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Behind the Name: "Buffalo Bills"

Written by Serena Leatherbarrow

With the exhilarating season the Buffalo Bills are having, many of us don’t stop to question the details behind the history of the team and their name. The Buffalo Bills is a name most of us are born knowing, but who do we have to thank for this roll off-the-tongue phrase -- Donald Sweet.

If you haven’t heard the name, you do now. Buffalo native, Don Sweet, was a man known by many back in his day. His grandchildren, Mike Shatzel and Demi Boyack, shared that their grandfather was extremely sociable and could frequently be found at local pubs watching a game. Sweet loved the social aspect of football and of course downing a couple of beers with friends.

In 1947, the Buffalo Bisons in the All-America Football Conference decided to separate their name from the Buffalo Bisons hockey and baseball teams. A contest was held to select a unique name for the football team and encouraged Buffalonians to submit their ideas along with a short essay on why their nickname should be chosen. The prize you ask? The winner was to be awarded $500; a huge sum in those days.

Young Don Sweet, who was in his early twenties at the time, said “What the heck” and entered the contest. With a drink in his hand, Sweet got to thinking and decided on the name “Bills,” after Buffalo Bill (Cody) who was a buffalo hunter and fighter in the plains. Out of about 4500 entries, several other Western New Yorkers had the same idea in mind, but what set Sweet apart from his competitors was the caricature attached to the name. Being an extremely talented artist who loved to draw, Sweet decided to ignore the essay requirement and submit an illustration instead. The image he drew displayed Buffalo Bill head to toe in football gear and riding a buffalo as it sprints through the goalposts. Ironically enough, Sweet’s grandchildren stated that their grandfather took on the appearance of the caricature in his older age.

It is safe to say that the owners of the Buffalo Bisons football team fell in love with Sweet’s design as they changed the team name to the iconic Buffalo Bills and awarded Sweet with a well deserved $500 cash. With money burning in his pocket, Sweet made his way to New York City for a weekend and celebrated his win. His grandchildren shared that he spent it doing the things he loved -- bar hopping and drinking beers!

The illustration Sweet designed became the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference’s first logo and was featured on the front cover of their game program for two years. The name Sweet created inspired the professional team of the NFL, Buffalo Bills, that we know and love today. It is likely to say that our current Buffalo Bills would not be in existence today if it were not for the “old” Buffalo Bills that Sweet helped establish. It is no question that Sweet had a significant role in establishing the history of football in Buffalo and the passion our fans have for their hometown team. With the next playoff game quickly approaching, use this opportunity to appreciate the history of football in the 716 and the minds behind the magic.

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