David Duprey/AP
David Duprey/AP

R.I.P. Ralph Wilson

He was the most important person in the history of sports in Buffalo and a leader in the NFL becoming what it is today. But more than that, Bills owner Ralph Wilson was a world-class human being and he will be missed

ORLANDO, Fla. — I’ll always have two enduring memories of Ralph Wilson.

One: In 2009, I visited Wilson, 90, at his home outside Detroit to discuss a story about the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the American Football League. He was an original owner, and one of only two still breathing. I asked him what made him keep the franchise in western New York. This was a man not from Buffalo, and watched during his ownership of the Bills as Buffalo dropped from the 18th-largest market in America to 49th, and resisted feelers and offers to sell the team for a monstrous profit or to move the franchise to a lucrative market—Los Angeles, for instance.

“I couldn’t bear to do that to the people of Buffalo,’’ he said. “They’re such good people, and they love that team. They need that team.”

Two: Well, two will have to wait a few paragraphs.

* * *

Wilson died Tuesday at 95 at home in suburban Detroit. “Peacefully,’’ said Bills president Russ Brandon. You want the definition of a “league guy?” Wilson was it. When I asked commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday night for his favorite story about Wilson, he thought for a few moments and told this one:

When the stalled negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement were at a touch-and-go point in the spring of 2011, Wilson called Goodell and asked if he could speak to the Labor Committee. Goodell got all 10 owners in the group, a bit dispirited by the grind of the negotiations with the players, on a call with Wilson.

“You’ve got to stay the course,’’ Wilson told them. “You’ve got to do what’s best for the league. Do what’s best for all 32 teams.”

It was, said committee member Art Rooney of the Steelers, “a great pep talk.”

Ralph Wilson founded the Buffalo Bills in 1959, paying a sum of $25,000 to join the AFL. (David Duprey/AP)
Ralph Wilson founded the Buffalo Bills in 1959, paying a sum of $25,000 to join the AFL. (David Duprey/AP)

I’ll always think Wilson earned his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 for being that league guy. Buffalo never had a major-league team until Wilson paid $25,000 in 1959 to found the Buffalo Bills of the AFL. He would have loved to own the NFL team in Detroit, but the Ford family had that market, and so Wilson, who loved football, settled for an AFL team. He was one of eight members of AFL ownership, a group that became known as the “Foolish Club.’’ Because pro football wasn’t the best business in those days, and few thought there was an appetite for two football leagues. A foolish investment, many thought … particularly when Wilson had to subsidize one of the teams in the league with a $400,000 loan in 1962. That team was Oakland. Imagine the Oakland Raiders folding. Imagine the Raiders not getting resuscitated. That’d be like telling the history of rock music without the Rolling Stones. Without Wilson’s intervention, the Raiders might have been a Polaroid memory, a modern-day Providence Steam Roller.

In 1996, angry that Art Modell was abandoning Cleveland, Wilson was one of two owners to vote against the move of the Browns to Baltimore. He never voted in favor of a franchise relocation. He said owning a sports team isn’t like owning a car dealership. If the car dealership founders, it can be closed and consumers will find another place to purchase cars. But an NFL team—that’s a public trust. He bled with the fans over the past 15 years, since the end of the Bills’ greatness, and though they were frustrated he couldn’t produce another winner, the fans loved him for not moving. When I talked to Bills fans at a preseason tailgate in 2012, one of them had a T-shirt that said, “In Ralph We Trust’’ … despite the fact the franchise was on a 12-year run (now 14) of not making the playoffs.

Wilson refused to be a rubber stamp. In 2006, he was one of two owners to vote against a labor deal he found too complex. He wasn’t one to pal around with his fellow owners at league meetings, but he believed strongly in what was good for one had to be good for all.

Though not hands on with many league matters, Wilson drove some of his coaches and GMs batty over the years. It was common for a coach and GM to take off on Wilson’s private plane early in the morning, jet to Detroit, spend three hours briefing Wilson on current events, then jet back to work in Buffalo. He was peeved his team could never recapture the greatness of the Jim Kelly K-Gun Bills that won four straight AFC championships, and his impatience wore some staffers thin. In the 20 years since Buffalo’s last Super Bowl appearance, the Bills have plodded through seven coaching regimes.

One of the reasons I always liked speaking to Wilson: You were going to get his version of the truth. Unvarnished.

His players did like him a lot, particularly in retrospect. But Wilson never was afraid to let loose with a barrage of criticism, of coaches or players or GMs, if he felt it was warranted. In 1997, Bruce Smith was holding out in a contract dispute, and he got so ticked off because he said he’d re-done his contract the previous year to help the team clear some salary-cap space. When I mentioned that to Wilson, he exploded. “Baloney!” Wilson said. “This idea that Bruce did us a grandiose favor by redoing his contract is nonsense. Look, Bruce Smith is the best defensive end I’ve ever seen. He’s been paid well over the years. It just so happens that our review of his contract and his review were about as far apart as this football field. I can’t adjust my contract structure because of what Derrick Thomas gets, or because of what some owner in Albuquerque pays his guy.’’

Can you imagine an owner today saying that stuff on the record? That’s one of the reasons I always liked speaking to Wilson. You were going to get his version of the truth. Unvarnished.

As for the future of the Bills, that’s up in the air. Wilson never wanted to saddle his estate with his wishes; he wanted to sell the team so a new group could determine whether it belonged in Buffalo or elsewhere. The sad irony, bitterly sad to Buffalo, is that Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly—who lies in a Manhattan hospital bed today awaiting a crucial surgery in his battle against cancer—is one of those men who wanted to put a group together to buy the Bills and keep them in western New York. Now he’s got other priorities.

Wilson, simply, was the most important figure in the history of sports in Buffalo. He had a heart, too.

* * *

Wilson in 1970 (NFL Photos/AP)
Wilson in 1970 (NFL Photos/AP)

Now for the second memory I’ll always have of Wilson. I was never particularly close to Wilson, though I talked to him several times a year and enjoyed his independent ways. And I am always uncomfortable when professional stuff crosses the line into the personal, but sometimes it does. It just does.

In 2010, my brother Bob died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bike one day near his home in Connecticut. I wrote about it in my Monday Morning Quarterback column when I got back to work, and Wilson, after reading my tribute, wrote me a tremendously warm three-page handwritten letter about what a special person Bob must have been.

Wilson did something else. He wrote to my sister-in-law, Bob’s widow, and sent her a check for $10,000 for the college fund of her two children. I was speechless, which is rare. Then I found out about his $11 million in funding of medical research in Buffalo, largely in the cancer area, and his endowed scholarships at Canisius College and his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and the education building he funded at the summer home of the Bills, St. John Fisher College outside Rochester.

The NFL lost the last of the AFL owners Tuesday, an independent thinker and conscience of the league. America lost a good man.

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20 comments
RosaNosabe
RosaNosabe

"He never voted in favor of a franchise relocation. He said owning a sports team isn’t like owning a car dealership. If the car dealership founders, it can be closed and consumers will find another place to purchase cars. But an NFL team—that’s a public trust."

As a fan of another small market team that is constantly bugged with relocation rumors, I admire Mr. Wilson's heart for the fans and how he sees it as more than a mere business entity. Great guy. RIP, Mr. Wilson. 

67raiders
67raiders

I became a Raiders fan when the Bills traded by favorite, Daryle Lamonica to them. At then 11 years old, I almost got killed for my loud cheering at the old rock pile (War Memorial Stadium) when he hung six first half TDs on the Bills in '67 on the way to the SuperBowl. Since, I count both as my teams equally. The memories that have flooded back, remembering the AFL and the Bills, are pure joy. The Buffalo fans, and Mr. Wilson represent better days in many ways. Loyalty. Honesty. Perseverance. Never Say Die. (Rock) Salt of the earth. God bless America, the Buffalo Bills fans, Mr. Wilson and especially Jim Kelly.

rohnjaymiller
rohnjaymiller

God I wish you had more stories to tell about Ralph Wilsons that still own teams in the league.  Why is it when great people die, so often we lose the special power and integrity they brought?  Okay, money is money, but it has to fuel excellence no matter how small our fortunes are.  Thanks for telling the story of Ralph Wilson as you met him.

FerdBerfel
FerdBerfel

A great piece about a good owner who genuinely cared about the people in the city his team represents, even though he never lived there.  Ralph Wilson was far from perfect, but his legacy will be that he never turned his back on Buffalo for greener pastures elsewhere.  In this day and age, that's become a rare quality.

