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George Saimes, who many regard as the finest defensive safety in Buffalo Bills history, died of leukemia Friday in his native Canton, Ohio. He was 71.

Not only was Saimes a member of the Bills Wall of Fame and one of 26 players selected to the team’s 50th anniversary all-time team in 2009, he was named to the American Football League all-time team when the AFL merged with the National Football League in 1970. Five times he was selected to the All-AFL team. He also is a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Saimes was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round of the 1963 AFL draft. However, Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who had followed Saimes’ career at Michigan State, arranged a deal with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt for the draft rights to Saimes.

At Michigan State, Saimes was a consensus All-America in 1962, playing as a linebacker on defense and fullback on offense for coach Duffy Daugherty. That was the era of limited substitution rules in college football, which required all but a few players to play both offense and defense. Saimes excelled at both. He was recruited by Hank Bullough, one of Daugherty’s assistant coaches, and a Canton native himself.

Saimes played on outstanding Michigan State teams that included future NFL stars such as Herb Adderley, Fred Arbanas, Dick Gordon, Sherman Lewis and Wayne Fontes. During his three years on the varsity, the Spartans went 18-8-1, 12-7 against Big Ten opponents.“He runs, he blocks, he tackles, he plays defense, he calls singlas, he makes key blocks, he’s our bread-and-butter runner captain and he gives us leadership,” Daugherty said in touting Saimes for the 1962 Heisman Trophy. He finished seventh in the ’62 Heisman voting.

When Saimes came to the Bills, coach Lou Saban gave him a brief trial as a running back but soon found Saimes’ ideal position — strong safety. Saimes was one of the anchors on the Bills defense that led the AFL in 1964 and ’65 and won the league championship year.

Buffalo News sports columnist Larry Felser once wrote that Saimes was “the finest open-field tackler in the league.”

“When he got to you with his arms and shoulder you were more or less tackled,” said Booker Edgerson, who played cornerback in the secondary with Saimes in those years. “I think he went a whole season with just two or three missed tackles. We used to kid him and say: ‘Too bad those hands weren’t as good at intercepting passes.’ He saved a lot of touchdowns, though, knocking down passes.”

As it was, Saimes intercepted 22 passes in the 81 regular season games he played for the Bills, none for a touchdown, however. His only score for Buffalo came on a fumble return.

“He was the most amazing dad,” Saimes’ daughter, Linda Durley, told the Association Press. “He was amazing and strong. he loved his family, he loved his grandchildren and he loved my mom so much.”

Saimes is survived by his wife, Betsy, three daughters and eight grandchildren.

A funeral service is scheduled for Wednesday at the Community Christian Church in North Canton, Ohio.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com