Bills Thunder

"Golden Wheels" - The Elbert Dubenion Story

By Rick Anderson

Elbert Dubenion came to Buffalo for a tryout and turned into one of the greatest receivers in the old AFL.
[Bills photo]

The Buffalo Bills have been graced with superstars aplenty during their history. From Cookie Gilchrist to O.J. Simpson to Jim Kelly to Bruce Smith, the Bills had many stars that dominated not only the headlines but opposing teams who had to defend against them.

The very first star the Bills ever had was not even drafted by Buffalo. A man who became to be known as "Golden Wheels" signed as a free agent. The year was 1960 and an unknown rookie out of the little known Blufton College in Ohio, came into the Bills first training camp with the desire to make a professional football team in the newly formed American Football League. It was a nobody from a nowhere college trying to make it with an upstart league. This turned out to be a recipe for stardom for both the player, the team and the infant league.

Elbert Dubenion was practically a walk on and he made his mark with the Buffalo Bills and the league. Dubenion was 5'-11" and weighed 187 pounds. He also possessed tremendous speed and great hands. Back then, Dubenion was penciled in as a flanker back, today's equivalent to a wide receiver. His great speed was what made him stand out from most other receivers in the AFL that initial year of 1960. He instantly was tagged with the label of "Golden Wheels." His tremendous acceleration was like a fine-tuned race car burning rubber at the start of a race. Defensive backs were in awe over his sudden burst of speed.

Fans and the Bills original quarterbacks took an instant liking to "Duby." In his rookie year, Dubenion quickly became a deep threat for the Bills. He hauled down 42 receptions for 752 yards, scoring 7 times. His 17.9 average yards per reception raised a lot of eyebrows around the league. Not only did the Bills use him as a deep threat, but they experimented with his elusive running ability. Duby carried the ball 16 times the first season, mostly on reverses. He galloped 94 yards for in impressive 5.6 average.

This is a team photo of Duby from the 1961 season.
[Bills photo]

Dubenion came close to being cut after his first game with the Bills. It was a foggy-rainy day in New York city and the Bills were playing their inaugural AFL game against the New York Titans. Dubenion had a dubious beginning. The Bills were humiliated 27-3 during that gloomy afternoon in the Polo Grounds and the flight home was even gloomier for Duby. He was contemplating his future as he was sure his football playing days were over.

The Bills first coach was Buster Ramsey, a fiery taskmaster who reminded some of Jacky Gleason. Dubenion could picture having to meet with Ramsey during the week and getting his walking papers.

"I dropped about four or five balls and fumbled a handoff from Tommy O'Connell on a reverse," reflected Dubenion. "Buster didn't take too kindly to that. I didn't think I'd make it past that first game."

Ramsey gave Duby a second chance and he never regretted it. Dubenion would go on to become one of the most feared receivers in pro football history and helped ignite fan interest in the fledgling AFL.

The next week, the Bills played their first AFL regular season home game against the Denver Broncos. Denver won a close one, 27-21, but Duby made Ramsey happy about his decision to keep him. "Golden Wheels" was the recipient of 2 long TD passes of 53 and 56 yards.

Ramsey let his new found weapon know that he was initiated into the big league.

"Buster said I was a pro then," explained Dubenion. "I was too afraid not to believe him."

Dubenion had actually been drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1959. Having scored 57 touchdowns at Blufton, the Browns took a chance on him, drafting him with their 14th pick.

Bad luck ruined his chance with the Browns. He was preparing for the college all-star game and sprained his knee during a practice. That injury dejected Dubenion to the point that he never even reported to the Browns training camp.

Bills GM Dick Gallagher, was in Cleveland the previous year and recalled the raw speed the youngster displayed during the spring rookie camp. He decided to give the Blufton speedster a look-see.

The Bills had several cast-off quarterbacks that first year. During training camp, one of them came up with the handle that would stick to Dubenion for the rest of his career.

Johnny Green, who was the backup to O'Connell, described the diamond receiver in the rough, "Man can't catch, but he's got those golden wheels."

Johnny Green, who coined the label "Golden Wheels" for Dubenion because of his speed, poses a handoff to Duby.
[Bills photo]

Dubenion recalls getting handed that label.

"Yeah, he didn't say I had golden hands," laughed Duby. "They thought I was a defensive back I was knocking down so many balls.

"Johnny Mazur was the receivers coach and he used to keep me after practice and it paid off. He'd throw me 200 or 300 balls after practice. I'd have my back to him, then I'd turn around and he'd throw at me. He told me 'Either catch or work for a living.'''

Practice makes perfect and Duby practiced hard to become the deep threat the Bills continuously used during their early years.

In 1961, teams geared up for the deep Duby threat. His receptions were cut to only 31 catches for 461 yards and six scores. But his yardage on reverses doubled, 173 yards on 17 carries for one TD, for an average of 10.3 yards per carry.

