Bills Training Camps: Then and Now

Featured Photo Credit: © Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports via, LLC.

As I See It

There’s a price that comes with your team being good. Not just more expensive game tickets/parking/concessions etc., but even training camp becomes a challenge.

When I first arrived on the scene, coming to Buffalo as a Ch2 sportscaster after working as the weekend sports anchor at KTRK-TV (ABC) in Houston, Bills training camp was at Niagara University.  The drive from Cheektowaga, where I first lived as a bachelor in 1973, seemed almost absurd.

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Back to Bills training camps.

I’ll mention here that for the record, the Bills first training camp was in East Aurora back in 1960, then it was Blasdell from 1963-1967, and THEN Niagara from 1968-1980.

It’s hard to grasp, for we seniors, that the Bills have been training at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford longer than they trained at Fredonia St.

My car could drive itself to camp.  Seriously.

However, back in 1973, there were some benefits coming from the lack of technology we have now.  There were no “live” shots from camp. Drive to the morning session – they did lots of two a days then – film some interviews and a few plays and drive back to the station to begin preparing for the 6 and 11pm newscast.

The crowds were nowhere near what they are now, and autographs were easy to come by because of fewer numbers, but also because sports memorabilia was in its infancy.  Kids weren’t paid to get autographs for adults who wanted to put the signed jersey or helmet on Ebay.  Now, it’s commonplace. Players know it, but sign anyway because a few of the items signed are actually for – the kids or young fans. Sports memorabilia is a multi-billion dollar business now, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest much of what is being signed will soon have a price attached to its picture.

The media was nothing like we see now.  The three Buffalo TV stations, a couple radio stations, the Buffalo News and Courier Express were represented, but there was no ESPN, or small army of publications, podcasts, bloggers or streaming services. Because of that, the players knew the media members personally, and there was far less acrimony than we see now: especially if things aren’t going well.

Setting up interviews was easy, even if it was O.J. Simpson, the only true Super Star on the Bills roster.  You just asked him, without setting up an appointment through media relations.

Speaking of O.J., back in 1974  Joe Ferguson was hurt in a game at Miami, and backup Gary Marangi came in and hit a couple bombs to almost win the game.  O.J. did an interview after practice with a couple of us, and after we’d turned the cameras off, I asked him if he thought maybe Marangi should get a shot at starting.  He didn’t hesitate, saying he loved Marangi’s swagger.  A Courier Express reporter, now deceased, overheard it and published it as an exclusive story the next day.

It’s now virtually impossible to pull off something like that. Thankfully.

The big change then of course, was that Rich Stadium had just opened in Orchard Park, and although the team continued to train at Niagara U, the Bills marketing outreach began expanding under the watchful eye of L. Budd Thalman, now in his late 80’s. Thalman played a role in convincing Ralph C Wilson that public relations was becoming more and more essential in the thriving NFL.  Thalman, a wonderful guy I got to know well, is soon to be  in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after receiving an “Award of Excellence” in Canton Ohio.

Even though the Bills stayed at Niagara another seven years after the new stadium opened, the relaxed and informal camp atmosphere began to change.  Now, you had to ask for interviews, among other things.  The nerve!

When the Bills moved training camp from Niagara to Fredonia St College in 1980, it was a mixed bag for me.  The drive was still a long one, and the facilities weren’t far enough to stay overnight.  Improving technology also began changing our approach.

Sometime around the late 80’s, Ch2’s engineers figured out a way to bounce a satellite signal off the top of the (then) Marine Midland Tower to a dish in Fredonia, and we began doing live interviews from camp.  This was a huge secret we worked on, because the other stations had no idea we would be doing this, so for at least a year or more Ch2 was the only TV station doing live interviews with players during the 5 or 6pm news.

Quick anecdote:  I usually had my photographer and a truck operator, and an intern to help me with logistics.  Marv Levy – happy 98th birthday Marv! – especially was charmed by one of our female interns and asked me once  if she made the trip that day! When he first walked over to me just before practice, I actually thought he was wanting to talk to ME.  Wrong.

So one day this young woman who still works in Buffalo but not in the media, was with us, when a problem popped up.  Bruce Smith had agreed to be my guest, which we teased heavily. Bruce, really a great guy – usually – totally forgot and stiffed us. As we realized he wasn’t gonna show, I asked the intern to grab one (there were three obvious rookies  walking together from our location near the dining room)  and we’d wing it.

She went right up to one of them, and he agreed to come on with me, and I had NO clue who he was. We were in the commercial break as he sat down and put on a microphone, and oh by the way told me his name and a couple other things.

My intern had a great eye. She grabbed Superman.  It was Dean Cain, later Superman, and he almost made the cut as a defensive back. He was a great interview, and as we wrapped up off the air, a thought hit me:  “Dean, you went to Princeton, right?  Ever run into Brooke Shields?”  I’d read she was finishing a degree there. Ha ha.

“We’re dating”, he said.  He said I didn’t ask….

By the time the Bills moved camp to St. John Fisher in 2000, ALL the stations, including those in Rochester and even Syracuse, were there. Plus network and cable sports national crews. We all had dorm rooms to edit in, and often we’d stay the night.  Since we were able to go live, we didn’t need to be at our Buffalo studios.

While people in Fredonia were understandably upset by the Bills move to Rochester, it was a brilliant marketing move by the Bills and then President Russ Brandon – a SJF alum. Interest in the Bills exploded, as Rochester now felt a part of the franchise. Except for a Covid break in 2020 and 2021, the Bills are still there.

Unfortunately, tickets for the practices are tough to get.  Everybody is on the Bills bandwagon now.

Trust me, it’s worth it. When the Bills went through some lean times in the mid 80’s, Bills Training Camp wasn’t festive or exciting.  It was actually kinda depressing.

Depressing it is not!

Thanks to another sponsor McKinley Wine and Spirits at McKinley Mall.  Great selections and great prices.

Also…to GlobalVendingGroup in Buffalo, promoting literacy to every child in Buffalo with their bookworm vending program.

See ya soon.

Editor’s babble: A sad consequence of training camp popularity is the fact that far flung Bills fans can no longer plan a trip to training camp because access to tickets is nearly impossible to secure with enough time to schedule flights, etc. Many thanks to Ed Kilgore for his contributions to our blog. You can also find Ed on Xwitter @Kilgore2Ed. is sponsored by 26 Shirts

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