How the Bills can patch alumni relations after ’embarrassing’ Takeo Spikes

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The provocative photo illustrated marginalization.

Retired linebacker Takeo Spikes, brought back as the Buffalo Bills’ guest to help rouse Highmark Stadium into a pregame frenzy for their season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders, tried to watch the game from a depressing, bad-angle, obstructed-view suite.

Spikes posted the picture to his social media. The All-Pro thumper announced he bailed on the Bills’ 38-10 victory early because his “seating accommodations were NOT the standard” and referenced feeling like a punished child “in timeout.”

“I was disappointed that he was disappointed,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “There are some things we can do better to the point where Takeo didn’t feel like he needed to put that message out there.”

There is, of course, more to Spikes’ photo. Fewer than half of the NFL teams offer their alumni any suite at all. Former players and fans who’ve watched from the large suite say the image would have looked starkly different had Spikes moved a few feet to his left. Three Bills sources with direct knowledge of the situation say Spikes also was given two seating remedies, but he refused, with one of the sources saying Spikes seemed intent on taking the issue public.

Why would that be the case? Because in many ways Spikes is the perfect conduit to send a message on behalf of Bills alumni who feel the organization has pushed them aside.

“Marv Levy and I — along with several other legends — have had those same seats that Takeo had, and it’s embarrassing,” all-time sacks leader Bruce Smith said. He declined further comment.

Levy and Smith delivered goose-bump speeches before the 2022 home opener. Levy nearly brought the house down when asked the crowd “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” Then he went to the suite Spikes mocked.

The enclosed area features theater seating but is not private. Those who have been inside guessed it holds around 300 fans, perhaps not the best environment for an easily recognizable celebrity, 97 years old at the time, to watch a Bills game in peace.

Other prominent former Bills — Hall of Famers, Wall of Famers, Pro Bowlers and captains among them — are upset over their perceived lack of respect from a front office that, at best, has allowed alumni relations to erode and, at worst, insisted upon it. Most are reluctant to speak because they rely on their connections with the team for business purposes or to make their monthly ends meet.

Spikes isn’t one of those. He played only four of his 15 NFL seasons for Buffalo and doesn’t return to Western New York often. Spotrac, a site that tracks sports contracts, shows Spikes earned $46.6 million to play, nearly half of that from the Bills.

“He painted a far worse picture to prove a point,” said a former Bills executive who has been in the suite with alumni. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still interacts with alumni. “Those guys all talk. This had been festering for a while, and he took the opportunity.

“That’s not to say the Bills can’t do better, but there’s a lot of good being done there too.”

Spikes last week agreed to speak to The Athletic for this story, but repeated attempts to interview him the past six days were unsuccessful. The Athletic also reached out to former Bills linebacker and captain Lorenzo Alexander, who did not respond. In burgundy and gold, Alexander strolled to midfield with the Washington Commanders for the opening coin flip Sunday at FedEx Field.

“It’s very important to the Pegulas and Sean McDermott and me to treat the Bills alumni and our current players and staff first-class,” Beane said. This is a storied franchise with a great history. We want them to enjoy being around. We respect them, and there are a lot of times we’re pointing back to what they’ve done as teams or individuals.”

While the Bills’ football operations have been a model of stability since McDermott and Beane arrived six seasons ago, their front office has been rototilled like a farm.

Since president Russ Brandon resigned in 2018, the Bills have plowed through eight executive vice presidents. Terry Pegula fired COO Ron Raccuia in July and a month later shuttered the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella company.

Management has insisted on doing more work with fewer people. Popular alumni manager Jeremy Kelley took a promotion with the Carolina Panthers over the offseason and wasn’t replaced at One Bills Drive. Beane noted they’ve discussed filling Kelley’s vacancy.

“There are some things I was unaware of,” Beane said. “We have had some transitions in leadership on the business side. I think it pointed out some flaws, some holes in the system that we’ve got to get shored up on our end. Everybody is on board with doing that. We’ve had multiple meetings to address it and address it fast.”

