Ten minutes after the kickoff last Saturday night the narrow streets leading toward War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo were still jammed with cars that would have no place to park even if they got there before the game was over. Thousands of people were being turned away at the gates and were colliding with thousands who were just arriving. It was like the changing of shifts at an aircraft plant. But by the end of the first quarter 40,167 determined fans had somehow squeezed into the old stadium for the most important football game in the history of the Buffalo Bills, and when it was finished nobody threw a beer can—which in Buffalo means the event was an unqualified success.
It was the first time in the five years the American Football League has been in operation that a game was sold out in advance. The last $6 seat—providing a fine view of a steel girder or a wire screen or the backside of a goalpost—was gone before noon on Saturday. At 6:30 some 2,000 standing room tickets went on sale at $3 each and disappeared as fast as they could be shoved through the windows. Although there have been indications for the past couple of years that the AFL was gaining the public fancy, the 52,000 at Shea Stadium two weeks ago and this crowd in Buffalo seem to justify the optimists.
The game had automatic appeal. The Bills already had won two in a row at home and had got back most of the affection they lost by dropping a playoff game to Boston last year for the Eastern Division championship. The opponents this time were the San Diego Chargers, who wear rings proclaiming themselves Champions of the World since the NFL refused to send its champion against them in a playoff last January. In the past the Bills have had a habit of blowing the big games. Buffalo Coach Lou Saban could feel his players tightening up for this one early in the week.
"This is a tension game," Saban said. "I've tried to jive the players to get them loose. But how can you jive them when they're on the ceiling? We have a lot of young people on this squad, including 10 rookies, and tension is bound to come."
The pressure, however, lay as heavy on the Chargers. San Diego beat Houston in the opener but lost the second game to Boston and left on a three-week eastern trip with four key players—Flanker Lance Alworth, Halfback Paul Lowe and Safetymen Dick Harris and George Blair—out with injuries. Defensive Tackles Ernie Ladd and Henry Schmidt and Offensive Tackle Ron Mix were slowed by an assortment of sprains and muscle pulls but could play, and Quarterback Tobin Rote was still bothered by bone chips in his right elbow. That put most of the San Diego offensive burden on Fullback Keith Lincoln. Before the Buffalo game all that was wrong with Lincoln was a sprained knee and a broken finger. "I tried to play last year with three injured backs, and I know how it is," Saban said. "Keeping players physically able to play has become the hardest job in the game."
The Bills had not escaped the first two games unhurt. Halfback Wray Carlton was out of action against San Diego and was replaced by rookie Joe Auer. But the vital man for Buffalo—the remarkable Fullback Cookie Gilchrist—was a picture of aggressive health. The 251-pound Gilchrist is the man who makes the Buffalo offense go. When Gilchrist wallops into the middle of the line it looks like a gang fight. If he is not running or catching, Gilchrist hangs back to pass-block on anybody who evades the excellent Buffalo offensive line. He can deliver two blows on a blitzing linebacker without having to recoil. With Gilchrist acting as bodyguard, playing quarterback for Buffalo is one of the pleasanter occupations in professional football.
The 36-year-old Rote had no such advantage. But with Lincoln running courageously nine times for 67 yards in the first quarter against the jittery Bills, Rote moved the Chargers smartly down the field after the kickoff. At the Buffalo 27, Rote decided to let Lincoln rest and tried to throw to Split End Don Norton, who was being guarded by rookie Corner Back George Byrd of Boston University. Byrd got inside Norton, stole the ball and raced 75 yards for a touchdown. "That was the play that woke us up," Saban said. "After that we started hitting them and knocking them down and we weren't nervous anymore." Another Buffalo rookie, Hagood Clarke of Florida, spun 53 yards for a touchdown on a punt return in the second quarter to put the Bills in front 14-3 at the half. Rote was plagued by a strong Buffalo rush and without Alworth and Lowe did not have the weapons for a consistent drive.
But Buffalo Quarterback Jack Kemp, a former Charger, could not get the Bills offense moving, either. San Diego was forced to use two rookies—Corner Back Jim Warren and Safety Ken Graham—on the left side, but Kemp seldom threw into their territory. Instead, he kept Gilchrist whacking at the battered Chargers.
"That's what I want," Gilchrist said. "I think I ought to carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game if I'm really going to be effective. I get stronger as the game goes along. The Chargers were sending a couple of linebackers after me, but all of them were tackling unusually high. They were in a lot of slanting defenses and hands kept grabbing at me, and I tried to keep dragging them. The more of them pile on me, the better it is for our team because that means one of us is getting loose someplace else. Football is a form of life in which you have to work if you're going to accomplish anything."
With Buffalo leading 17-3, Saban finally sent in sub Quarterback Daryle Lamonica in the fourth quarter. Lamonica has been accused of lacking imagination and relying too much on Gilchrist. But Lamonica immediately probed the weak Charger pass defense on a long throw to Flanker Elbert Dubenion and then broke Auer at right end for the first touchdown by the Buffalo offense. And, with 24 seconds left, Lamonica threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to the streaking Dubenion, who had beaten Warren in the end zone. Dubenion's extraordinary catch was the finale in a 30-3 Buffalo victory.
Twice the Buffalo fans have expressed their displeasure with the team by a shower of beer cans, some of which had not been emptied. Saturday night the only sad faces belonged to the Chargers and to 200 Charger boosters who flew in from San Diego for the game and had to sit at a corner of the end zone. "Here we travel 3,000 miles and don't even get to see the game," one of them said. "But the way it turned out, maybe it's just as well."
For the Chargers there was a consoling fact. Their next two games—against the Jets in New York and the Patriots in Boston—also may be sellouts. The Chargers, despite winning three Western Division and one league championship in four seasons, have never managed to fill their own home stadium and are considering moving to Anaheim, Calif. with the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.
The Bills—now tied with the Boston Patriots—are easily the best team in the AFL's eastern division at this stage. Next week Buffalo will play at home for the fourth consecutive week, this time against Oakland. In 1965 there will be 7,800 seats added to War Memorial Stadium. The Bills need them now.