Bills' owner Ralph Wilson passes away

There are only 32 cities in the world privileged enough to have a National Football League franchise.

Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the man solely responsible for Buffalo's inclusion in that highly elite fraternity, died today at the age of 95 .

Voted by The Buffalo News as Western New York's "Top Sports Figure" in the past millennium, and described once by a writer as the "conscience of the NFL," Wilson leaves behind a legacy nearly unrivaled in professional sports franchise ownership.

For more than a half century he operated the Bills out of small-market Buffalo, and for portions of that time he did so even when the economic climate in the league, as well as the country, made it difficult.

While the Bills have not been successful on the field in the last decade, they have continued to draw sellout crowds to the stadium in Orchard Park that bears Wilson's name, and during his ownership the franchise won two American Football League championships (1964-65) and, after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, four consecutive American Football Conference championships (1990-93).

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 – just the fourth owner so honored since 1972 —Wilson stands beside eight other men with ties to his Bills enshrined in Canton, Ohio: O.J. Simpson, Billy Shaw, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Joe DeLamielleure, James Lofton, Marv Levy and Bruce Smith. Former receiver Andre Reed is scheduled to be inducted this summer.

Wilson was called many things during his nine-plus decades on this earth, but perhaps the most endearing was being called a fool.

That's what the established National Football League, as well as many in the national media, thought Wilson and seven other wealthy businessmen were — fools — when they started the American Football League in 1959.

At a time in America when baseball was far and away the No. 1 sport and the country's self-described national pastime, it was thought to be foolish for Wilson and his cohorts — who were ultimately dubbed The Foolish Club — to fathom starting a new football league when the NFL was struggling to gain its foothold.

However, Wilson and Texas oil-man Lamar Hunt saw pro football growing in popularity thanks in part to the 1958 NFL Championship Game which Baltimore won in overtime over the New York Giants.

They felt the landscape was ripe for expansion of the NFL from its then 12-team alliance, but both men were repeatedly rebuffed by short-sighted NFL officials, so they did the only thing they could: Forge ahead with their own entity, and plans were finalized for a new eight-team league to begin operating in time for the 1960 season.

Teams were established in major markets such as New York, Boston, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles, and Wilson originally wanted to set up his shop in Miami because he wintered in south Florida and had many connections there, though not as many as he thought.

Politicians as well as University of Miami officials steadfastly opposed the proposed AFL team occupying the Orange Bowl, a deal could not be struck, and with nowhere to play, Wilson considered telling Hunt to move forward without him.

But Wilson, who was a part owner of his hometown Detroit Lions, could not let go of his dream of owning his own team. Hunt told him cities such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Louisville were all interested in having a team and the other owners would support whatever decision he made.

Buffalo only became a consideration when two of Wilson's Detroit cronies implored him to check out the rust belt city on the other side of Lake Erie.

"I said to both of them, 'Even if you were goofy enough to go into a new speculative pro football league and buck the established NFL, which of these five cities would you pick?' " Wilson said in an interview several years ago.

"They both said Buffalo and when I asked why, they said that Buffalo had good attendance in the All-America Conference (a league that played from 1946-49), it was a good football city, an industrial city similar to Detroit on a smaller scale. And Buffalo had been without football for 10 years and wanted it back, so that was their choice."

Soon it became Wilson's choice.

On Monday, Oct. 17, 1959, Buffalo Evening News sports editor Paul Neville wrote a story with a headline that read: "Buffalo to Have Team in Pro Football League Next Fall."

"We didn't know if this league was going to go, the odds were certainly against it and everyone was laughing at me," said Wilson, who promised to stay in Buffalo three years to see if he could make a go of it. "But after the three years were up, I decided to stay."

And he never left. Of the eight original Foolish Club members, he is the only one who kept his team in its original city.

More than 50 years later, though he had numerous opportunities to move the Bills and tap into richer revenue streams in larger cities, Wilson stayed true to Buffalo. His dedication to the city is one of the reasons why he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 17, 1918 and moved with his family to Detroit when he was a youngster. He attended the University of Virginia and later attended law school at the University of Michigan before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He earned his commission within a year and served aboard minesweepers in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

After the war ended he took over the successful insurance business of his father and invested in Michigan area mines and factories. He eventually purchased several manufacturing outlets, construction firms, and radio stations, and founded Ralph Wilson Industries.

Although he made his fortune in the business world, the Bills were always Wilson's No. 1 love. For most of his tenure as owner he attended all of the games, home and away, and only in last few years did he skip games, usually because the travel became too cumbersome for him.

His commitment to Buffalo, sometimes overlooked by fans of the team who often felt he was unwilling to pay for a winning product, came as no surprise to his fellow owners. Not once did he ever vote "yes" for a franchise relocation because he always believed teams owed it to their fans to make things work.

During the AFL years, Wilson was one of the most influential men in the league. Not only did he build one of its strongest teams, he also played a vital role behind the scenes in some of the most important of pro football's history-shaping events.

The Oakland franchise was about to go bankrupt before Wilson loaned owner Wayne Valley $400,000 in exchange for 25 percent ownership. The money was paid back a few years later after the Raiders had become solvent. He also lent money to Boston Patriots' owner Billy Sullivan to help his franchise stay operational during the nascent years.

Wilson helped the AFL procure its first big-time television contract in 1964, a deal NBC paid each club $900,000 annually.

When it became obvious at that point that the AFL was going to be a worthy competitor for the NFL, the NFL began to consider a merger with the upstart league. Wilson was chosen to negotiate with Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and they laid the groundwork for the historic union that started the ball rolling on the NFL becoming the most popular sports league in the world.

In 1970, Wilson's dream of owning an NFL franchise was realized when the Bills and the other seven AFL teams began playing in the NFL. And over the next four decades Wilson was an active member of the ownership group and he chaired committees relating to issues on pensions, labor, Super Bowl sites, expansion and realignment.

He was a key voice on the NFL's Management Council and his work with that group helped the NFL avoid a players' strike in 1977.

Wilson was instrumental in creating a revenue sharing pool that helped make the landmark 1993 collective bargaining agreement with the players possible. And in 2006, he and Cincinnati's Mike Brown were the only two owners who voted against the extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement because it was clear that it would hurt small-market teams. In 2008, the owners saw Wilson's wisdom and they decided to opt out of the CBA.

Philanthropically, Wilson was also a champion.

• He established the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation which has contributed more than $10 million to high risk/high impact biomedical research.

• He contributed $100,000 to the development of Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Athletic Field for the NFL Youth Education Town Center in Detroit;

• He helped procure grants totaling nearly $500,000 for Buffalo-area athletics fields;

• Among the benefactors of Wilson's charitable endeavors are food banks of Buffalo and Rochester, Ronald McDonald House, the United Way, the S.P.C.A, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Shea's Performing Arts Center and the Hospice Center of Western New York.

• He has also been a strong supporter of education and established scholarship programs at a number of colleges. At St. John Fisher College, home of the Bills' summer training camp since 2000, he helped fund a building that houses the College of Education which is named in his honor.


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