ORLANDO, Fla. — Ralph C. Wilson Jr., founding owner of the Buffalo Bills and one of the most resolute yet respected leaders in NFL history, died Tuesday at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.
He was 95. A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, Wilson had been in poor health for several years. Wheelchair bound after breaking a hip in 2012, he had attended only one Bills game over the past two seasons.
For 54 years Wilson was one of the most passionate, football-loving, down-to-earth owners in the pro game — throughout the existence of the American Football League, and since 1970 in the NFL.
Wilson played an integral role in the merger of the two pro leagues, which in the early and mid 1960s had despised one another.
Neither born nor raised in the Buffalo area, and never even a Buffalo resident, the Detroit-based Wilson nevertheless remained fiercely loyal to Western New York. He always vowed that the Bills franchise would remain in Buffalo as long as he lived, and proved true to his word.
In turn, most Buffalonians loved him for it.
“He has passed away peacefully at his home with his beautiful wife, Mary, and his daughters by his side,” Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon said in a statement. “We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all.
“This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills. His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out, ‘Hi Ralph!’”
Rampant speculation as to the future of the Bills in Buffalo began immediately. The popular belief in Western New York long has been that Wilson’s heirs — presumably his wife Mary and/or two surviving daughters, Christy and Dee Dee (Edith) — would sell the club upon his death. But neither he nor his family has ever confirmed as much.
Toronto, of course, is always presumed to be a likely eventual destination for the franchise. As we have written, however, it would cost well over $2 billion to do so — to buy the franchise valued last year by Forbes at $870 million, to spend close to $1 billion on a new stadium and headquarters (the Rogers Centre doesn’t meet NFL standards), and to pay a relocation fee to the NFL of perhaps as much as $400 million — all in American dollars, currently worth 10% more than the loonie.
What’s more, before 2020 it would cost any purchaser of the Bills a fee of $400 million to buy the Bills out of their lease at the county-owned stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., named after Wilson. Nine years remain on that lease, but there’s a brief, one-time window following Year 7 — that is, after the 2019 season — in which the opt-out penalty would be only $29 million.
Deep-pocketed stakeholders of Rogers Media or MLSE are rumoured to be among those who potentially might jump in with a Toronto-based bid. Western New Yorkers despise such speculation, and pray that should Wilson’s heirs sell the club, someone locally will step up, buy it and keep it right where it is.
“We understand our fans’ curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization, and that will be addressed in the near future,” Brandon said in his statement. “But at this time, we are committed to honouring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the man who delivered the NFL to Buffalo.”
Wilson did not attend the NFL annual meeting, but he hadn’t in years. Brandon has had the final word on all team decisions since Jan. 1, 2013 — when Wilson passed the title of team president, which he’d always held, to Brandon.
It was during a Tuesday afternoon session of owners and other team personnel that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell politely asked everyone to leave the room except owners. He then broke the news that Wilson had died.
“There were a lot of tears in the room,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. “He’s one of the icons of the NFL, the AFL, but much more than that.”
News of Wilson’s passing spread quickly through the halls of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort, one day before the annual meeting concludes.
Goodell issued this statement: “Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport. He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League.
“He brought his beloved Bills to western New York and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL. As a trusted adviser to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.”
Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints since 1985, told me, “I sure am going to miss him, I’ll tell ya.
“When you look back, I think a lot of his legacy was in the meetings themselves, because he didn’t let anybody pull anything over him. And he really fought for a lot of rights. What a great guy.”
Tributes soon flowed from other owners, in statements and in person.
“It’s the end of a real important era,” said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. “He was so important in developing football into what it is today.”
Johnson pointed out that his AFC East counterpart established the Bills franchise “when Buffalo was thriving. And he persevered when Buffalo starting declining a little bit, because most of the business moved out. And so he was very loyal to Buffalo and that part of the state.”
Loyal. And unswayable. Lurie said he will miss Wilson’s famously unbending stances.
“He was a great independent thinker,” Lurie said. “There was no issue where Ralph was a vote you could count on. He would speak his mind. I tried to model myself that way a little, because this shouldn’t be groupthink. It’s independent think.”
John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, cited examples.
“I can think of any number of votes that were 31 to 1 or 30 to 2, and he was one of the dissenters,” said Mara, whose late father Wellington was close to Wilson. “He was not afraid to speak his mind and vote his conscience.”
Such as the times when Wilson voted against New York City getting the Super Bowl this past February.
“I think he even voted against our (MetLife) Stadium deal, to tell you the truth,” Mara said.
One of Wilson’s nieces, Mary Owen, is the Bills’ executive vice-president for strategic planning. Wilson himself contracted the Bills-in-Toronto series in 2008, which is now on indefinite hold. Owen has been the point person for the Bills in the partnership with Rogers Media Inc.
While the Bills won two AFL championships in 1964-65, more than anything he yearned to win a Super Bowl. He never did, even though his four consecutive teams came achingly close, losing Super Bowls from 1990-93.
