By JOHN WAWROW, Associated Press
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Retired NFL safety Coy Wire says he was part of a small group of Buffalo Bills players who pooled money on a weekly basis and rewarded themselves for hurting opponents during his rookie season in 2002.
Though the Bills were at that time coached by Gregg Williams, Wire insists the "pay-for-play pool" was solely player-driven.
"It wasn't a whole team thing. It was just some guys that took things too far," Wire told The Associated Press by phone Thursday. "We rewarded each other for that, and that was wrong. That was crossing the line."
In a story published by The Buffalo News on Sunday, Wire told the paper there was an environment of "malicious intent" in place when he arrived. He also said that when a player made a big hit that hurt an opponent, "it was commended and encouraged."
Still, he said Thursday, financial compensation for big hits — which he says he never received — came only through the players.
Wire spoke in the wake of an NFL investigation that last week revealed Williams ran a bounty pool of up to $50,000 during his three seasons as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator. The money would be used to reward Saints players for knocking targeted opponents out of games.
The league is currently investigating whether Williams, now the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator, ran similar schemes at his previous stops, including Buffalo.
Wire said no.
"What happened in Buffalo was nowhere close to what has been discussed in New Orleans," he said. "The players got the pot and dished out the pot. Never at any point did coach Williams or any other coach stand up and put a bounty on any particular player."
Bills CEO Russ Brandon issued a statement last weekend saying the team was unaware of any type of bounty program during Williams' tenure, and would not have tolerated it.
Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have apologized and accepted the blame for rule violations that took place in New Orleans, while vowing that it will never happen again. The league investigation found that Payton, though not directly involved in the bounty pool, was aware of it but did nothing to stop it.
On Thursday, former Saints pass rusher Anthony Hargrove released a statement to SI.com following up on a Sports Illustrated article that noted Hargrove's rough play and tough talk in the NFC championship following the 2009 season.
Hargrove, who was fined $5,000 for a late hit on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and reportedly celebrated after Favre sustained a sprained ankle, said both the hit and his comments were mistakes but were unconnected with the bounty issue.
Williams, who has apologized for running the bounty system for the Saints, spent three years as the Bills head coach before being fired after the 2003 season.
Wire regrets being involved in the pool, which he says lasted only one season in Buffalo. He added that he's now ashamed he didn't speak out against it at the time.
"I was a young, dumb rookie," Wire said. "I wish I had the wits about me and was strong enough to realize that, 'You know what, guys, this isn't right.' I wish I would've stood up then but I didn't. And that's why I'm speaking about it."
Wire spent his first six seasons with the Bills and then three more in Atlanta. He was cut by the Falcons before the start of last season and now considers himself retired.
Wire wouldn't divulge who else was involved in the pool in Buffalo.
He said there were two separate pools running among Bills defensive players. One was a general pool that rewarded players for making positive plays such as interceptions, forcing fumbles or sacks. The other was limited to a select few players, who each week would ante up money, which would be distributed for hurting players.
"There was no set amount, it just depended on the pot, and depended on the game," Wire said.
What particularly bothers Wire now is that he was the Falcons union representative and played a role in helping negotiate last year's collective bargaining agreement, which focused heavily on player safety issues.
As a result of football-related injuries, Wire has four screws holding a titanium plate in his neck, has two fused vertebrae, and has since learned he has two more herniated discs.