By Paul Post, The Saratogian POSTED: 09/17/14, 3:43 PM EDT
GLENS FALLS >> Bill Costen spent years trying to reach the NFL in the brutal, violence-filled world of a defensive lineman.
It’s a far cry from the peaceful, quiet serenity he enjoys floating among the clouds as a pioneering hot-air balloon pilot.
Costen, 67, a former Buffalo Bills player, is making his 39th consecutive visit to the Adirondack Balloon Festival that kicks off at 5 p.m. Thursday at Crandall Park in Glens Falls.
“As a defensive tackle, I was always avoiding pulling offensive guards, and as a balloon pilot I’m always avoiding power lines,” joked Costen, America’s first commercial African-American balloonist. “My daughter, Chantal, is a videographer/editor for BET (Black Entertainment Television). She’s been filming a documentary on my life called ‘Sky Endeavors: The Story of a Black Balloonist.’
“I’ve always loved the Lake George area and the Adirondack Mountains at the beginning of the fall foliage season,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place to fly. Every balloonist has his own agenda. The thing I love most is watching a person’s expression on their first flight. That’s what I love most. Plus, I love sharing it with my crew.”
Bill Costen inflates his hot-air balloon, one of many taking part in the four-day Adirondack Balloon Festival that begins at 5 p.m. Thursday at Crandall Park in Glens Falls. Costen, a former Buffalo Bills football player, is the first African-American commercial balloon pilot in the country. This will be his 39th straight year taking part in the Adirondack festival, which runs through Sunday with six flights scheduled. For a schedule of events, go to www.adirondackballoonfest.org. SUBMITTED PHOTOs
The Hartford, Connecticut, resident has used his passion and an innate sense of humor to break down racial barriers and overcome the occasional prejudice he’s encountered.
“The football background helps because everybody’s a football fan,” he said. “I’ve taken up thousands of people. I think 99.9 percent were white. That’s mainly because black kids and black families have never been exposed to ballooning. They’ve never seen them.”
Most festivals and flights take place in rural areas or predominantly white suburbs, so pilots can reach outlying open spaces that are required for safe landings. One time, however, Costen lifted off from the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, made famous in the movie “Rocky,” and came down miles away on the edge of a Pennsylvania cornfield.
“Some young guys who were downtown when I took off followed the balloon,” he said. “They were asking for autographs when I came down because they knew I had played for the Bills.”
But the friendly, idyllic moment was marred when bigotry reared its ugly head. Off to the side, Costen noticed two white men glaring at him and overheard one say: “It’s bad enough we have to put up with them walking on the street. Now they’re dropping out of the sky.”
Costen just laughed, considered the source and let the ignorant comment vanish, like hot air escaping from the top of his balloon.
Fellow pilots have never been a problem, except once, when a white balloonist didn’t approve of Costen’s presence.
“But I’m 6-foot-5 and weighed 290 as a player,” Costen said. “There’s not much he could do about it.”
An Omaha native, he played for Morris Brown College in Georgia and was drafted by the Bills. In the first game of the 1970 preseason, he picked up a blocked punt and scored Buffalo’s only touchdown in a 20-7 loss to the Jets.
“So I was the Bills’ leading scorer for one week,” Costen said. “The next week, O.J. Simpson got a touchdown and we were tied.”
However, Buffalo cut Costen right before the regular season and sent him to play for their minor league team, the Hartford Knights. Practicing at night, he spent days learning the insurance industry and became a commercial property/casualty underwriter.
With an entrepreneurial spirit, he dreamed of starting his own business, but never realized the heights it would take him to, quite literally. A cousin, who noticed a Budweiser balloon while traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike, suggested starting a ballooning club and before long Costen had found his life’s passion.
In 1975, he created and designed “The State of Connecticut Bicentennial Balloon” and he’s flown at festivals and races all over the country.
In addition, he’s an accomplished photographer and is curator of the Costen Cultural Exhibit, one of the nation’s largest collections of African-American memorabilia, covering all aspects of life, from slavery to pro sports. Costen displays the project at schools, colleges, universities and corporate settings.
After getting cut by the Bills, Costen didn’t have a great deal of affection for the team.
“I’m more a fan of certain players that I’ve admired, guys like Dan Marino, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice,” he said.
But like anyone who has ever followed the Bills, he couldn’t help lamenting “Wide Right,” the famous missed field goal that cost Buffalo the 1991 Super Bowl, the first of four straight Super Bowl defeats.
“I really was mad at Wide Right,” Costen said. “I could have bragged that I was a Buffalo Bill.”