Going back to Ralph Wilson’s ownership, there has been an undercurrent of wariness over some alumni, particularly the more vocal Super Bowl guys. They used to enjoy locker room and pregame sideline access, but aren’t allowed there without special permission anymore.

That’s why a few Bills alums were frustrated to see hockey players Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, who skate for the Sabres’ archrival Toronto Maple Leafs, posing for sideline photos before the Raiders game. Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and his family were given pregame sideline passes for the Bills’ playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Requests and expectations for pregame and locker room access became too much to accommodate and were a distraction at times, the former Bills executive said. Jim Kelly had been a pregame fixture on the Bills’ sideline, but in September 2017 was caught screaming at defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for kneeling during the national anthem and the next day ripped running back LeSean McCoy on the radio.

“Sometimes these guys overstep,” the former Bills executive said. “There are a lot of guys from the 1990s who still want to be a part of the organization. They want their respect. They see what other teams do, and some go over the top. I think the Bills are somewhat in the middle.”

The Bills are one of 15 teams that offer an alumni suite, according to the NFL Legends Community office. The Bills and Green Bay Packers are the only clubs who are both in a small market and play in an older stadium. Las Vegas is the next-smallest market, but its two-year-old Allegiant Stadium is hosting Super Bowl 55. The smallest market after that is Miami.

An NFL general manager has more pressing concerns in September than serving as a diplomat for alumni relations, but Spikes’ social-media post embarrassed the organization.

The SEC Network, where Spikes works as college football analyst, spoofed the situation with a skit that showed Spikes endure a series of workplace situations — sitting in a production meeting, playing ping-pong in the break room, looking at the beverage display fridge, talking to the studio camera — where he was repeatedly obstructed.

Beane said he spoke with Spikes and Smith last week to hear their specific concerns and had been exploring issues with other Bills legends.

“Some of these conversations already started,” Beane said. “I talked with Jim Kelly a couple weeks ago with his thoughts, things he brought to our attention that I didn’t know.”

Kelly declined an interview request to discuss Bills alumni relations. When Kelly retired in January 1997, Wilson reportedly gave the Hall of Fame quarterback a lifetime personal services contract to represent the team at public and corporate events. But the Bills and the Pegula-owned Buffalo Sabres disbanded their player-ambassador programs three years ago.

Then there is the estranged Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. A group of former Bills, mostly from the AFL championship teams, established the foundation in 1998. While not affiliated with the team, it always had Ralph Wilson’s blessing. The foundation’s recent Cure the Blue campaign for prostate cancer research has donated over $300,000 to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

But the Bills haven’t met with the Alumni Foundation since 2018, when the front office ordered the group to stop using the team’s trademarked, standing red buffalo and charging blue buffalo logos.

“I don’t like talking negatively, but some things have to be said,” said Booker Edgerson, Bills Wall of Fame cornerback and former Alumni Foundation president. “It’s amazing how it went down the tubes so fast.

“When Ralph had the team, he was 100 percent positive with the alumni. He really did a lot. Since the new ownership, things have changed, and there’s not anything necessarily wrong with that, but …”

Edgerson wonders if the Bills have even considered honoring next year’s 60th anniversary of their first AFL championship. He said he hasn’t heard anything. Edgerson added only 15 players are still alive, and some are in bad health.

After 17 consecutive years with at least one new inductee, the Bills have added only six Wall of Famers over the past 15 seasons and none since posthumously honoring Cookie Gilchrist in 2017, the last year the Bills convened their Wall of Fame committee. The most recent living player inducted was defensive end Phil Hansen in 2011.

There is no shortage of worthy Wall of Fame candidates, among them all-time interceptions leader Butch Byrd, eight-straight Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, 9,000-yard receiver Eric Moulds and six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams.

The Sabres have taken a similar approach to their Hall of Fame, with no inductions since center Dale Hawerchuk and broadcaster Rick Jeanneret in 2011.

“They’re an organization that has the eyes and ears of the community,” Edgerson said, “and we want to be a part of that. We should be a big, ol’ family. There’s going to be disagreements, but what it all comes down to is making the community a better place.”

(Photo of Takeo Spikes: Rick Stewart / Getty Images)

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