In 1962, both the Bills and the AFL were catching the attention of the major sports media. Sports Illustrated did a feature article on the Bills. An article entitled "The underdogs have made it," it covered a game between the Bills and Boston Patriots which turned out to be a 28-28 tie before 33,247 in Buffalo who endured rain and snow to see an exciting game.

There were 5 still action pics of Dubenion returning a kickoff for 100 yards and a touchdown. The caption read: "The flash and finesse of a dazzling 100-yard kickoff return."

Duby takes a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against the Boston Patriots. From Sports Illustrated's description of the play: "He cuts sharply to the left to follow his interference...wiggles his way through, shakes off the last tackler and scores.".
[Sports Illustrated photo]

Under the first black and white picture, it read "All alone, but hemmed in by the sidelines and with trouble coming up, Elbert Dubenion of Buffalo sees his blockers turn inside at the Boston 40. He cuts sharply to the left to follow his interference, seeming to swerve straight into the clutches of the pursuing Patriots but..." (it then describes the last three inserts of Dubenion breaking tackles and coasting all alone into the endzone with the ref signaling touchdown) "...wiggles his way through, shakes off the last tackler and scores."

The Bills acquired quarterback Jack Kemp off waivers from San Diego in the early part of the year. Kemp had a broken finger on his throwing hand and that's why the Bills were able to pick him up for a mere $100. The Chargers felt every team would pass on him and they could then use his roster spot for someone else. The Chargers would pay dearly for losing Kemp as he would come back and haunt that team, beating them in two straight AFL championship games in 1964 and 65.

Kemp would quickly utilize what turned out to be his favorite weapon....Dubenion. The Kemp to Duby connection would turn out to be as formidable a one-two Bills punch as Jim Kelly to Andre Reed connection in the second Bills Glory years.

In 1963, the Bills started their climb up the ladder in the AFL Eastern Division. With Kemp at the controls, he led the Bills from a mediocre 3-4 halfway mark to a first place tie with the Boston Patriots at season's end. In fact, the Bills didn't record their first win until the fifth week of the season. Dubenion had a key role in getting the Bills into the division playoff which would decide who would represent the East against the Chargers for the league championship.

Dubenion was able to use his speed and leaping ability to terrorize opposing defenses in the AFL's early days.
[Bills photo]

In order to tie the Pats, the Bills had to win their last game of the season away from the friendly confines of Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium. They had to do it in the Polo Grounds where they were facing the New York Jets. With the Bills down 10-9, they scored 10 unanswered points to beat the Jets 19-10. During the decisive drive that determined the game, Kemp drove the Bills 80 yards down the field. There were 3 different receivers who helped keep the drive alive. First, Bills tight end Ernie Warlick made a diving 17-yard reception at the Jets 46. Then it was Duby who leaped high for a overthrown Kemp pass. Remarkably he came down with it and then raced another 15 yards to cap a 32-yard play down to the New York 12. Then Bill Miller held onto a Kemp bullet of a pass and got down to the two yard line where the powerful fullback Cookie Gilchrist slammed it home for the go-ahead TD. Dubenion had 4 receptions for 77 yards that day.

The playoff game in Buffalo came on a cold, snowy December 28th. The snow plows had to prepare the field so that it was more like an ice rink than a ski resort. With snow and ice coving the entire field in that playoff game, the Patriots crushed the Bills 26-8. Dubenion caught 3 passes for 115 yards, but it was not to be the Bills fate to travel to sunny California and face the Chargers. They would have the opportunity to trounce that team the next two years in the AFL championship.

The following season was a much better year for both the Bills and Dubenion. In fact, through the first half of the ‘64 season, Duby was the front runner to be the AFL's MVP.

The Bills opened the‘64 season at home against the powerful Kansas City Chiefs and exploded for 31 points in the first quarter. Duby caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Kemp in that quarter and ended up with 6 receptions for 84 yards.

The Bills then defeated the Broncos 30-13 with Duby only making two grabs for 68 yards. The next game was really a blowout as the Bills kept running up the score, beating the AFL champion Chargers 30-3 before the biggest crowd (at that time) in AFL history, 40,167. Duby caught 5 for 123 yards and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Daryle Lamonica.

The next week, the Oakland Raiders were in town. It was Lamonica to Dubenion again, this time for 44 yards, that proved to be the clinching score as the Bills won their 4th straight, 23-20 over the Raiders. In the fifth week, the Bills went to the Lone Star State to play the Houston Oilers and Duby set a club record of 183 yards receiving on 5 catches. The Bills continued to wallop opponents, downing the Oilers 48-17 to stay undefeated at 5-0.

In week 6 of the ‘64 season, the Bills traveled to KC and once again lit up the scoreboard with a 35-22 victory over the Chiefs. Dubenion hauled down 5 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills sailed to a 6-0 mark. Duby's TD strikes were from 55 and 22 yards out.

Dubenion makes a diving catch against the New York Jets in the Bills 34-24 victory in War Memorial Stadium. Duby caught 5, two for long touchdowns in that game.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

Next on the list of Bills victims were the New York Jets. With 39,621 howling fans, the Bills cruised to a 34-24 win and upped their record to 7-0. Dubenion was voted by the Bills players as the game's "most valuable player" as he caught 5 passes for 218 yards for two long touchdowns. The Bills were alternating quarterbacks and Duby caught strikes from both Kemp and Lamonica. Kemp connected with Dubenion for a 44 yard strike and Lamonica hurled a 56-yarder that "Golden Wheels" hauled in for the score.

Dubenion had a compliment receiver on the far side that was almost as speedy as he was. Glenn Bass added another deep threat to the Bills arsenal and the two of them were like Reed and James Lofton in the Bills later championship years.

In game 8, the Bills hosted Houston and the Oilers were able to shut down the Bills explosive aerial game. Kemp and Lamonica combined for a mere 7 completions on just 18 passes. However, the running game was clicking and the rushers churned up 290 yards, including 139 by Gilchrist and the Bills won their 8th straight, 24-10 over Houston. Dubenion had his worst game of the season, coming down with only one reception for 15 yards. But a win was a win and the Bills were still unbeaten, untied at 8-0.

The next week, the Bills traveled to Shea Stadium to play the Jets. They came away with their ninth straight victory, 20-7. In this game, Bass would steal the headlines, catching 8 for 231 yards and one touchdown. Duby was held in check except for a 20 yard gain on a reverse.

The Bills perfect season came crashing down in ruins the next week when they hosted Boston. Dubenion had been injured the previous week and didn't play. The team as a whole seemed to have their minds elsewhere as the Patriots upset the Bills 36-28. The great bubble had burst and the Bills suddenly were human. Cookie Gilchrist took himself out of the game as he had been drinking late the night before. That resulted in Bills coach Lou Sabin suspending Gilchrist. After a day and an apology from Gilchrist, the Bills were back on track the next week as they defeated the San Diego Chargers 27-24 which was a Thanksgiving contest seen across the country. Dubenion was back in the lineup and caught 3 passes for 55 yards.

The Bills were in Oakland the next week and received another shock as Raiders quarterback Tom Flores connected with Art Powell on the game's last play to beat the Bills 16-13. Dubenion caught the Bills only touchdown, a 38-yard pass from Lamonica. He also dropped a sure touchdown pass from Lamonica and that cost the Bills, who now were in a tie with the Pats for first place.

The Bills won their second last game of the year, a 30-10 romp in Denver and now the stage was set for the second straight "playoff" game against the Pats. The Bills were 11-2 while the Pats were ½ game out with a 10-2-1 record. Just like the year before in Buffalo, the two teams played in the snow, this time in Boston's Fenway Park. The plows had to be brought out several times as the snow kept on piling up on the playing surface. With Kemp under the controls, he launched a rocket to Dubenion, who grabbed it through the swirling snow and beat Chuck Shonta for a 57-yard touchdown play to open things up. The Bills went on to beat the Pats 24-14 and advance to their first AFL championship game.

Dubenion hauls in a 57-yard opening drive touchdown pass against Patriots defender Chuck Shonta in the last game of the regular season. The Bills beat the Pats 24-14 in snow covered Fenway Park to advance to the AFL title game.
[Courier Express Photo/Ron Schifferle]

In the very first major league championship game ever held in Buffalo, the weather was pretty balmy for Buffalo in late December. The temps were above freezing so that made the conditions much more favorable than the playoff game the year before in the snow.. The Chargers came at the Bills hard right from the get-go. On the opening play, Keith Lincoln was given a draw and he caught the Bills by surprise by tearing up the middle for 38 yards. Bang, bang bang and the Chargers were on the board in just three more plays.

The Bills went nowhere on their opening possession and the Chargers had it again. San Diego QB Tobin Rote threw to an open Lincoln in the left flat, but Bills linebacker Mike Stratton was right there to greet him. Stratton delivered such a devastating blow that Lincoln cracked two ribs and was out for the count.

"I keyed on Rote," explained Stratton. "I could see that he was looking for a receiver down field, but couldn't find him. As soon as I saw that, I sprinted for Lincoln."

Lincoln got the pass in his finger tips just a fraction of a second before Stratton crushed into his unprotected middle section with the force of a jet.

"One second earlier and it's pass interference," Stratton said. "One second later and it's a missed tackle."

"He rolled over and I heard him groan. I thought he had the wind knocked out of him. But then, when he didn't get up, I knew he was really hurt."

