The fullback who let the Juice run loose

Posted July 06, 2011 @ 10:27 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

Linda Hastreiter looks at names all the time. As a coordinator for the Patriot Guard Riders Veteran Recovery Program, it's her job to locate men and women who have served in the armed forces but whose remains have gone unclaimed. Some of the names she comes across have served, many have not. But when she came across the name Jim Braxton not long ago, it stood out for another reason.

Having grown up in New York, Hastreiter was familiar with the Bills' teams of the 1970s. Braxton played an important role in Buffalo's famed rushing attack from the era — dubbed the "Electric Company" — serving as O.J. Simpson's fullback. Could this be the same Jim Braxton? Turns out it was.

From 1971 until he left for Miami in 1978, Braxton proved to be one of the best in the NFL at his position. It was a time when fullbacks mattered. In his second season Braxton found the endzone six times; the following campaign — when Simpson gained a then-record 2,003 yards — Braxton gained 82.3 rushing yards per game.

Reliable as a blocker and ballcarrier, Braxton was also incredibly sharp. During Joe Ferguson's first few years in Buffalo, Braxton helped the quarterback out from time to time.

"He was always right next to me in the huddle and I remember a couple times when I was calling the play he'd say, 'You can't do that.' Very calm about it, but he'd say, 'You'd called it wrong, you can't do that.' He was the brains of the operation."

Ferguson also says Simpson relied on Braxton for the snap count before every play.

In 1975, at the age of 26, Braxton's career reached its peak. He gained 4.4 yards per carry, totaled 1,105 combined yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He also led the way for Simpson, who gained 1,817 rushing yards. That year the Bills met the defending Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Week Two. Simpson walked all over the Steel Curtain, gaining 227 yards. "Braxton played a big part in that," says Larry Felser, who has covered the Bills since 1960.

Maybe, but as far as Buffalo's front office was concerned, Braxton was no O.J. Simpson. The following offseason Simpson requested a trade to the West Coast and held out of camp. Eventually, money brought the two sides together; the Bills gave the Juice a reported $2.5 million for a new three-year deal.

According to Felser, the news didn't sit well with the team's No. 2 back. "Braxton was furious about that contract. He was central to O.J.'s success." Braxton also had been seeking a new deal. Before the first regular-season game, Felser recalls, Braxton approached owner Ralph Wilson at midfield during warm-ups and the two had a heated exchange.

Things got worse; on the third play of the game Braxton tore up his knee and missed the entire 1976 season. Said Simpson after game, "Bubby's the best blocking fullback I've ever seen. Now we'll have to adjust our offense, using less power plays and more swing passes, more trap plays and more counters." The team failed to make up for Braxton's absence and plummeted to 2-12 after posting an 8-6 mark with Braxton in '75.

Fully recovered in 1977, Braxton had a career-best 43 receptions and gained more yards from scrimmage than any Bills player. The following year Buffalo pulled the plug on the Electric Company — Simpson went to San Francisco and Braxton to Miami.

In 1986, Braxton was receiving treatment at Buffalo's Roswell Park Cancer Institute when he passed away on July 28 at the age of 37. The New York Times obituary for Braxton from the July 29, 1986 paper stated, "He is survived by his wife, Pam, and two sons. Funeral arrangements were incomplete."

To those who knew him well — Felser, Ferguson — the fact that his remains have gone unclaimed seems hard to believe. No one knows quite why. Felser recalls a "family man" who often brought sweet potato pie to share with teammates on road trips. Ferguson can't help but think of that laid-back guy who was always under control in the Bills' huddle.

According to Hastreiter, New York law states that only a family member can assume responsibility for remains that have gone unclaimed.

Having left his teammates more than two decades ago, Jim Braxton lives on as part of one of the most dominant rushing attacks in NFL history.

Says Mark Gaughan, who covers the NFL and the Bills for the Buffalo News and who followed those teams as a fan, "(Braxton) was a pounder. He was a load. He could have played fullback in any era."

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac