By the end of his college career Wolford was All-SEC and third-team All-America and had played in the 1986 Senior Bowl. Scouts and agents were telling him that he might be a first-round draft pick.
On draft day of that year the San Francisco 49ers were preparing to make their first-round pick, the 20th overall; Will and Jude were watching the draft on TV when the telephone rang. It was the Bills calling for Wolford. "Would you be interested in playing for us?" asked a voice.
"I'd be interested in playing for anybody," Wolford replied.
"Sit tight," said the voice. Wolford thought, Damn, I'm not going in the first round. The Bills had already picked Brian Harmon with their first-round pick, and their next selection was high in the second round. Then Wolford watched as Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL, announced: "The San Francisco 49ers have traded their 20th pick to the Buffalo Bills, and with the 20th pick the Bills select Will Wolford, offensive tackle from Vanderbilt."
"I went crazy," Wolford says. "I couldn't believe it." Jude looked over and teased, "Buffalo? Where's that?"
The Bills were coming off a 2-14 season, but they were building a new engine, one ultimately driven by the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett. While shielding Kelly's pocket and making room for Thomas's maneuvers, Wolford arose as one of the league's premier offensive tackles, and he was twice named to the Pro Bowl. Despite the bitter trials of three straight losses in the Super Bowl, the man had himself a time of it. "In Buffalo, when you're winning like that, boy, it's fantastic," he says. "We had a close-knit team. A lot of the same guys year in and year out. That's really how you build a winner. Keep everybody together."
And yet, of all those Pro Bowling Bills, Wolford was the first to leave. And at the first opportunity. "It wasn't personal," he says. "It was just business." When he stepped into the free-agent market, he was astonished at the numbers he was hearing. Seattle was talking more than $2 million a year, Green Bay $2.5 million. When the Colts offered $7.65 million for three years, Wolford raced off to Indianapolis, where March 28 turned out to be the longest day in his life.
In the Bills' Super Bow) loss to Dallas on Jan. 31, 1993, he had injured his left shoulder while trying to make a tackle after an interception. Now, at the very point of signing the Colt contract, doctors discovered a torn left rotator cuff. Wolford envisioned a nightmarish scenario: The Colts kill the deal, and he piddles back to Buffalo as damaged goods, helmet in hand. Instead, all the Colts demanded was a clause that added an option year should he miss 10 or more regular-season games in 1993.
Relieved, he signed and then dashed to the airport to make his calls. All that remained was to await the arbitrator's ruling on Buffalo's protest. The Bills had made Wolford one of its two "transition players" in 1993, meaning that if another team made him an offer, they could keep him if they matched it. The Bills agreed to match the money, but Indianapolis had inserted a clause into the contract guaranteeing that Wolford would be the highest-paid player on its offensive team. While this was easy for the Colts, there was no way that Buffalo could match that clause by paying Wolford what it paid Kelly and Thomas. The Bills argued that the two teams' disparate salary structures made the clause unfair. Arbitrator Arthur Stark disagreed, however, and on April 23 he ruled the contract valid.
So Wolford had his signing money. He was at training camp that summer, almost three months after undergoing rotator cuff surgery, when he got the bonus he really wanted. Wolford had become a student of pedigrees, and he had taken a particular shine to the fine stallion Deputy Minister, sire of the ill-fated champion Go for Wand. Wolford had also taken a liking to fillies, and one of the Keeneland yearlings that he fancied most was a good-looking daughter of Deputy Minister out of Cagey Exuberance, a multiple stakes-winner who earned $765,017 in her days at the races. McGee, Wolford's trainer, was in the bidding until it slopped. He called Wolford at once. "We bought that Deputy Minister filly," McGee told him. "$200,000."