He never played a down for the Buffalo Bills. He never lived in Buffalo. And if he ever attended a Bills game, he never saw one in Buffalo.
But Stevens Wright, who died March 18 in his native California at age 81, was an important figure in Buffalo Bills history, even if the biggest Bills trivia buffs and the oldest team officials never heard of him.
Wright was a commercial illustrator, mostly in the aerospace industry for McDonnell Douglas.
But he’s also the man who put the charging buffalo on the Bills helmet, a design that has survived for 39 years.
“It was life-changing for him,” said daughter Beverly Wright Woo. “As an artist, he considered this his greatest accomplishment. He told me that the legacy he left behind was the Bills logo, that he left a footprint for the world.”
Few people knew about the accomplishment. Wright, by all accounts, was a freelance illustrator for NFL Properties. But only a few old letters testify to Wright’s achievement, and it’s clear that this was his most successful football project.
Any history of Bills uniforms, helmets and logos shows that the team, which had patterned its uniforms after the Detroit Lions’ for its first two years, adopted a standing red buffalo for its white helmets in 1962. That logo survived through the 1973 season; the iconic photos of O.J. Simpson rushing for 2,003 yards in 1973 show the standing red buffalo.
“In 1974, the standing bison logo was replaced by a blue charging one with a red slanting stripe streaming from its horn,” one historical account notes, referring to Wright’s creation.
There are at least two theories about what inspired Wright’s charging bison.
“He never said, but knowing my dad, I think it gave a sense of power to the buffalo, taking it from a standing position to charging forward,” Woo said of her father. “That was a symbol for where the team was going.”
Her brother, Steve Wright, has a different theory, related to Simpson’s assault on the record books throughout the early 1970s.
“My dad was making an artistic expression of what he loved most about football,” Wright said. “He loved running backs and the running game. I think O.J.’s quest for the rushing record was part of my dad’s inspiration.”
Just as Bills fans don’t know much about Wright, his family doesn’t know all the stories about what the Bills did with his design.
In 1984, the Bills put Wright’s logo on a red helmet, rather than the traditional white. The reason: three of the Bills’ division opponents at the time [the Patriots, Dolphins and Colts] wore white helmets, and the team hoped that the new red headgear could help quarterback Joe Ferguson spot his receivers more quickly and cut down his interceptions.
“Everyone we played had white helmets at that time,” Ferguson said, according to buffalobills.com. “Our new head coach Kay Stephenson just wanted to get more of a contrast on the field that may help spot a receiver down the field.”
Ferguson’s interceptions dropped from 25 in 1983 to 17 the following year, but, alas, the team still finished 2-14.
Then two years ago, the Bills went back to the white helmets, but still kept the charging buffalo, pleasing Wright.
“Finally, they’ve got it right,” Steve Wright quoted his father as saying.
Historians would find little mention of Wright’s name in any documents pertaining to the 1974 helmet change.
But his family does have a copy of a September 1973 letter from Bills vice president and general manager Robert T. Lustig to NFL Properties, thanking it for the charging-buffalo design, according to Wright’s surviving wife, Jere.
“The one design that has the great majority interested in it is the blue [charging] buffalo with the red stripe,” Lustig wrote, before suggesting a slight change in the stripe. “We very definitely are interested in this and more than likely will effect a change as soon as we are sure in our mind what is the most attractive and appealing design.”
Jere Wright also found a copy of a 1979 letter that her husband had, from NFL Properties executive David Boss to a student writing a thesis on team uniforms and helmets.
“The question of artists/designers for the helmet emblems and when they were created is often hazy,” that letter states. “The clubs are not always certain themselves.”
That document also mentions that, according to NFL Properties’ information, the Bills logo was designed by Stevens Wright of Long Beach, Calif., and McDonnell Douglas.
According to Wright’s family, he designed helmet logos for the now-defunct World League of American Football, including the San Antonio Riders, Sacramento Surge and Ohio Glory. Wright also redesigned the San Francisco 49ers helmet in 1991, prior to a contemplated move to San Jose, but that never happened. And he redesigned the New England Patriots helmet in 1978, but the fans preferred to stay with the Minuteman logo, his family said.
The Bills obviously were his crowning triumph.
“It’s a symbol that unites a lot of people,” Steve Wright said. “For my dad to bring people together around that symbol, it’s really satisfying. I’m glad it’s lasted this many years.”
Woo, one of his daughters, wanted to thank Bills fans for continuing to rally around her father’s creation.
She knows how she’ll feel the first time she sees someone wearing the logo this season, the first one after her father’s death.
“It’s going to make me cry,” she said. “But it’s also going to make me proud.”