THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE
Elbert Dubenion Always Had Golden Wheels During His Days in Buffalo
The speedy wide receiver didn’t always catch the ball, but when he did, no one could catch him.
As the Buffalo Bills flew home from New York City after losing the first game in franchise history, 27–3 to the Titans in 1960, Elbert Dubenion figured his one-game-old professional football career was over.
“I dropped about four or five balls and fumbled a handoff from Tommy O’Connell on a reverse,” Dubenion recalled. “Buster (Ramsey, the head coach) didn’t take too kindly to that. I didn’t think I’d make it past that first game.”
Ramsey fought off the urge to waive the speedy, brick-handed receiver from tiny Bluffton (Ohio) College, and his instincts proved correct. The following week, the Bills lost their first home game, 27–21 to Denver, but Dubenion caught touchdown passes of 53 and 56 yards.
“Buster said I was a pro then,” Dubenion said. “I was too afraid not to believe him.”
The raw rookie solidified his spot on the Buffalo roster that day against the Broncos and he went on to become one of the team’s greatest receivers of all time.
Dubenion had scored 57 touchdowns in college, and the Cleveland Browns chose him in the 14th round of the 1959 NFL draft. However, after suffering a sprained knee during training for that summer’s college all-star game, he never reported to the Browns.
The following year, Dick Gallagher, who left Cleveland to become the Bills’ first general manager, remembered Dubenion from the Browns’ rookie camp and he signed him to a contract.
Early in training camp, quarterback Johnny Green said of Dubenion, “Man can’t catch, but he’s got those golden wheels.”
“Yeah, he didn’t say I had golden hands,” Dubenion recalled with a laugh. “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.’’’
Dubenion started catching. And when you combine sure hands with eye-popping speed, the results were devastating.
By the time 1964 arrived, Dubenion was one of the most feared receivers in the AFL, standing alongside San Diego’s Lance Alworth, New York’s Don Maynard, Oakland’s Art Powell, and Denver’s Lionel Taylor.
And during that championship season for Buffalo, there was no one as dangerous as Dubenion. He averaged 27.1 yards per catch, a season mark that remains the best in pro football history. He caught 42 passes for 1,139 yards and 10 touchdowns, and if not for a mild knee sprain that kept him out of two games at midseason and slowed him thereafter, his numbers could have been astronomical.
Dubenion suffered a season-ending knee injury during the third game of 1965 and was never the same player, having lost a step after the surgery. He retired midway through 1968, yet his career average of 18 yards per receptions remains third all-time for the Bills, his 5,309 receiving yards and 35 receiving TDs are still fourth in team history, and his 294 catches rank 10th.
“Duby was our touchdown man,” said his long-time teammate, cornerback Booker Edgerson. “They loved to throw him the bomb.”
Dubenion worked for the Bills as a scout from 1969–78, moved on to Miami, returned to Buffalo for a couple years in the mid-1980s, long enough to unearth a player out of tiny Kutztown State (Pa.) named Andre Reed who went on to break all of his old Bills records, and then spent more than 15 years with the Atlanta Falcons before retiring.
He passed away on Dec. 26, 2019 at the age of 86 from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, exactly 55 years after the Bills won their first AFL championship.