“He wanted it for the players, the coaches and the franchise,” Brandon said. “But mostly he wanted it for the fans. No owner has wanted a title more for these reasons than Mr. Wilson. In the end, he was extremely proud that his Bills are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke for many when he observed of Wilson, a World War II navy veteran: “I think all of us who love this game should be grateful for the role he played, and just take a moment to thank him in our own way.”
Polian reflects on straight-shooting Wilson
ORLANDO, Fla. — Bill Polian, the best GM that Ralph Wilson ever hired for his beloved Buffalo Bills, summed up his longtime boss this way.
“He kept his word. He was a man of his word,” Polian, now an ESPN commentator, told me early Tuesday evening at the NFL annual meeting.
“He said the Bills would never move in his lifetime, that they would remain in Buffalo and he was true to his word. That’s what he did in every facet of his life — business, personal, professional. If he gave you his word, you could take it to the bank. You didn’t need a written contract.
“I knew there was no chance the team was ever going to move.”
It didn’t, of course.
Polian was Bills GM from 1986-93, acquiring a nucleus of future Hall of Famers — such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith — that led the team to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Wilson fired Polian before the last one. But there were no grudges held.
“We remained friends from the day that I left,” an emotional Polian said in a hallway outside owners meeting rooms in the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort, on Day 2 of the NFL annual meeting. “There was never any hard feelings … I was forever grateful that he gave me the opportunity to be a general manager.
“One of the happiest times of my life was when he called just about two years ago at this time that I had been named to the Bills Wall of Fame.”
Polian, who went on to become GM and then president of the Indianapolis Colts from 1997 to 2011, said Wilson took pride in his team’s Super Bowl dynasty of sorts.
“Oh yeah. He did, absolutely. Even in the short run I remember him talking to the team in mini-camp, after maybe the second Super Bowl, where he said, ‘There’s no shame in being the silver medallist. You went and did a great thing. Everybody’s proud of you. We all want to win, but you did the best you could and that’s all anybody can ask for.’
“I know he was very proud of that legacy that probably no one else will ever equal, and very proud of that team. They truly are Buffalo’s boys of autumn. They’re one of a kind, and he was proud of that.
“We’ve lost a great leader. Everybody in Western New York I know feels that loss, because it’s all a Bills family. And there are so many spread across the nation, many right here in Florida.
“This is a rough time for the Bills family. For people in Toronto, maybe they don’t sense it. When I joined the Bills, one of the coaches told me, ‘If you stay here for more than one season, you’ll be a Bill for life.’ At first I didn’t recognize the bond that exists between the team and the fans. It’s real. It’s tangible. You feel it. You know it. And if you stay any length of time as a Bill, you are a Bill for life. You’re always welcomed back with open arms, so that bond remains.
“Our thoughts are for the Wilson family, and our prayers are for the Kelly family. This is a really tough time for the Bills family, but everybody in Western New York believes that tough times don’t last; tough people do. And we’ll get through it, but it’s hard.”
Wilson with Marv Levy, head coach of the Bills during their Super Bowl run.
(PHOTOS OF RALPH WILSON, COURTESY OF THE BUFFALO BILLS)
Pro Football Hall of Fame VP was close friend
Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s vice-president of communications and exhibits, told me on Tuesday he knew Ralph Wilson “virtually all my life.”
“Aside from being a great man in pro football, he was a great friend,” said Horrigan, whose father Jack was the first newspaper beat writer in Buffalo to cover the fledgling AFL team in 1960, and who eventually went to work for Wilson as VP of public relations until his death in 1973.
“It was an era where people liked Ralph,” Horrigan said of the time in 1959-60, when the AFL formed and Wilson bought a charter franchise for Buffalo. “It transcended football as a business. It was a sport, and guys who loved the sport, and the sportsmanship. He had been a tiny minority owner of the Detroit Lions, just so he could feel a part of it.
“But it went beyond that. The AFL owners were all family, the coaches and players and owners socialized together. The media even travelled on the planes. It was just a different world back then. For Ralph, he was as loyal as the day is young. His former players will tell you, to a man, how good he’s been to them, and he was great to my family when it had some needs. Just a great guy. And most of this you never hear, because he never talked about that. It’s just a sad day.”
Horrigan shared a few more gem stories…
ON WILSON’S LEGACY:
“When he was a candidate for the Hall of Fame, when people were summarizing him, they often referred to him as a conscience of the league.
“That comes from having been a legacy owner, a guy that built his team, franchise and league on trust. And he believed in that. He believed in doing the right thing. I think of him as a kind man who made decisions based upon what should be considered. He had ample opportunities to move his franchise to bigger markets, that would have made him more money for sure. He chose not to do that. And it wasn’t his home — Detroit’s his home. But he committed to Buffalo in 1960, and he would tell me the story often: ‘I’m here, this is where I’m going to make my team.’ It wasn’t about money. He once said to me, ‘What am I going to do, pile my money on the table and count it every day?’
“We have a thing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame called the Ray Nitchke Luncheon. That’s where the Hall of Famers get together in a private room, and they swap stories. And those stories get embellished, you can be sure.
“Well, Ralph was in the room for the first time and he was 90 or 91 years old, or whatever, and he enjoys being around these guys. He loved being around football people, and they’re all telling their stories. Then they go to Ralph, and he had been patiently listening. He said, ‘Well, gentlemen, I’m the only guy in the room here who saw all of you play.’ And he left it at that. They all got the message.
