Welcome back, Buffalo Bills fans, to “Walking the Wall of Fame”. This time, we revisit one of the brightest spots of the ‘70s. A compelling underdog story about an undrafted free agent turned All-Pro: Robert James.
He was born in 1947 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a town of approximately 15,000 people (at the time). Attending a high school not known for it’s football program, he still found a love for the game of football early, and wanted to pursue it. A multi-sport athlete who excelled at track due to his speed, Robert James was born to run.
College and Conversion
Not a lot of options were open to James once he graduated high school in 1965. Many local colleges still didn’t accept black students, and the University of Tennessee hadn’t had it’s first black student-athlete yet. So, James attended Fisk University. It was a black private school, and his best bet to keeping playing football whilst pursuing an education. He played defensive end, and was pretty good at it, starting for his entire college career. Still, at a small school, and without generational talent for his role, he wasn’t going to get national recognition.
Enter Elbert ‘Golden Wheels’ Dubenion. ‘Duby’ had recently retired as a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, and joined their scouting department. In his first year as a scout, he found Robert James. Undersized and outmuscled despite his success in the trenches, Elbert thought that James could made it as a defensive back. It would be a major conversion and he’d have a lot to learn, but it would give him a shot.
“They had 17 rounds, multiply it out by 26 teams: That’s a lot of players.”– Robert James on the NFL draft
The 1969 NFL Draft came and went, and Robert James was undrafted. From his experience with Dubenion, he knew where he could go to get a shot, and signed with the Buffalo Bills.
Joining The Buffalo Bills
James was excited for the opportunity, but wasn’t sold on the NFL. At one point during camp, he packed up and went home, fed up with the team’s coach, John Rauch. He had to be tracked down by Butch Byrd and fellow Wall of Famer Booker Edgerson, who made arguments for him to stay with the Bills, and Elbert Dubenion showed up to convince him. Ultimately, he rejoined the squad. He would make the roster as a backup DB, learning the position and contributing on special teams. As rookies, he and O.J. Simpson — that season’s first-overall pick — roomed together for road games.
A Career In Football
That legendary pair, Edgerson and Byrd, were broken up by the next season, and it cleared the way for our promising young convert. As James became a starter across from Byrd, he got the valuable playing experience he needed. By the 1971 season, the team had almost entirely fallen apart, and would be under new management. In 1972, the legendary Lou Saban, bringer of two AFL titles to Buffalo, would return. James’ play had improved markedly, despite the lack of talent around him, and he made his first Pro Bowl.
It was the start of something incredible. As the team improved by adding QB Joe Ferguson, amongst others, so did the defense. Robert James made his second and third consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1973 and 1974, and was named NFL All-Pro twice consecutively. Then, at the beginning of the 1975 NFL Season, tragedy struck.
He was returning an interception during a pre-season game against the L.A. Rams when he was hit, tearing ligaments all throughout his knee. Robert James spent two years — and three surgeries — rehabbing his knee, trying to return every season. He tried to make one last comeback attempt in 1977, but to no avail. He would be medically retired, and remain one of the greatest “What If?” tales in Buffalo sports history. In a more modern age, he could (potentially) have made a near-full recovery and returned to the game, but alas. It was over.
“I felt like if I could have got back, I could have played 16, 17, 18 years.”– Robert James on his career-ending injury
After his retirement from the NFL, James went on to receive a degree at Middle Tennessee State University. After that, he became a teacher, then Assistant Principal of Riverdale High School back in his home town of Murfreesboro. Later becoming a pastor, too. He settled into life after football extremely well.
To continue to explore the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame, check out the chart below.
|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