The Buffalo Bills will play in their seventh AFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon. If they pull the upset over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, they will reach their fifth Super Bowl in franchise history. This would no doubt to many people asking “why are they even called the Bills?”
The original Buffalo Bills
The NFL’s current Buffalo Bills franchise is not the first pro football team to play under this name. The original Bills were part of the All-America Football Conference, a short-lived competitor to the NFL which formed in 1946.
This team went by the name “Buffalo Bisons” for its first year of existence in 1946. However, there were already three teams called the Bisons in Buffalo — a minor-league baseball team, a pro basketball team, and an American Hockey League team. Seeking a unique identity, team owner James Breuil held a “name-the-team” contest before the 1947 season.
According to the team’s official website, the winner was James F. Dyson, who submitted an essay comparing the team to a band of “Buffalo Bills”. Dyson won $500 for his contribution to football history.
The All-American Football Conference ceased to exist after its fourth season in 1949. Only three teams made the jump to the National Football League, and the original Bills were not one of them. 11 years later, Buffalo received a team in the new American Football League. The owner of that new franchise, Ralph C. Wilson, revived the Bills name, which stands to this day.
The original “Buffalo Bill”
In his essay, Dyson was, of course, referring to “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a complicated figure in American history.
The legend of Buffalo Bill began at age 15 when Cody — supposedly — rode for the Pony Express. In his late teens and early twenties, Cody served with distinction as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War, and later during the Plains Wars. For his service, Cody received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872.
Thanks to the dime-store novels of the day, Cody’s legend grew to that of a folk hero while he was still in his early twenties. Beginning in 1883, Cody parlayed that legend into the traveling Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. For better or worse, the show established many of the long-standing tropes of “Western” popular culture that would remain in place for decades.
A team history in logos
Obviously, a former Pony Express rider, Union soldier, and circus magnate would be hard to express in the form of a logo — especially the logo for a football team. Fortunately, the Bills have found other ways to represent themselves.
Throughout their history, the Buffalo Bills have completely avoided depicting Cody in logo form altogether. Instead, their logos have generally depicted the first half of their name — the “Buffalo” part. The Bills‘ current logo, which has been in use since 1974, depicts an abstract blue buffalo rushing alongside a red streak which is meant to represent speed.
This is ironic because bison hunting was one of Cody’s many professions. During his days as a Union soldier, Cody regularly went on buffalo-hunting expeditions to provide sustenance for the crews building the Kansas Pacific Railroad. In fact, according to PBS, legend has it that he earned his nickname specifically because he outshot his rival, William Comstock, in an eight-hour bison-hunting shootout.