Ralph Wilson: Remembering the Buffalo Bills Owner, Founder and NFL Pioneer

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Ralph Wilson: Remembering the Buffalo Bills Owner, Founder and NFL Pioneer
Don Heupel/AP Images

It's been a very sad week in Western New York.

Only a few days after news broke that Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was once again battling cancer, the Buffalo Bills and their fans have lost the only owner the team has ever known.

As NFL.com and numerous other outlets reported, Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills back in 1959, passed away Tuesday, March 25, at the age of 95:

Wilson was many things. A successful businessman. A World War II veteran. A devoted husband and father to three daughters, one of whom would go on to become the first female scout in NFL history.

He was also one of a handful of men who changed the course of the NFL forever.

Bills team president Russ Brandon issued a statement about Wilson's passing on the team's official site:

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.

Mr. Wilson had a relentless passion, a deep love for his Buffalo Bills, the City of Buffalo and the National Football League. He also loved the Bills fans and all of the people of Western New York who embraced the Bills.

The condolences also poured in from across the league. They came from other teams:

They came from current Bills players:

Former Bills players:

And sportswriters from around the country:

It's not hard to see why, given Wilson's impact on the NFL over the past five-and-a-half decades.

Born in 1918 in Columbus, Ohio, Wilson was raised in Detroit. After attending the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan Law School, Wilson enlisted in the United States Navy, serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters in World War II.

After the war, Wilson took over his father's insurance company. He then began investing in and later purchasing several area manufacturing companies and factories under the umbrella of Ralph Wilson Industries.

Wilson also bought a minority stake in the Detroit Lions. Then, in the late '50s, Wilson caught wind that oil tycoon Lamar Hunt was in the process of forming a new professional football league.

The American Football League.

Wilson tried to pitch the AFL on a team in Miami, but the city turned him down. Wilson then set his sights on Western New York, and just like that, the Bills were born:

However, Wilson was much more than just another owner in the AFL. He was a proponent of policies such as gate and revenue sharing that were critical to the AFL's early success. As Leo Roth of the Democrat and Chronicle relayed, Wilson was the first AFL owner to cancel a game following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:

It was Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson who did grasp the magnitude of the moment. According to the book Relentless, by my colleague Sal Maiorana, Wilson was the first AFL owner to call off a game in the wake of JFK's death and his fellow owners each followed suit.

"The assassination of President Kennedy is a tragic loss to the United States and the world," Wilson said. "My heartfelt sympathies go out to Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy family. Out of deep respect to the President's memory, the Buffalo Bills game with the Boston Patriots is definitely postponed and I am recommending postponement of all other games."

The NFL played its games that week, a decision commissioner Pete Rozelle would later call one of the biggest mistakes of his tenure.

Oh, and Wilson may well have single-handedly kept the AFL from folding:

It wasn't just the Oakland Raiders, either. As Sports by Brooks reported back in 2009, the book The Birth of the New NFL by Larry Felser tells the story of Wilson doing the same for the (then) Boston Patriots. "They were very rocky and probably about to close business," Felser wrote, "and Ralph lent the owner Billy Sullivan a great deal of money to keep the team afloat.”

That's two teams, with a combined six Super Bowl wins between them, who might never have played a single game in the NFL were it not for Wilson.

In fact, the AFL can make a claim not even the NFL can: At no time during the league's history did a single franchise fold. If one had, it very well could have set off a chain reaction that would have crippled the league.

The AFL-NFL merger, and the league we know today, would not exist were it not for Ralph Wilson.

Wilson's Bills advanced to three straight AFL title games, from 1964-66 (winning two), but post-merger it would be quite a while before the team saw much success in the NFL.

From 1970 to 1987, the Bills made the playoffs only three times, winning just a single postseason game.

However, in 1986, Wilson hired Marv Levy as head coach and lured Kelly away from the USFL. It marked the beginning of the "K-Gun" Bills who would dominate the AFC in the late '80s and early '90s.

Propelled by an uptempo offense that was ahead of its time, the Bills made the playoffs eight times in nine years from 1988-96. From 1990-93, the Bills won four consecutive AFC titles, the only team in NFL history to win four conference championship games in a row.

Yes, the Bills lost all four of those Super Bowls, but it was still a remarkable run.

Even as the Bills faded back into mediocrity as the new millennium dawned, Wilson's influence among NFL owners remained strong.

Wilson and Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals were the only two owners who voted against extending the league's collective bargaining agreement back in 2006.

As Gary Myers of The New York Daily News reported, Wilson didn't like the deal for the owners, especially the small-market ones:

I'm upset about the whole deal and the way it was presented. And 59.5% [for the players] is far too much money for the whole league, not just Buffalo.

...

I came into this game 50 years ago because I enjoyed the game of pro football. Not to make money. In those days, everybody was hoping to break even. We lost money for a number of years. I am really not into the game to make money, but I would like to break even or make a little.

Just two years later, the other owners agreed, opting out of the CBA. That, in turn, led to the 2011 lockout and the much more team-friendly CBA that exists today.

In 2009, Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, stating at his induction, "It has been a grand ride for me and tonight is the high point."

The international expansion that commissioner Roger Goodell is so over-the-moon about nowadays? Wilson has been a big player on that front as well, with the Bills playing a "home" game in Toronto every year since 2008.

Of course, those Toronto games got Wilson into hot water with some. With the economy in blue-collar Buffalo hurting and the Bills stuck in one of the NFL's smallest TV markets, some see the Toronto games as the precursor to a more permanent move north of the border.

However, with the Bills postponing the 2014 Toronto game for one year while they "collectively evaluate opportunities and build on the foundation to enhance future games," (per the Bills' website), a full-time move to Ontario appears unlikely, at least for now.

That's not to say a move is out of the question. As Emily Lenihan of WIVB-TV reports, Wilson was clear when asked why he never searched for the greener pastures of a bigger market.

“I’m interested in winning some games," Wilson said. "I’m not interested in sitting in the kitchen counting $5 bills.”

The Bills haven't won a playoff game in two decades, and with the team ranked as the NFL's third-least valuable, according to Forbes, it's uncertain if Wilson's heirs feel the same, especially since the sale of the team would net upward of a billion dollars.

However, that's a set of problems for another day. This day should be equal parts mourning and celebration, as the flags fly at half-staff above the stadium that bears his name.

Because in Ralph Wilson, the NFL, the Bills and Western New York lost a great one.

 

 

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