“I don’t know that he ever cited a joke, but he had that kind of wit.”
HIS WILSON’S ROLE IN THE AFL/NFL MERGER:
“Often the story is told from the conclusion, as opposed to what built up to it. And it was the years that were being quietly done. Ralph and Carroll Rosenbloom (owner of the Indianapolis Colts) were meeting very quietly, trying to set up the ground rules by which a merger could happen. Ralph would take it back. I think it was like eight different meetings that they had. And this is where the end comes in, where (Kansas City Chiefs owner) Lamarr (Hunt) and (Dallas Cowboys chief executive) Tex Schramm had this one final meeting after all the ground rules were established and, frankly, rejected — Hunt and Schramm kind of said let’s give it one more shot. That’s not to say they weren’t intimately involved; they were. But Ralph would go to Carroll. They would meet in Florida, and there were long, hard discussions.
“He was a great friend, a great friend of football, and a great friend of the Hall of Fame.”
More tributes for Wilson
In a joint statement, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II said:
“We are deeply saddened by today’s news of the passing of Ralph Wilson, one of the most respected owners in our league. Ralph made many contributions to both the AFL and NFL, playing a major role in the growth and development of both leagues.
“His impact helped make the NFL a success, and he always kept the league’s best interest in mind to better the game of professional football.”
- – -
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said in a statement:
“Ralph Wilson was a good friend. He was one of the great pioneers of the AFL and great owners in the NFL. We are all going to miss him.
“Our relationship extended beyond the football field. We were both involved in thoroughbred racing and had many happy moments together watching horses training and competing.
“Our condolences go out to Mary and his family. We wish them the very best as they deal with their loss.”
- – -
Former Bills head coach Gregg Williams (2001-03), in a statement from the St. Louis Rams, for whom he is now defensive coordinator:
“I join the entire football community in mourning the loss of a truly great man in Ralph Wilson. I’m forever grateful to Mr. Wilson for giving me the opportunity to be a head coach in the National Football League. As a coach, Mr. Wilson was everything you could ask for in an owner. He was a very passionate football fan. He was progressive in his thoughts, he loved his players and he provided every resource you could ask for. It’s hard to imagine where our game and our league might be today were it not for his role in creating and more importantly sustaining the American Football League. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Wilson family at this difficult time.”
- – -
Kansas City Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, in a statement:
“On behalf of my family and the entire Chiefs organization we’d like to express our deepest sympathies to the Wilson family and the Buffalo Bills. Ralph had a significant impact on the evolution of pro football. He took risks and made decisions that helped mold the NFL into what it is today. As two of the original members of the AFL’s Foolish Club, my father and Ralph shared a unique bond and a special friendship.”
- – -
Owner Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins, in a statement:
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ralph Wilson. All of us have lost a NFL legend whose passion for his team was inspiring. We will always be thankful for Ralph’s contributions to the development of the AFL and NFL.”
- – -
More from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft:
“You know, I was thinking when the AFL was created and how privileged I was to come in and be in the division with one of the founders, Ralph Wilson. I remember I was so excited the first year of owning the team, I used to try to go out — when we visited different cities — I’d try to go out with that owner for dinner the night before. Ralph was so kind, and took me and my wife out to the Buffalo Country Club and was the ultimate gentlemen.
“This is the passing of a generation, and a man who really represented the smaller markets. Before I got to the NFL they made the great decision to share national revenues, television revenues, and I think Ralph was always the voice of the small markets, making sure his loyalty to the fans of Buffalo was very special.
“Ralph would always, in a gentlemanly way, be very clear what his position was. He was not bashful, whether it was popular or not. He had the gravitas and the history of playing his role for so many years.”
- – -
More from New York Jets owner Woody Johnson:
“I heard his Hall of Fame speech at (age) 91. It was better than most people give at 31. Really, just an incredible leader — great vision. So it’s an end, really, of a major, major part of American football, to lose a guy like Ralph Wilson.
“He just described the satisfaction that he got from working with the players and the fans and building this league … We’re going to miss him. We’re lucky to have had a guy like that.
“If we were going off course, he would let us know.”
- – -
More from John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants:
“He was always a spokesman for the small-market teams. When he got up to speak, which was not all that often, you could hear a pin drop. He was somebody that people in the room listened to and respected quite a bit. We’re going to miss him a great deal.
“My family goes back so many years with him. He and my father were very close, and my mother remained close to him for years. He was at a lot of events together with my family, and he was just a warm and gregarious and generous guy who I think all of us are going to miss.
“He was a dear family friend. He voted his conscience and he was not afraid to be the one dissenting voice in that room, and that’s something that I always respected about him.”
- – -
Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, in a statement:
“At a critical juncture in the National Football League’s history, Ralph Wilson provided a level of leadership and vision that helped make the NFL what it is today. He not only recognized the sport’s potential popularity and success but was pivotal in helping to achieve it. Our hearts go out to his wife Mary, the Bills organization and everyone in Western New York on their tremendous loss.”