Iconic Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., one of the most influential executives in NFL history, has passed away at the age of 95.
Tim Graham of The Buffalo News had the report, citing Bills CEO and team president Russ Brandon:
Russ Brandon announces Ralph Wilson has died.— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) March 25, 2014
Bob Glauber of Newsday and Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated provided more from the Bills team president:
Bills team president Russ Brandon: "Nobody loved football more than Ralph Wilson."— Bob Glauber (@BobGlauber) March 25, 2014
Bills team president Russ Brandon, on verge of tears: "I talked to him every day. They don't make them like Ralph Wilson. They just don't."— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) March 25, 2014
The look in Russ Brandon's eyes was heartbreaking. A lot of love there.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) March 25, 2014
Brandon later made an official statement, via the team's official website. Here's an excerpt:
I speak for everyone within the Bills organization when I say that we are all suffering a deep and profound sadness with the passing of our Hall of Fame owner Mr. Wilson. We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Mary, his daughters Christy and Dee Dee (Edith), his niece Mary and his entire family. ...
... Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss. We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would. We understand our fans’ curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization and that will be addressed in the near future. But at this time, we are committed to honoring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the man who delivered NFL football to Buffalo.
Later, Bills general manager Doug Whaley spoke about Wilson (via Mike Rodak of ESPN):
He has set the foundation and laid the blueprint for us to build a winning organization. Mr. Wilson said it best "this is a people business." He cared about everyone -- from the security guards to the training staff to the players, coaches and management. We are a family and everybody matters. That is the blueprint Mr. Wilson put forth for us and I along with Russ Brandon and Doug Marrone subscribe to it whole-heartedly. We are all in this together as we move forward on this journey to getting the Bills back to being a consistent, competitive team competing for championships. We are all pointed in one direction and we will continue fighting to get to where we need to be.
Wilson was the longest-tenured owner at 54 years after Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams' passing in 2013. As one of the original founding owners of the American Football League, Wilson oversaw the merger between the NFL and AFL and was the last original owner from the AFL remaining.
NFL: AroundTheLeague passed along its condolences following the announcement of Wilson's passing:
RIP. One of the men that built the sport. RT @judybattista: Sad news here: Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, has died.— NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) March 25, 2014
During his tenure, Wilson saw both the rise and fall of the Bills organization. In the AFL, the Bills won two championships in both 1964 and 1965 before the league merged with the NFL in 1970.
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated shared a story about how Wilson helped another future NFL franchise stay alive prior to the two organizations joining forces:
Best Ralph Wilson story: In the early 1960s, he loaned the Raiders $400,000 so they could stay solvent and the AFL could survive.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) March 25, 2014
As for the success of his own franchise during his long career at the helm, Darren Rovell of ESPN noted the figures for the worth of the Bills over the course of his tenure:
Ralph Wilson bought the Buffalo Bills for $25,000 in 1959 ($200K in today's $). Today, the team is worth nearly $900 million.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) March 25, 2014
Following the merger, Wilson helped improve the team over the years, peaking with four straight AFC championships from 1990 through 1993. Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 thanks to a storied career with the team.
The Bills shared this image of Wilson along with his four AFC Championship trophies, via their Instagram:
While the news of Wilson's passing is heartbreaking for the Bills' community, organization and fanbase, Bryan Fischer of NFL.com points out that it comes on the heels of another tough story for Buffalo fans to take:
Between Jim Kelly’s cancer news and Ralph Wilson passing away, it’s been a rough, rough week for Buffalo.— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) March 25, 2014
With the passing of Wilson, the Bills will now have to move forward without one of the most legendary owners in NFL history. Unfortunately, the fate of the franchise now appears to be up in the air and unknown.
Over the course of his tenure, Wilson fought to keep the Bills in Buffalo despite the recent streak of unsuccessful seasons for the franchise. Following his death, Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post reports that speculation will now begin to heat up as to whether the team remains in its original home:
Bills owner Ralph Wilson has passed away. The speculation about the team's future in Buffalo will now kick into high gear.— Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP) March 25, 2014
Wilson's passing is an unfortunate one for the entire NFL. After all that he's done for the team and league's growth since the days of the AFL, he will be remembered as both a great person and owner.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter.