Welcome again to your regularly scheduled history lesson. Join me as we gaze once more upon the Wall of Fame, and all those legendary Bills who’s names adorn it. In the entirety of Buffalo’s existence as a football team, we’ve seen plenty of hard times. But, as pressure turns coal to diamonds, we have turned men into legends. In 1973, one of those legends took hold of a special place in the hearts of Bills fans. Joe Ferguson helped take the Bills from post-merger AFL upstarts to a quality NFL team which earned it’s place in an unforgiving football league.
Ferguson’s Young Life
Born in Alvin, Texas in 1950, Ferguson found his love for the game of football early on. An early move for the family meant that he was given some rare opportunities. Ferguson stormed onto the scene in Shreveport, Louisiana as a young and talented quarterback. Taking the reigns from eventual Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, Joe led Woodlawn High School to the state championship in 1968. This taste of glory was more than enough to spark a lifelong passion for the great game, and earned him a scholarship offer from the University of Arkansas.
As expected, he blew the doors off at the collegiate level. His “rifle-like” passing allowed the Razorbacks to push the ball downfield with unmatched consistency. Joe Ferguson proceeded to break just about every team record he could get his hands on. In 1971, he won Liberty Bowl MVP honors as a Junior and became the first Razorback to pass for over 2,000 yards in a single-season (2,203). At the conclusion of the 1972 season, his senior year, Joe would declare for the 1973 NFL draft.
A Buffalo Pro
Honing His Craft
Despite his immense college success, Ferguson ended up falling to the third round, where Buffalo snagged him at 57th overall. His workload wouldn’t exactly be significant as a rookie, as he averaged just under 12 pass attempts per game in 1973, O.J. Simpson’s MVP campaign. But Joe happily took the backseat to adapt his game to the pro level.
The effect was immediate. Ferguson, O.J., and company quickly turned the Buffalo offense into a powerhouse, and putting fear into teams every Sunday. The famed “Electric Company” may still have been running The Juice, but they had a competent QB under center and developted a strong passing game. Despite this, the team was far from ready to contend, but they got their first real chance in 1980.
1980: A Real Shot at Glory
The Miami Dolphins’ stranglehold on the division had been a long one, winning 20 straight games against Buffalo from 1970-1980, but Joe was sick of losing to them all the time. It was HC Chuck Knox’s third season at the helm. And, after steady improvement over the course of the previous two years, fans had higher expectations than ever before. At home, the Bills finally combined a strong defense with their powerhouse offense and swept past the Dolphins. It felt like a new era of Buffalo football had begun.
Unfortunately, as they marched towards their first AFC East title and an expected deep playoff run, tragedy struck. Joe Ferguson suffered a late-season injury to his ankle, and was told it was a bad sprain that would impact his ability to play during the playoffs. Knowing it was now-or-never, Joe played in the Divisional Round against the San Diego Chargers anyways. It only took five plays on offense before he was rolled up on. He would finish the game, playing through significant pain and a heavily wrapped ankle with no mobility whatsoever. However, that would all be in vain as the Chargers made a late comeback. The Buffalo offense couldn’t keep pace with only half a quarterback, shedding their 14-3 lead at the half to lose 20-14.
Though the final score was due to two missed field goals by kicker Nick Mike-Mayer, Ferguson puts a lot of the blame on himself. He was informed postgame that he had a broken ankle. Independent doctors were unsure if it had happened before or during the game. Ferguson would lead Buffalo to a 10-6 record the next year (third in the AFC East) and a Wild Card win. However, that would be the last vestige of success for Ferguson. That almost-legendary Bills team would crumble and, after only a few short losing seasons, Joe’s 12-year stint as the Buffalo starter would come to a close.
The End Of An Era
In 1985, the Bills would trade Joe Ferguson to the Detroit Lions, where he played in a mixed role for three seasons. At the end of his contract, he signed with Tampa Bay for two more years, before joining the Indianapolis Colts. After only one game (and 8 pass attempts) for Indy, Ferguson knew it was time to hang up his boots. He then returned to the University of Arkansas as their QB coach, training the players who would break his school passing records.
He would then land a few high school coaching jobs before an interesting proposition came up. Kay Stevenson, the last coach he had in Buffalo, needed a backup QB after his San Antonio Texans (of the CFL’s failed American expansion) lost their starter. Ferguson was familiar with his system and generally available, so he stepped onto the field one last time. He wouldn’t take a snap, and the “South Division” would fold immediately after.
Ferguson’s Life After Football
In 1995, after the final true conclusion to his playing career, Ferguson returned to Rogers, Arkansas once again. This time, pursuing a career in real estate. He primarily helped people who frequently relocated. Perhaps he could relate to all the moving around. Now a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, Ferguson retired in early 2021 for the last time to his lakefront property near Dallas, Texas with his wife, Sandy.
Despite playing for four teams over his NFL career, Joe still signs every autograph with “Buffalo Bills” at the bottom, maintaining that he will forever be a Bill at heart. While his lack of Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections will keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they wouldn’t stop Buffalo from honoring him accordingly, as they raised his name up onto the Wall of Fame in 1995, 10 years after his departure from the team.
Enjoy this article? Read about the rest of this series as we tackle the stories of all the names that adorn our Wall of Fame, and follow both myself and Buffalo Fanatics on Twitter to catch them as they’re released!
|O.J. Simpson (1980)||Jack Kemp (1984)||Patrick J. McGroder (1985)||Tom Sestak (1987)||Billy Shaw (1988)|
|Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (1989)||The 12th Man (1992)||Elbert Dubenion (1993)||Mike Stratton (1994)||Joe Ferguson (1995)|
|Marv Levy (1996)||Joe DeLamielleure (1997)||Robert James (1998)||Edward Abramoski (1999)||Bob Kalsu (2000)|
|George Saimes (2000)||Jim Kelly (2001)||Fred Smerlas (2001)||Kent Hull (2002)||Darryl Talley (2003)|
|Jim Ritcher (2004)||Thurman Thomas (2005)||Andre Reed (2006)||Steve Tasker (2007)||Bruce Smith (2008)|
|Booker Edgerson (2010)||Phil Hansen (2011)||Bill Polian (2012)||Van Miller (2014)||Lou Saban (2015)|
|Cookie Gilchrist (2017)||Reserved For|
The Golden Era