Wilson's Death Hits Hard For The Most Loyal Bills Fans

BUFFALO - Dick Zolnowski had a heart attack in October of 1983, just before Monday Night Football at Rich Stadium. It was terrible timing.

For the first time in two decades, only because of a life-threatening ailment, he missed a Buffalo Bills home game. Zolnowski gave his seats to his daughter. The Bills lost 34-10 to the New York Jets.

And then he never missed a game again.

"But we got creamed," Zolnowski said, "so it wasn't a bad game to miss."

For record-keeping purposes, that's 44 years as a season ticket holder for Zolnowski, now the President of the Buffalo Bills Booster Club. One missed game. Booster Club Vice President Donald Bartz has a perfect attendance record since 1960 – "not planned, but done," he says. Every fan base has a Dick Zolnowski and a Donald Bartz, but the Bills have more than most. Dozens of booster club members, many as dedicated and invested in the franchise as their president and vice president, crammed into Danny's South restaurant in Orchard Park on Tuesday for their first regularly-scheduled meeting of the year.

But it began differently than all other meetings, because just hours earlier, they lost the man who eventually became the namesake of the stadium down the street. With a moment of silence, they said goodbye to Ralph Wilson, the omnipresent owner who created the Buffalo Bills and kept them in Western New York for all to enjoy.

"We knew it was coming," Zolnowski said, "but it still hits you."

"I don't know," Bartz said at a loss for words, holding back tears. "He was just a great guy."

Danny's South is a perfect spot for the Buffalo Bills Booster Club. Before his health began to deteriorate, Wilson used to visit Danny's and order the same thing on the menu every time: the tuna melt, but no chips, no pickle, even though they came with the meal.

"He never wavered from the Tuna Melt," said Lois Day, an employee at Danny's. "So we just decided to go ahead and name it after him."

Now, you can order a Ralph Wilson Tuna Melt from Danny's menu, and you can order chips and a pickle if you're so inclined. Day also recalled a day several years ago at the restaurant when she began chatting with a few season ticket holders, who told her they actually lived in Virginia and commuted to every Bills game. That struck her as hardcore, so she fetched Wilson from the back room, where he was enjoying his own meal.

"He said, 'where are they? Take me out there,'" Day remembered. "He shook their hands, took a picture with them."

"It's just kind of how he was."

Zolnowski met Ralph Wilson briefly on multiple occasions, but his greatest Wilson memory came in the mail. Twelve years ago, when he turned 60, his wife wrote letters to prominent sports figures in search of a birthday present for her husband.

Ralph Wilson was one of them, and he responded with a hand-written note and a hat, which he autographed himself. Zolnowski wore it on Tuesday.

"He took time to talk to the common person," Zolnowski said. "A man of his stature, took the time to write me a note? That's the kind of man he was."

Wilson was no stranger to fan tailgates, either. Once, before the opening game of the season, he showed up at Bartz's tailgate in a golf cart.

"I was wearing, at the time, a Lee Evans jersey. He got out of the cart and he says, 'you, can you run as fast as Lee?' I said, 'no sir, I cannot!'" Bartz said. "He just wanted to be with the crowd."

But as his age crept up on him, his interactions with fans began to dwindle. His stops into Danny's South became less frequent.

Eventually, they stopped altogether.

"The last three or four years, we hadn't seen him, which was sad," Day said. "And before that, you could kind of see him slow down."

"It's a sad day. It really is."


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