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This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Swede Youngstrom

     (Born May 24, 1897) -- Pro football historian Jeffrey Miller has called Adolph "Swede" Youngstrom Buffalo's first football superstar. Let's find out why.

     Youngstrom grew up in Waltham, Mass., and wasn't permitted by his family to play high school football until his senior year. He turned out to be pretty good, and went on to enroll at Dartmouth College starting in 1914. In his senior year in 1919, he blocked nine punts, including three in one game against Colgate. That made him a Walter Camp All-American.

     Youngstrom opened up a candy store in Hanover, N.H., when representatives of a pro football team from Buffalo dropped by with a sweet offer to play for the 1920 season. Youngstrom, a 6-foot-1, 187-pound player, signed the deal.

     He helped Buffalo win plenty of games during the next several years. He blocked nine more punts in 1920 alone. The All-Americans, as the team was called, came close to a title but couldn't claim it.

      Youngstrom moved on in 1925, and played a couple of more years elsewhere. He's one of the greatest guards of that era in NFL history. The lack of a championship ring in Buffalo might be what kept him out of the Hall of Fame in Canton.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Mahdi Abdul-Rahman

     (Born April 15, 1942) -- Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, or Walt Hazzard, might have spent the least important time of his basketball career in Buffalo.

     Hazzard came out of Philadelphia to play with UCLA. He became part of John Wooden's first two championship teams in 1964 and 1965, and the Bruins started on their unmatched dynasty. Hazzard and Gail Goodrich were one of the greatest backcourts in NCAA history.

     Hazzard moved on to the pros as a first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Lakers. He eventually bounced to the Seattle SuperSonics and Atlanta Hawks. In 1971, it became pretty obvious that having Hazzard and Pete Maravich was one point guard too many for the Hawks. It was also obvious which one was the bigger gate attraction, and which one should be traded.

     The Braves dealt Don May and Herm Gilliam to the Hawks for Hazzard and Jerry Chambers, who played only 26 games here before leaving for the American Basketball Association. While in training camp Hazzard announced that he had changed his name to Abdul-Rahman. As a Brave, he averaged 15.8 points per game in 1971-72.

    However, Abdul-Rahman's career turned sour from there. He was waived by the Braves after a poor start to the 1972-73 season and was out of basketball less than two years later.

     In 1984, Abdul-Rahman -- who returned to the name of Hazzard professionally because he thought his Muslim name cost him job opportunities -- became the head basketball coach at UCLA. He lasted four years, making one NCAA tournament. Hazzard died in 2012.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Whitey Martin

     (Born April 11, 1939) -- You could have gotten long odds that Ronald "Whitey" Martin would have ever made the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The odds were almost as long that he'd ever play a second of college basketball.

     Martin was 5-foot-5 when he was cut from the varsity basketball team at Timon High. But he grew five inches in the next year, and new coach Mel Palano liked him enough to make him his starting point guard as a senior.

     Then Martin arrived at St. Bonaventure, and had grown to 6-2. He became the Bonnies' sixth man as a sophomore, and then started as a junior and a senior. Martin was part of a Bona era that saw the team go 65-12 over three seasons. No St. Bonaventure team has ever done better over three years.

     Tom Stith led the way on those teams, averaging around 30 points per game as a junior and senior. But Martin averaged around 12 points per game at the same time, and was a fine defensive player as well.

     Martin was taken by the Knicks in the second round of the 1961 NBA draft, as his college coach, Eddie Donovan, landed in New York that year. Martin played in the NBA for a year before moving on to semipro ball.

     Martin is retired and lives in North Boston. 

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Fred Smerlas

     (Born April 8, 1957) -- Sometimes it's important for a player to come in and not just perform on the field, but change the culture of the team. Fred Smerlas did that once upon a time with the Buffalo Bills.

     The Bills were not a good team in 1978. They were 5-11 under Chuck Knox, then in his first year in Buffalo. Knox knew he needed more talent on the roster. The team's first pick in 1979, Tom Cousineau, fled to the Canadian Football League, but Knox did well with Smerlas of Boston College as the fourth pick in the second round. Later in that round, Buffalo grabbed Jim Haslett.

     Not only were Smerlas and Haslett young and good, but they were personable and funny. The media flocked to them. Buffalo's team had a personality makeover in no time.

     Smerlas moved into the starting lineup in 1980 and didn't miss a start for the Bills for the rest of the decade. Buffalo had some good seasons and bad ones during that time, but Smerlas was a constant. He made five Pro Bowls along the way.

     The run ended in 1990, when Smerlas moved to San Francisco. Then it was on to New England for two more seasons. He only made one start when he wasn't in a Buffalo uniform.

     Smerlas stayed in the Boston area after retirement, and has considered a run for Congress a couple of times in the past decade.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Glenn "Pop" Warner

     (Born April 5, 1871) -- The name of Pop Warner has become closely associated with the game of football. His connection to Western New York isn't as well known, even around here.

     Warner was born in Springville and played football for Cornell from 1892 to 1894. He picked up the nickname "Pop" because he was older than most of his contemporaries.

     Warner was hired to coach at the University of Georgia in 1895, and he was also hired at Iowa State that year to do the same job. Somehow he made the logistics work. Warner returned to Cornell a couple of times, and then worked at Carlyle in Pennsylvania where he coached all-time great Jim Thorpe.

     From there it was on to Pittsburgh, where Warner did some of his best work. He won three national championships for the Panthers, with titles coming in 1915, 1916 and 1918. Warner had a record of 60-12-4. then it was on to Stanford, where he won a fourth national title, and to Temple.

