In August 1978, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided wide receiver Frank Lewis was too old at 31, too slow and too tired of playing in the shadows of first Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, then newcomer Jim Smith. So they traded Lewis to the Buffalo Bills for tight end Paul Seymour.
Four National Football League seasons later, with the Bills taking on the New York Jets Sunday in the AFC wild-card playoff game, folks in Buffalo still laugh over what has to be considered a steal. In his first three seasons there, the 6-foot, 196-pound Lewis caught 135 passes for 2,465 yards and 15 touchdowns. In seven so-so years with the Steelers, he caught 128 passes for 2,086 yards and 16 touchdowns.
A No. 1 draft pick out of Grambling State in 1971, Lewis now is having his finest season: 70 catches for 1,244 yards, both club records. He has been selected all-pro for the first time. Not bad for a 34-year-old who doesn't have great speed or size.
Lewis, who played at Grambling with San Diego receiver Charley Joiner and quarterback Jimmy Harris, welcomed the trade from Pittsburgh.
"I would never say Pittsburgh gave up on me, but I was ready for a change," Lewis said from his home in Buffalo. "I never had a role in Pittsburgh where I had to make a lot of catches. I was never the main receiver in Pittsburgh. We didn't throw that much. I didn't know where I wanted to go, so Buffalo was as good as anywhere else. I had my mind made up I would give my best regardless of where I went. I would have preferred a warmer climate, though.
"When I came here, I didn't speculate on what the offense would be like. I just didn't know what to expect. I just came to play. If we ran the ball a lot, fine. If we threw the ball, fine.
"In our offense, (quarterback) Joe (Ferguson) spreads the ball around. Jerry (Butler) has a bunch of catches (56) and Joe (Cribbs) has some (40). I'm glad we threw as much as we did. I've always believed in myself. I'm the same size I was in college and I haven't lost that many steps.
"I felt I had a good year, and I would have to say I think I deserved to be all-pro this season. Sometimes you think you're having a good year and don't get much attention. Other times, you get attention when you don't think you're doing that well. Either way, you can't let it stop you from playing your best."
When Lewis arrived in Buffalo, Chuck Knox had just been hired as coach.
"Frank is a smooth, fluid athlete with deceptive speed," Knox said. "He runs without much effort. He looks like he isn't going that fast and, suddenly, he's by you."
Lewis showed a bit of flash during the Bills' 16-6 loss in Miami Saturday. Running an out pattern, he one-handed a high pass before two-stepping out of bounds. It was his 69th catch this season, tying the club mark. Later, he caught No. 70.
But no game balls were presented, no standing ovations given, no high fives came from teammates. But then, Lewis is used to the lack of attention.
"I had no idea about any records going into the game," he said. "We were just trying to win a championship. That was all that mattered that day. Hey, it's nice though.
"It's just nice being on a team where the passes are spread around. Fortunately, I was on the end of a lot of them."
Unquestionably, Lewis will be on the receiving end of as many passes as Ferguson can get to him Sunday in Shea Stadium.
Ferguson is elated to have Lewis to throw to.
"Frank's consistent and hard to beat," the quarterback said. "You know where he's going to be when you need him."
Like most good receivers, Lewis refuses to name his all-time (beatable) defensive backs.
"If they're in the NFL, they can play and they've gone through a lot to get here," Lewis said. "I have gained respect for all of them. They do their homework, too. Sometimes you can beat them, other times they do a good job on you. I'm not the speedster Butler is; I know my limitations. But to keep defensive backs honest, you have to run deep patterns a few times a game. Regardless of what kinds of patterns you run, you can't beat them every time."
Still, beating them Sunday on national television would bring him further out of the obscurity that was Pittsburgh.