General Motors’ Delphi Division in Lockport, he retired in 2002 as Superintendent of Manufacturing. The fact that he served the company in a variety of positions ranging from Labor Relations to Community Affairs just goes to prove the old sports adage: Once a go-to guy, always a go-to guy.

Now, if you really want to know why Buffalo truly deserves the nickname “The City of Good Neighbors,” just ask Ernie Warlick. It’s the reason he’s here.

Originally from Durham, North Carolina, Warlick had made a few pretty far-flung stops before he ended up on Buffalo’s doorstep in 1962. He’d gone to college in his native North Carolina. He’d served four years in the United States Air Force based in Washington, D.C. He even played for five years with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders up in blustery Alberta.

But when Bills Coach Lou Saban recruited him in 1962, he’d never been to Buffalo. Yet he signed on the dotted line to come here, sight unseen, which is exactly what he and his wife Louise did… arriving on the 4th of July. It’s what happened that very day that speaks volumes about Buffalo and her people.

Brand new in town with no place to call home but the Statler Hilton Hotel, the Warlicks were invited to an Independence Day cookout with a family living in the city not far from the Bills’ home field at War Memorial Stadium. It was a visit that would turn into an invitation to them to stay with their hosts until they had found a place of their own. Forty-two years later, Warlick remembers the experience with great affection and appreciation.

“That was true hospitality,” he says, adding that the warmth and acceptance they felt from that first day forward was shown them again and again by the public at large. “I just can’t say enough about the fans of Buffalo. You wanted to play for them. To go out there and give a hundred percent every time.”

Warlick experienced the special bond that the city and the team developed during those formative years. That connection would follow him through his three impressive years as a Buffalo Bill, and then into his post-football career, which ranged from operating a restaurant to making local television history when he became Buffalo’s first black sportscaster at what was then WGR Channel 2.

Though he recently retired after 15 years as Regional Sales Manager for Chromatic Industrial Corp., Warlick and his wife remain loyal Western New Yorkers. It’s still the home their three grown children back to from the jobs and schooling that have taken them to other cities. That these happen to include competing team towns like Pittsburgh and Minneapolis is something Warlick lovingly forgives. Like Buffalo, he has a big heart.

When guys like these start talking about their favorite memories of their days as Buffalo Bills, it’s a good idea to be ready to stand back. Because the stories come flying out fast, funny and with great feeling. A few of them resonate in particularly telling ways, painting a vivid picture of how much some things change while others are timeless.

Rutkowski remembers, for example, how, as a member of one of the first NFL teams to integrate their on-the-road housing in the ’60s, he got to room with Cornerback Booker Edgerson. “I learned about black-eyed peas from him and he learned about Polish kielbasa from me.” He also remembers the thrill he felt the day he was hired by the Bills.

“I called my Mom and told her I’d just signed a contract for $7500. And she said ‘Oh, my gosh. You’re rich!’” Later, after buying Mom a new set of false teeth and bankrolling a Spring Break trip to Ft. Lauderdale with his whopping $300 “signing bonus,” he remembers thinking “Boy. This is it. This is living!”

The fans, of course, have great Bills memories, too. “Meet the Bills” Nights, with their field goal-kicking contests and “Pose with the Players” photo sessions, were always big favorites. So much so, in fact, that to this day, people still approach team veterans to show them pictures they had taken with them when they were kids.

Perhaps best of all, we remember the exhilaration of becoming a force to reckon with, as both a team and a town. “We had a lot to prove,” recalls Rutkowski. “When we were out on the coast playing the San Diego Chargers, people would ask us where we were from. When we told them Buffalo, they’d say ‘Where’s that?’ But I’ll tell you what. After we’d won those two championships in ’64 and ’65, everybody knew where Buffalo was. And everybody knew who the best fans in football were: Bills fans.”

Like most veteran Bills, these players insist that they were the lucky ones, getting much more back from the Western New York community than they put in. But when you consider the more than half a million dollars the Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation has raised to date in support of area charities and scholarship programs, it’s a little hard to see it quite that way.

It’s more of a “win/win” situation. But then, what more can you ask of a relationship than that?

© 2004 Doug Carpenter