     Football would have a different look without Warner. For example, he invented the screen pass, and pioneered the use of shoulder and thigh pads.

     Meanwhile, a youth football program was set up to honor him well after retirement. There are now more than 300,000 children involved in Pop Warner football. He's even been on a stamp.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Erik Rasmussen

   (Born March 28, 1977) -- The Buffalo Sabres haven't had that many draft choices in the top ten picks over the years. That's the price they've paid for being generally in the upper half of the standings.

   The 1996 draft was an exception. Buffalo had the seventh choice after missing the playoffs the preceding season, and used its pick to select Erik Rasmussen. The forward had scored 48 points in 40 games for the University of Minnesota. He was big and tough with a scoring touch … who could ask for much more?

   Rasmussen spent one more year at Minnesota before signing with the Sabres. He arrived in Buffalo for part of the 1997-98 season, when he played 21 games.

   Rasmussen's first playoff goal might have been the highlight of his career. He got a game-winner in the Conference finals against the Maple Leafs, scoring in Game Five.

   The center/left wing stayed in Buffalo through 2002, with a career high of 31 points in 2000-01. Then he was traded to Los Angeles for Adam Mair. Rasmussen landed in New Jersey for three years before finishing his career overseas.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Pat Hughes

     (Born March 25, 1955) -- It's not often that an NHL team gets to acquire a player with a Stanley Cup ring collection. The Buffalo Sabres did that when they added Pat Hughes in 1985.

     Hughes was an Alberta native who was drafted in the third round in 1975 by the Canadiens. He had two years in the minors in which he scored exactly 68 points in each year, and that earned him a promotion to Montreal in 1978. There he helped the Canadiens win the Cup in 1978-79.

     When Ken Dryden retired in the summer of 1979, the Canadiens swapped a package that included Hughes to Pittsburgh for goalie Denis Heron. The forward spent almost two years as a Penguin before going to Edmonton at the trading deadline in March, 1981. Hughes stayed with the Oilers through 1985, and won Cups in 1984 and 1985.

     The Sabres added Hughes in a three-cornered trade with Pittsburgh and Edmonton involving Randy Cunneyworth and Mike Moller. Sadly for Buffalo, championships stopped following Hughes around at that point. He had four goals and nine assists in a Sabres' uniform in 1985-86.

     Hughes played one more season in the NHL (St. Louis and Hartford) before retiring. He reportedly now serves as a policeman at Ann Arbor, Mich.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jim May

   (Born March 22, 1953): If you don't have a goaltender, it's difficult to prevent the other team from scoring in soccer. Maybe that's why when the Buffalo Stallions got ready to start their operations in
1979, they made Jim May the first person on their roster.

   May is one of the best soccer players ever produced in Western New York. He went to college at Cobleskill and Brockport, and eventually made Brockport's Hall of Fame. That led the Rochester Lancers of the North American Soccer League to sign him. He even got to face shots from the legendary Pele there.

   From there it was on to Cleveland in the indoor game, and he jumped to the Stallions. He spent the next six seasons with the team. The team hoped he'd sell the sport to the masses of Western New York, and he did that.

   May retired and moved into private business, but he couldn't resist it when indoor soccer called again in 1992. He joined the Buffalo Blizzard of the NPSL as the team's vice president and general manager in 1992.

   May stayed in that job through 1999, and even filled in as an interim coach at times.

   The goalie remains involved in the game through ownership of SportsPlex in North Tonawanda, and is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Punch Imlach

   (Born March 15, 1918) -- There are few beloved hockey figures in both Toronto and Buffalo. Punch Imlach is certainly on that very short list.

   After some time working in management in senior hockey and the pros, Imlach joined the Maple Leafs' organization in 1958. He eventually worked his way to general manager and coach. All he did there was win four Stanley Cups, including three in a row.

   However, Imlach feuded with Leafs' ownership and left in 1969. It didn't take long for the Knox brothers to reach out when they were creating the Sabres for their inaugural season in 1970-71. Imlach took over as coach and general manager in Buffalo.

   Heart problems pushed him off the bench in 1972, but Imlach remained the team's general manager through 1978. He put together a Sabres team that went from expansion squad to Stanley Cup finalist in five years, an impressive achievement by any standards. Imlach's teams also were exciting and entertaining, which help sell NHL hockey to a new market.

   Health issues probably took their toll on Imlach during his final years in Buffalo. When the Sabres turned sour in the fall of 1978, Imlach and coach Marcel Pronovost were both fired. Imlach landed in Toronto for a second stay, but this stop didn't work out so well. He had disagreements with players and suffered from more heart problems.

   Imlach died of a heart attack in 1987. He is a very worthy member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Sabres' Hall of Fame.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jim Veltman

     March 8, 1966 - Indoor lacrosse championships seemed to follow Jim Veltman around. This was not a coincidence.

     Veltman won eight of them during a 16-season career in the sport. The first three came right here in Buffalo.

     Veltman was an original Buffalo Bandit, joining the team in 1992. That team had plenty of scorers, but Veltman carved out a unique role with that team. He quickly became known for his skill at grabbing loose balls, prompting the nickname of "Scoop."

     The 1992 Buffalo team won the championship as did the 1993 and 1996 teams. That prompted teammate John Tavares to call Veltman the best teammate he ever had.

     After a year off, Veltman landed in Ontario and played through 2008. He won four more championships there, and upon retiring had the National Lacrosse League record for loose balls.

     Veltman was an all-pro 12 times, the NLL's most valuable player in 2004, and played in 10 championship games. He went into the league's Hall of Fame in 2009.

--- Budd Bailey

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