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Sacco Sez: A new era with the Bills


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that a man cannot step in the same river twice, because the second time the river is not the same, and neither is the man.

I realize the reader might say this is not relevant to football, but I suggest that the concept has some relevance to the Denver Broncos' preseason meeting with the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo is a long way from Denver, and these two teams have not met much in the preseason; in fact, they've only played twice in the preseason since 2000. Each team has a lot of teams geographically closer, and in the more recent days when teams did their own preseason schedules, they slated games with other teams based largely on proximity.

However, back in the day, the Broncos played their second ever football game, a preseason (then called exhibition) contest against the Bills in Rochester, New York. A curious crowd of 6,200 turned out to watch these two new teams in a new league, the American Football League.

In that first season of 1960, because the Broncos' Denver home, Bears Stadium, was not available due to the baseball season, the Broncos played five exhibition games, all on the road. They played the Boston Patriots in Providence, Rhode Island, then the Bills in Rochester, then Houston in Houston, the Dallas Texans in Little Rock, Arkansas, and finally the Los Angeles Chargers in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The total attendance for those five games was 57,422. Who would have thought that pro football of today would include those five teams, with their various degrees of success? 

The next time Denver played Buffalo in the preseason was in 1963, but it was still at a relative faraway location for both teams. Denver played on August 21, almost exactly 60 years to the day from this year's matchup.

But it was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. An estimated crowd (they did not have turnstiles) of 7,000 fans whose previous football-watching experience had probably largely been of local high school and college games turned out. The starting quarterbacks were future Broncos Ring of Famer Frank Tripucka against future presidential candidate Jack Kemp, but those names probably did not mean much to the Winston-Salem fans that August night.

For what it's worth, Buffalo won, 21-14, and the final attendance tally for Denver's five preseason (exhibition) games was 46,100.  

The reason for this haphazard scheduling was sometimes because the home team had baseball conflicts with their own stadium (and the word "stadium" is used very loosely here), and sometimes it was just due to local apathy combined with fans (more like interested observers) in other cities wanting to get a peek at pro football.

In fact, due largely to the minor league baseball schedule of the Denver Bears, the Broncos did not play a home preseason game until 1963, and then they twice played at the University of Denver's Hilltop Stadium, hosting both the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers in that venue.

As it so happened, the Broncos did not play their first true home exhibition game until the following year, when they finally hosted a game at Bears Stadium, dropping a 20-7 contest to the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 14, 1964.

Denver once again played at Buffalo in 1966, but that contest was in Buffalo's dilapidated War Memorial Stadium.

They did not meet again in the preseason until 1973 and then again in 1978, when the Bills were playing in Rich Stadium, where a slim crowd of just over 18,000 turned out for the game. That was in the days when the Broncos already were drawing well over 70,000 visitors for home games, as they did twice in the preseason, so Buffalo was still mired in the mud in terms of big-time local support.

In the more recent era, Denver hosted the Bills in a 1997 game and again in 2011, with a visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium sandwiched in between in 2004.

But everything is different in 2022.

"Bills Mafia" is in full swing and the entire city of Buffalo is fired up about quarterback Josh Allen and his Bills, who certainly are one of the Super Bowl favorites in the AFC.

The Denver Broncos are not yet perceived to be in the same class as the Bills, but they are regarded as much, much closer than they have been in the past five years.

Of course, the answer to a lot of Broncos-related questions is quarterback Russell Wilson, regarded already as one of the three greatest quarterbacks in Denver history, with John Elway and Peyton Manning both Super Bowl winners and residents of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A lot of water will go under the bridge between now and the NFL playoffs, but it certainly would not surprise fans and so called media experts if the Broncos and Bills were to meet again, with the stakes as high as possible and the starters and key reserves playing every snap.

How times have changed in pro football, from the Broncos playing the Bills in dilapidated stadiums (to again use the word loosely) in secondhand uniforms (which the Broncos wore in 1960 and again in 1961), to the three-time Super Bowl champion Denver franchise playing the Super Bowl-hopeful Bills before one of the NFL's most rabid fan bases.

The Broncos-Bills game is in some ways another opportunity for both sets of coaches to look at younger and backup players. But it also is a matchup that features the high hopes and dreams of two teams and two cities in a manner that certainly did not exist back in the second week of exhibition play in 1960.

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