By Lori Chase - Staff Columnist
Published: May 3rd, 2010
The Buffalo Bills selected 34 players in the December 1961 American Football League draft. This year’s Wall of Fame inductee, Booker Edgerson, wasn’t one of them. Instead, the Bills’ recently-promoted head coach – Lou Saban, whom Edgerson had played for at Western Illinois University – signed him as a free agent.
A multi-sport athlete for the Fighting Leathernecks who was clocked at :09.7 in the 100-yard dash, Edgerson put his sprinter’s speed to good use in the Buffalo secondary. The kid from Baxter, Arkansas worked his way up the depth chart in training camp, and on opening day of the 1962 season, he was the Bills’ starting left cornerback – a position he would hold, barring injury, for his entire eight-year tenure with the team. He picked off two of George Blanda’s passes in that game and ended up with six for the year, earning a spot on the AFL All-Rookie team.
For most of his career, though, Edgerson was overlooked for individual mention, quietly going about the business of helping the Bills win. For an example, read the following excerpt from the recap of a 20-20 tie with San Diego on Thanksgiving Day, 1965:
The Chargers then were stricken by misfortune. Lance Alworth took a 65-yard pass from Hadl to the Buffalo three, but the ball squirted from his grasp into the end zone and Bill John Tracey fell on it for a touchback.
What the wire story doesn’t say: Alworth had a helping hand with that “misfortune.” Two of them, in fact, belonging to Booker Edgerson. Here’s how Jeffrey Miller describes the play in “Rockin’ the Rockpile”:
On the Chargers’ ensuing possession, John Hadl connected with Lance Alworth for a long gain, but the Bills’ veteran cornerback Booker Edgerson demonstrated the heart of a champion by chasing down the speedy receiver and forcing him to fumble.
“It was the defining moment in the game – and maybe even the season,” recalled Ed Rutkowski. “Alworth was lined up on Booker. He ran a quick post and beat Booker by about two steps. Hadl hits him with a perfect pass right in stride, and Lance was off to the races. Here was a man who was never caught from behind. He could outrun everything – like a deer. But Booker doesn’t let up. He runs him down, catches him, tackles him from behind at about the 15-yard line. Lance is still struggling, he’s holding onto the ball, and right behind Booker are Tracey, Stratton, and Jacobs. [Alworth fumbled] and Tracey recovered in the end zone.”
“Fortunately, I caught him,” added Edgerson. “Maybe he thought he was home free, but I know it shocked the hell out of him when I hit him.”
Typical Edgerson: tracking down a first-ballot Hall of Famer and forcing a turnover, without even getting his name in the paper for it. George ‘Butch’ Byrd was the more celebrated of the Bills’ dynamic duo at cornerback – interceptions tend to make people take notice, and Byrd collected more of those than any other Bill. But when Alworth, Houston’s Charley Hennigan, and the other top receivers in the AFL played against Buffalo, more often than not, they were looking at Edgerson’s No. 24 across the line of scrimmage ... and their quarterback was thinking about throwing the ball somewhere else.
Booker wore a Bills uniform from 1962-69, intercepting 23 passes while helping the team to three AFL championship games and two titles. He had no desire to play anywhere else, but head coach John Rauch was in house-cleaning mode after a third consecutive losing season, and the veteran cornerback was shipped to Denver for a draft pick in August 1970. It was a good news/bad news situation: he was reunited with Saban, who had taken over as the Broncos coach in 1967, but his post-Buffalo career lasted just six games before a knee injury ended his season and he decided to retire.
Edgerson returned to Buffalo to plant his roots, spending many years as the Director of Equity and Diversity at Erie Community College. The recipient of the 1993 Ralph Wilson Jr. Distinguished Service Award, he was inducted into the Western Illinois Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
“That one was the best,” he told Miller of the latter honor, “because I was put in because of the things I did in the community, not because of the things I did on the football field. So to me, it was more meaningful than all of these other honors.”
This fall, when his name is unveiled on the wall of Ralph Wilson Stadium, he may change his mind.