This scribe has always loved catchy nicknames, so I was intrigued when the Buffalo Bills selected someone known as “The Punt God” in the sixth round of the recent NFL Draft. Matt Araiza earned that divine moniker after booming an NCAA-record 36 punts of 50 yards or longer last season for San Diego State. The snappy sobriquet reminded me of that time during the 1986 season opener when fans unfurled a “Kelly Is God” banner before Jim Kelly’s Bills debut at the stadium then known as Rich.
Araiza is expected to push Bills starter Matt Haack, who was the NFL’s 25th -ranked punter last season. Despite his powerful left leg, Araiza is considered a work in progress who needs to improve both the hang time and directions of his kicks. Moments after being drafted, he won over Bills Mafia by tweeting, “Someone get me a table,” an obvious reference to the bizarre tailgating, table-smashing ritual practiced by some liquored-up Buffalo fans. It will be fun to see if the rookie lives up to his heavenly nickname or is just a mere mortal seeking new employment come September.
Nicknames add to our enjoyment of sports, and the Bills have a rich history of them. My all-time favorite is “Golden Wheels,” which was given to Elbert Dubenion, the speedy wide receiver who was an integral part of Buffalo’s back-to-back AFL championships in the mid-1960s. Those teams played their home games in old War Memorial Stadium, a concrete bowl known fondly and derisively as “The Rockpile.” In 1973, the Bills moved into Rich Stadium, and a quarter-century later it was renamed in honor of the team’s founding owner, Ralph Wilson. It wasn’t long before fans started referring to it as “The Ralph.”
Dubenion’s teammates had some clever nicknames, too. Carlton Chester Gilchrist, the brutish, do-everything Bills running back and league MVP, was known as “Cookie.” And that led to an oft-repeated phrase by sportswriters, fans and players: “Lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie.” Daryle Lamonica, the deep-throwing quarterback who occasionally replaced starter Jack Kemp, was “The Mad Bomber,” and, later, Buffalo would welcome a receiver (Marlin Briscoe) who bore the nickname, “Marlin the Magician.” Those championship defenses featured a hard-hitting linebacker (Harry Jacobs) known as the “Baby-faced Assassin,” and a huge but nimble defensive lineman (Ron McDole) called the “Dancing Bear.” The team was coached by the inimitable Lou Saban, who spent two different stints with the Bills and whose job-hopping proclivity prompted one angry sports columnist to label him the “Sultan of Sayonara.”
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Orenthal James Simpson arrived in Buffalo with two obvious nicknames – “O.J.” and “The Juice.” And the offensive line that opened holes for him was named “The Electric Company” after the popular PBS children’s television show of that era. Budd Thalman, the old Bills media relations director, came up with the idea, joking that “the Electric Company turned loose the Juice.”
In the early 1980s, sportswriter Mike Dodd nick-named the defensive triumvirate of Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson “The Bermuda Triangle” – a place where running backs disappeared. The run-oriented Bills offense of that era was called “Ground Chuck,” after head coach Chuck Knox. He would help Buffalo snap its record 20-game losing streak against the hated Miami Dolphins, giving birth to the beloved Bills rallying cry: “Squish the Fish.” (Yes, dolphins are mammals, but you can’t say the slogan had neither rhyme nor reason.)
The Super Bowl-era teams of the mid-1990s would not lack for nicknames either. Kelly, was known as “Machine Gun Kelly,” a reference to an old gangster and the quarterback’s gun-slinging ability to bludgeon opponents with spirals rather than bullets. Offensive tackle Howard Ballard was called “House” because, at 6-foot-6, 350 pounds, he was as big as one. Backup lineman Jerry Craft wasn’t quite as large, so he became “Condo.”
Leon Seals was known as “Dr. Sack,” though that would have fit his Hall-of-Fame teammate Bruce Smith better since Smith is the NFL’s all-time leader in tackling QBs behind the line of scrimmage. Nasty offensive lineman Mitch Frerotte was called “Pit Bull,” and superb, all-around running back Thurman Thomas became the “Thurmanator,” a nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action-packed “Terminator” movies.
Many mistakenly believe the Bills, fast-paced, no-huddle, “K-Gun” offense was named for Kelly, but, in reality, it was named for tight end Keith McKeller, whose speedy presence gave Buffalo options beyond their three wide receivers.
Games, too, would be given nicknames. “Wide Right” and “Home-run Throwback” (or “Home-run Throw-up,” as former Bills Coach Wade Phillips called it) would conjure painful memories. And we can add last season’s Super Bowl-denying “13 Seconds” loss to that misery list. But some game nicknames evoke joy. “The Comeback” and “51-3” need no explanation to longtime Bills aficionados.
During “The Drought,” when Buffalo missed the playoffs 17 consecutive years, Ryan “Fitz-Magic” Fitzpatrick and Fred “The In-FREDible-Hulk” Jackson provided brief respites from punishment meted out by the “Evil Empire” New England Patriots and their coach, “The Hoodie,” Bill Belichick.
Thanks to “McBeane” (Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane), happy days are here again. But it dawned on me that we really need a suitable nickname for savior quarterback Josh Allen. Some have suggested, “The Grim Reaper,” “The Winter Soldier,” and “JA17,” after his initials and jersey number, but none of those do it for me. Allen said he was known as “Bobby Boucher” after the character Adam Sandler made famous in “The Water Boy” movie. And some college teammates called Allen “Jish.”
Because he hails from Firebaugh, a rural Central California village, and because he has the most powerful arm in the NFL and runs like a fullback, perhaps we can call him, “Fire Ball.” Or maybe this generation’s “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh could be the “Firebaugh Fire Ball.”
Of course, if Allen leads the Bills to a Super Bowl victory, another nickname might be apropos: “The Quarterback God.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.