For Huetter, game day in Buffalo is the job of a lifetime

Jerry Sullivan

Jim Huetter worked his first Buffalo Bills game in the 1962 season, in the team’s third year of existence in the AFL. He was 13 years old at the time.

Huetter’s father, the late Al “Whitey” Huetter, was a legendary sports official in Western New York, a man who worked all sports. Whitey was an AFL referee in the early days of the Bills, when they played their home games at War Memorial Stadium.

Security wasn’t very tight in those days. As Huetter recalls, he basically followed his old man into the place and took up a spot on the sidelines. Nearly 60 years later, he’s still working the games. Huetter has missed just one Bills home game since that day. That’s close to 500 games, over seven decades.

“I learned back in those days at the Rockpile you could get in if you looked like you knew what you were doing,” said Huetter, now the game clock operator at Bills home games. “So I’d put a towel around my shoulder and walk in.”

“They thought I was a ballboy,” he said. “I just hung. I went on the sideline. I’ve got a couple of stories I could tell you.”

In time, people got to know him and let him alone. His dad was an AFL official, after all. Jimmy would serve as a ballboy for road teams. He’d go fetch water for the visitors. He remembers sitting on the bench with the New York Titans, who became the Jets in 1963. 

Stories? Old-time fans will recall Chiefs coach Hank Stram carrying rolled-up notes in his hand on the sideline during games. Just before halftime one rainy Sunday, Stram asked to borrow Huetter’s towel to clean mud off his shoes. He handed him the notes and told Jim to meet him in the locker room during the break.

Stram was one of Huetter’s idols. But Jimmy was a Buffalo kid first. He ran up to Bills coach Joe Collier, who was yelling at the officials, including Whitey Huetter, as he walked to the halftime locker room. Huetter finally got Collier’s attention and handed him Stram’s notes.

“I bee-lined it over to the Bills’ bench, jumped the wall and up into the stands,” Huetter said. “I was never seen again that day.” As Huetter recalls it, the Bills shut out KC after halftime and won going away.

Then there was the time he went with his dad to the Bills’ first-ever road game in Miami, in 1966. Huetter was in the stands before the game. His dad, who was the umpire that day, came over and said they needed a ballboy. Jimmy happily jumped onto the field to help. 

“When the Bills had the ball, I’d dry it off really good, no problem, got the laces all cleaned up,” Huetter recalled. “I had a jar of Vaseline in my pocket, so when Miami had the ball, I’d grease up the ball with Vaseline just prior to giving the ball to the ref.”

The Bills won the game, 29-0. You could look it up. To this day, it’s the Bills’ most one-sided road win over Miami in their long rivalry, the only time they’ve ever shut out the Dolphins in Florida. 

Of course, Huetter was a kid at the time, full of mischief. He grew up fast, and his zeal for the home team gave way to his love of officiating. Like his father, a former head football coach at South Park High in the city, Jim eventually became one of the most respected sports officials in Western New York, and the country. 

When Huetter was just 17, he became the fourth man on the chain gang, marking off 10-yard increments, at Bills home games. The crew had expanded from three members to four. It’s not as if they were overwhelmed by qualified candidates, and people knew him.

“It wasn’t the NFL,” Huetter said. “It was the AFL, which wasn’t as organized as it is now. A couple of times, somebody didn’t show up and I had to get somebody out of the stands. That’s how it was back in those days. You just got through the game. I think we got paid $15, and that was the best 15 bucks I ever made.”

Huetter worked the chain gang for a quarter-century, missing only one game in 1975 to compete in a bicycle race in South Africa. He was one of the top amateur cyclists in America, a member of the U.S. Olympic and Pan-American Games teams. After his competitive days, he ran his own bike shop in town for 15 years.

In 1993, the NFL fired the play clock operator at Bills home games.  That’s the guy who runs the 40-second clock between plays. He had a good reputation around the team and the league. Huetter took the job and has been doing it ever since. This is his 28th season in that job.

He was a natural. Huetter had been officiating local basketball games since he was 16 (his father told him to lie about his age). He became one of the most respected basketball officials in the nation. At one point, he was in charge of assigning the hoop officials in Western New York. From 1989-92, Huetter was an NBA referee, working alongside such legends as Jake O’Donnell and Earl Strom. 

So it’s hardly surprising that the NFL would give Huetter the responsibility of running the play clock at Buffalo games. Eventually, he was named captain of the 18 Game Day Assistants, or GDAs, who work the NFL games. That includes the replay people, the video crew, the chain gang, and the three-man clock team. 

“The NFL doesn’t want to deal with 18 people for each team,” Huetter said. “If you multiply that by 32, there’s a ton of people. So they name one person as the GDA captain. I must have raised my hand years ago, but they named me captain.”

On Saturday evening, Huetter will be in his usual spot in the press box above the 40-yard line for the Bills’ divisional round game against the Ravens. He runs the 40-second play clock. Kurt Hansen runs the game clock. Hansen’s dad, Brian, did that job for 32 years. 

Dave Thomas, a long-time basketball official and former athletic director for the Buffalo city schools, has the job of disengaging the helmet audio between the coach and the quarterback (as well as defensive captain) with 15 seconds left on the play clock. 

That’s a lot of responsibility, and pressure, for the three people charged with handling the clock for NFL games. As any football fan knows, a few seconds can be precious, a mistake calamitous. 

“Let me tell you, it’s a very serious, very tense environment,” said Jim Kwitchoff, who has served as an alternate for the clock crew for years. “Everybody recognizes the magnitude of what an error could do, the impact it could have on the game. So yeah, everybody wants to be flawless. That’s the goal.”

“Whether it’s Jimmy, Kurt or Dave, the goal is to be 100 percent perfect across all three positions,” said Kwitchoff, the former assistant basketball coach at UB. “And usually, they are.”

The NFL would concur. Clock crews are evaluated, like on-field officials, and rewarded with post-game assignments. Huetter’s crew was selected to work a playoff game three years ago. They were supposed to do Washington at Tampa Bay last weekend, but the NFL chose not to have crews travel due to COVID-19.

“People who had home games, like us, lucked out,” Huetter said. “But the crew from Dallas was supposed to come in and work the Bills game. Obviously, they didn’t come in. So they were out of luck.”

Clearly, the NFL trusts its clock operators to be impartial. This isn’t some high school basketball game where the clock starts late to give the home squad a couple more seconds to score. The kid who greased up the football and pirated Hank Stram’s notes grew up to be one of the most principled officials in the NFL. 

“Am I a Bills fan?” Huetter said. “I would like them to win. But I tell this to my crew — and my daughter is on the chain crew, one of three women in the NFL who do it: “Guys, when you come through the tunnel and go onto the field, you have to buckle down, you’ve got to focus up, and you cannot become a fan.”

As Kwitchoff said, the pressure is enormous on the clock operators, as it is for the officials on the field.  Huetter said the clock crew arrives at the stadium about three hours before a game. They relax, read the newspaper, get some breakfast.

“But once the game starts, we lock in,” Huetter said. “Because if you don’t, you won’t be there. Every couple of years we get a drug test. We get security clearance, background checks. They’re pretty intense on the background stuff.”

“The 40-second clock runs when the play isn’t running. I am focused for the entire three hours. During timeouts, I can sit back and relax for 50 seconds. But once they get back, I refocus. Your level of concentration has to be 100 percent throughout the entire game.

“So when I come home, I’m exhausted. They don’t tell you if you did a good job. But if you make a mistake — and we haven’t made one, God forbid —  you’re usually going to end up on SportsCenter.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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