As a postscript, I hope that in Wilson's absence, the Bills will remain in Buffalo.  This is a team that has had more hard times than good ones over 50+ seasons, yet still averaged over 66,000 per game in attendance in what is now considered a tiny market (by NFL standards).  By allowing teams to move from great football cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, the NFL has shown it really doesn't care that much about fans when it gets down to it, but fans who support their team through thick and thin DO deserve consideration.

Phroggo
Phroggo

People like Ralph Wilson who should be, and are, in the Hall of Fame underscore why people like Art Modell should not be, and aren't. 

Mark20
Mark20

Based on Wilson's pic on the main SI NFL page, I think they should rename the team the Buffalo Vampire Bats.

TomCurrent
TomCurrent

Obviously you have no clue what a pedophile is.  Joe Paterno erred in judgement, without a doubt.  He did not, however, commit any crime against a child himself.  Therefore he can not be a pedophile. It's called reading comprehension and clearly you missed it in school.


Also, try having a little class.  This is an article about a classy, selfless man that has just passed away.  This is not place for you to spew your personal bias against another individual that has passed and cannot defend himself.  


People like wetmouse make me sick and sad for the future of this country.  

wetmouse
wetmouse

You don't have the right to give ANYONE a tribute so long as you continue to defend former Pedophile State Nittany Liars head coach JoePedo. You really need to apologize to all child-rape victims before you dish out any honors.

You are a disgrace, Peter King!

CharlieCummins
CharlieCummins

Great job on the article by a fellow Bobcat.
"Stand up and cheer,
Cheer loud and long for Ralph Wilson."

Delegator
Delegator

As a Bills fan born and raised, Mr. Wilson was at times infuriating. The team's complaints about being a small market team with fewer revenue sources contrasted with the unwillingness to make a few million bucks per year by selling the stadium naming rights is just one example.


But, Mr. Wilson has my enduring respect as an owner. If I had to point to one event that sealed it for me, it was his vote against the relocation of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Being willing to take a stand, despite Art Modell being a long time friend, and do what was right for the fans of Cleveland, showed that Ralph had principles that extended beyond money.


Now the future of the team is very uncertain. It is not clear who would be willing to buy the team and keep it in Buffalo when other more lucrative markets beckon. Whatever happens, it is pretty certain that the future won't be as stable as the last 5+ decades.

raider0072
raider0072

Not a Peter King fan but very well written.  just remember Buffalo, all of Us original for real American Football Leaguer fans and lovers are right there with ya.  And we are there with Jim and His family too.  We are the original American Football League family!.  Not many can truthfully say that!

Mike R
Mike R

Thanks, Peter. RIP Ralph.

TW99
TW99

Everything you've written and tweeted the past two days about Mr. Wilson and Jim Kelly has brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for capturing what a good man Mr Wilson was and sharing how he touched your life. The people of Western NY thank you.

PaulyD
PaulyD

I have always followed you and loved what you write, but that this may be the best yet Mr. King.  Well done!

#buffalove!

AnthonyAveyard
AnthonyAveyard

RIP Ralph and thank you. ...no telling what the NFL would look like today if you AFLers hadn't rolled the dice .

( Bravo Pk ... I may not agree with everything you type out  - but on the important stuff there's nobody better )

67raiders
67raiders

@wetmouse Your screen name says it all --- a puny, matted, foul smelling, cowardly vermin plagued rodent with no contribution to society other than to consume garbage and crap it back out in pellets and spread disease.  

Ray1950
Ray1950

@wetmouse  How dare you!  How dare you take the words Peter wrote about a great man in Ralph Wilson and turn them into another rant on your favorite subject. You are beneath contempt and you more than anyone else, have no right to decide who can and can't write a tribute to Buffalo's legendary owner.

Bob Smith3
Bob Smith3

@Delegator Wilson was so upset that the Browns moved from Cleveland he designated one home game a year during Cleveland's absence from the NFL as "Browns Day" at a Buffalo home game. The stadium was decked out in Browns colors, and Dwag Pound fans were in the end zone. I'm a homegrown Bills fan, and I was never any prouder of our owner. If the Bills move, I have no doubt that I will be come a Browns fan,

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