The death of former Buffalo Bill Ernie Warlick in November and the comments of his teammates rekindled some fond memories.
On Dec. 26, 1965, the Bills played in the second of the three AFL Championship Games in which they appeared from 1964 to 1966. In that game against the San Diego Chargers, the Bills started Warlick at tight end after he had sat on the bench for the last nine games of the regular season. He made the most of the opportunity, catching an 18-yard touchdown pass on a post pattern from Jack Kemp midway through the first quarter to put the Bills on top. Warlick ended the day with three receptions for 35 yards as the Bills shut out the Chargers 23-0 for their second straight championship.
I was 9 years old at the time and that was the first memory I had of following a professional sports team from start to finish in a season. And Ernie Warlick became an instant hero in my eyes for his play in the championship game.
The following August, Warlick was cut somewhat unceremoniously by the Bills during training camp. When I returned to St. Benedict School that fall, a friend of mine who lived in the North Bailey neighborhood of Eggertsville let drop one day that Warlick lived around the corner from him. I asked whether it was possible to go to Warlick’s house to get his autograph. The next week, I went home with my friend after school.
We walked down the street and he pointed out a modest-looking single-family home. I walked up and rang the doorbell. In seconds, Warlick’s 6-foot-5 frame filled the doorway. I said, “Hi, Mr. Warlick, do you think we could have your autograph?” He flashed his wide grin, took the Robert L. Smith photograph that I had gotten at Super Duper Markets in his hands – once reported to be the largest hands in all of pro football – and signed his name. We thanked him and took off, thrilled that we actually had the nerve to ring his doorbell.
I can still feel the thrill of that moment 47 years later. But there was more to come. In 1988, as chairman of the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), the local fair housing organization, I discovered that when Warlick moved to Buffalo in 1963 and went looking for his home in Eggertsville, one of the real estate brokers he consulted told him, “Ernie, you wouldn’t be happy here.” Other brokers he consulted refused to cooperate in his search and gave no explanation. As I later learned from Warlick, he kept asking to be shown homes in Eggertsville or Williamsville and was told that he should really be looking on the East Side of Buffalo. Despite his status as a professional athlete, Warlick and his family were victims of housing discrimination.
Warlick became one of HOME’s first clients. To his credit and with HOME’s help, Warlick persisted and ultimately bought his home in Eggertsville. When I met him (for the second time) in 2009, however, I learned that that was not the end of the story. Warlick told me that in 1963, HOME volunteers were concerned with how the neighborhood would accept his family, so each night they took turns silently standing guard outside his house, unobtrusively parked nearby just to make sure nothing happened. They were so discreet that even the Warlicks did not realize what had happened until some time later.
Warlick went on to a career as a sportscaster and businessman. He lived in Amherst for nearly 50 years. He also played a role in making fair housing a possibility for thousands of Western New Yorkers.