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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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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.