It’s not easy being Nathan Peterman. Just ask Ed Rutkowski. Fifty years ago, he was Peterman.
Rutkowski started at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills then for the same reason Peterman is starting for them now. Namely, everyone else was hurt.
"Been there, done that,” Rutkowski, who’s 77, tells USA TODAY.
He was known as the Bills’ “disaster quarterback” during that 1968 season. These days the disaster is Peterman’s play. His quarterback rating on this season’s opening day — 0.0 — earned a dreaded Blutarsky, so named for the John Belushi Animal House character who carried a 0.0 GPA.
There are key differences. Peterman was drafted as a quarterback while Rutkowski wasn’t drafted at all. And Rutkowski played what seemed like everything other than quarterback during his AFL career — wide receiver and running back and tight end and defensive back and returner of kickoffs and punts — until injuries took out all of the Bills’ real QBs five decades ago.
"I still have nightmares about it,” Rutkowski says, laughing lightly.
Jack Kemp (knee) went down first — during a preseason practice with live tackling. Then, during the season, the Bills lost Tom Flores (shoulder), Kay Stephenson (collarbone) and Dan Darragh (ribs).
This season has been a lesser version of that. Prize rookie Josh Allen supplanted Peterman after his opening-day flameout but weeks later Allen injured the elbow on his throwing arm. Derek Anderson, coaxed out of retirement, suffered a concussion. And A.J. McCarron got traded away before the season even began.
"I might call the Bills and offer my services,” Rutkowski says. “I always say I could throw interceptions with the best of them.”
Rutkowski threw six interceptions in six games in 1968. Peterman threw five in one half last season. He had three more in last week’s 41-9 loss to the Chicago Bears. Some fans started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his retirement. (Goal: $1 million. Pledged by midweek: $222.)
For all of that, Rutkowski has Peterman’s back. “There ought to be a special category where it’s not the quarterback’s fault,” he says, pointing out some of Peterman’s interceptions ricocheted off receivers.
What advice can Rutkowski offer his latter-day self? “Study hard. Prepare, prepare, prepare. And have a short memory.”
Rutkowski mostly hadn’t played quarterback since his sophomore season at Notre Dame. He confesses when he stepped into the breach in Buffalo there were a couple of times at practice where he placed his hands under the guard. “I’m over here,” called out center Al Bemiller, who still kids him about it.
Rutkowski started at quarterback in the season’s last three games. The Bills lost narrowly at Denver and at Oakland and hugely at Houston. The Raiders game sticks with him still. Rutkowski was on his way around end for a potential game-winning score when cornerback George Atkinson forced a fumble near the goal line.
"He reached around and grabbed my elbow and pulled the ball out,” Rutkowski says. “I swear it touched out of bounds and bounced back in.”
The Bills’ only win that season would be their 37-35 upset of the New York Jets, when Joe Namath had a Peterman-like day with five interceptions. The Jets would go on to win that season’s Super Bowl — and the Bills would go on to 1-12-1. (Rutkowski earned the tie with a two-point conversion pass with 18 seconds to play in Miami.)
The Bills had 1968’s worst record in the NFL and AFL. It allowed them to take O.J. Simpson at No. 1 overall in the 1969 draft. Rutkowski, who was on the Bills’ radio team when Simpson broke rushing records, liked to tell Bills owner Ralph Wilson that his fumble in Oakland entitled him to a finder’s fee.
The joke carried a little extra weight. Wilson really did send Rutkowski some surprise currency once. A letter on team stationery arrived a few weeks after the 1968 season thanking him for filling in amid “all the misfortunes we had had at the quarterback position.” Enclosed was a check for $1,000.
Wilson’s letter said he’d never done this before but he hoped Rutkowski would accept it “in the spirit in which it is given” — not to place a value on his services but as “a bonus and an expression from me of sincere appreciation for your extra efforts.”
Rutkowski says he has never spoken publicly of this gift before. But now, 50 years later, he feels the time is right.
"For a guy who signed for $7,500 with a $300 bonus,” Rutkowski says, “that sure was a lot of money.”
And it wasn’t the only happy ending to that saga of a season. All of Buffalo’s QBs of ’68 would go on to great things.
Kemp would become a congressman, cabinet secretary and 1996’s Republican nominee for vice president. Flores would win two Super Bowls as coach of the Raiders. Stephenson would be coach of the Bills. Darragh would be a top attorney in Pittsburgh. And Rutkowski would be elected executive of Erie County, which owns the stadium where the Bills play.
So there’s hope of a happy ending for Peterman too — 0.0 be damned. After all, as we find out in the film’s final frame, Bluto Blutarsky goes on to be a U.S. Senator.
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