It was called the "hit heard ‘round the world" and it ignited the Bills. The Bills decided to attack the Chargers on the ground, limiting the amount of times they would risk putting it in the air. This curtailed Dubenion's contribution to only 3 receptions, but the fact that he was on the field made him a constant threat for the long bomb. The Bills ground down the Chargers and won their first AFL championship 20-7.

Even though Duby only had 3 receptions in the championship game, his teammates voted him as their Most Valuable Player after that game. That showed just what kind of outstanding season he had during the Bills 1964 drive to the championship.

Dubenion had 42 receptions in ‘64 for 1,139 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was his average gain per reception, that was remarkable. It was an amazing 27.1 yard average and is still the best in the history of professional football. If Duby had played all 14 games, he would have had an even greater record.

The next season, in 1965, both Dubenion and Bass got off to a good start. However, catastrophe would strike both Dubenion and the Bills when they hosted the New York Jets in the third game of the season. In the third quarter, Dubenion ran a slant and caught a touchdown pass thrown by Kemp, however he came down on his knee and was on the ground for minutes. Finally he was helped off the field and went immediately to the hospital to have it operated on.

Dubenion came down on his knee after making a diving touchdown reception. Willie West lands on Duby's knee and the Bills swift receiver is then out for the rest of the season.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

"Willie West landed on top on me," explained Dubenion. "We just landed the wrong way. My body was bent back over him, and my leg was underneath."

After that third game of the season, Duby was second overall in the AFL in receptions with 18 for 281 yards and one TD. He had an incredible 15.6 yards per reception average. He had scored his 35th touchdown as a Bill against the Jets.

With Dubenion out of the lineup, it left Kemp with just half of the "long-bomb" power he had enjoyed during the previous season which had helped the Bills win their first AFL crown. Only Glenn Bass remained, and Kemp was stunned when he saw Bass lying face down on the ground immediately after hauling down with a reception in the very next game. Kemp's worst fears came true.... Bass had torn a ligament in his ankle. Off to the operating table went Glenn, to join his pal Elbert. The two watched the Bills play out the rest of their 1965 regular season from their wheelchairs, to the consternation of Kemp. This left Jack without his two favorite targets and. the Bills were in trouble.

It was shown how much the Bills really missed this pair when they were trounced at the hands of the San Diego Chargers, 34-5, in the season's fifth game. Bills coach Lou Saban got Bo Roberson in a trade with Oakland and he brought up rookie tight end Paul Costa and veteran Charlie Ferguson from the taxi squad. This trio of Costa, Roberson, and Ferguson was just adequate enough for the Bills to go on to win the Eastern Division Championship and the league crown.

Elbert Dubenion is helped off the field after a season-ending knee injury against the Jets. Helping Duby walk off is Bills trainer Eddie Abramoski and Tony Marchitte.
[Photo by Robert L. Smith]

At the end of four games in 1965, Duby and Bass were in a two-way tie for the league lead in receptions with 18 apiece. Then injuries struck, and curtailed what could have been a season close to the Bills record of 2002 when Eric Moulds and Peerless Price tore apart the NFL.

During the off season, Bass and Dubenion worked on weights and did various exercises to strengthen the ankle and knee respectively.

Dubenion and Bass came back from their operations in 1966 and at the time, appeared as if didn't lose any speed. Said Kemp, "They look great. If anything, they may have gained a step."

Unfortunately for both Dubenion and the Bills, Kemp's first analysis was wrong. Elbert Dubenion would never be the same again. Dubenion worked very hard to come back from that injury, but he had lost a step. Dubenion did up his reception total to 50 in 1966 for 747 yards and a 14.9 yards per reception average. But things just weren't the same for Duby, and he knew it. In 1968, Dubenion hung up his cleats half way through the campaign. Dubenion is still one of the all-time Bills receivers with 296 receptions, which places his 4th, and is second in team history with 5,309 receiving yards and 35 touchdowns.

The Bills hired Dubenion as a scout in 1969 and he remained with the Bills until 1978, went to the Dolphins for two years and then came back to Buffalo before finally settling down with the Atlanta Falcons. He also helped recruit a receiver out of an unknown college named Kutztown State who would end up breaking all of Duby's records. Andre Reed probably would never have played pro football if it weren't for the good scouting eye of Dubenion. Maybe it was a case of a scout and former player from a unknown college having a soft spot in his heart for another small college receiver. Either way, it was because of Duby's great eye for a diamond in the rough that helped the Bills attain glory a second time.

Golden Wheels will always be remembered by Bills fans who followed the Bills first glory years. It was his explosive speed and his dazzling moves after making a catch that helped the Bills and the infant American Football League survive and become wildly popular. All that from a man who came into his first camp without a contract and much hope of ever playing professional football.

Copyright © 2003 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.


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