Ralph Wilson remembered as AFL pioneer, NFL 'conscience'

Ralph Wilson, Jr., owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, died Tuesday at his Michigan home.

By , Associated Press

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    In this 2009 file photo, Buffalo Bills' owner Ralph Wilson Jr. holds up his Hall of Fame ring during a NFL halftime football ceremony against the Houston Texans in Orchard Park, N.Y.
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Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson never forgot how he was made to feel like an outsider for having the audacity to challenge the NFL.

It was 1959, and Wilson had just invested $25,000 to join Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams in helping establish the upstart American Football League. Wilson and the seven other owners were immediately dubbed "The Foolish Club."

"You'd go to cocktail parties back in those days," Wilson recalled in an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, a month before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "And they'd look at me like, 'What kind of dope are you, going into a new league?'"

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Some 54 years later, Wilson was being remembered as a "visionary" for playing a key role in helping establish the modern-day game.

The Bills lost their sole owner, and the NFL lost its last surviving AFL founder and a person regarded as the league's "conscience" on Tuesday, when Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.

Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wilson's death at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.

"Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America's most popular sport," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "He brought his beloved Bills to western New York, and his commitment to the team's role in the community set the standard for the NFL."

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson called Wilson's death "the end of a real important era."

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones referred to Wilson as "one of the cornerstones of the AFL."

And in Buffalo, where Wilson's influence resonated as the region's patriarch of professional football, he was being sorely missed. In honor of Wilson, the Bills kept one bank of lights on at the stadium that bears the owner's name.

"He wasn't my boss, he was my friend," Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy said. "He meant so much to the game that both of us revered, and to the community of Buffalo and beyond. It's quite a loss."

Wilson had been receiving home hospice care, and had been in failing health since having hip surgery in 2011.

Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president's title to Brandon.

"No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson," Brandon said. "It's very tough. What he's' meant to the entire organization. He's our leader, our mentor our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don't make them like Ralph Wilson."

Wilson earned a well-established reputation for loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.

Though he butted heads several times with late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, it did not affect their friendship.

As Davis said in 2009: "There were a lot of guys saying (Steelers owner Dan) Rooney was the conscience. But certainly, Mr. Wilson was more of a conscience of the league."

Wilson also earned the respect of his players.

Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas struggled with his emotions when discussing Wilson.

"With Mr. Wilson's passing today, it hurts," Thomas said. "So I'm going to miss him, without a doubt. He used to call me his favorite son."

Wilson's Bills won AFL championships in 1964 and '65, but never a Super Bowl. They came close in the early 1990s, when the Levy-coached and Jim Kelly-quarterbacked teams won four consecutive AFC championships, but lost each time.

The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999 and their 14-year postseason drought ranks as the NFL's longest active streak.

What Wilson never lost was his sense of humor.

In 2010, with the Bills 0-5, Wilson began an interview with the AP with an apology. "I want to apologize for this phone system," Wilson said, with a familiar chuckle. "It's almost as bad as my team."

The franchise's future is now in the hands of Brandon and Wilson's second-in-command, Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littmann. For the meantime, the Bills are expected to be placed in a trust before eventually being sold.

Wilson expressed no interest of leaving the team to his family. He is survived by wife Mary, daughters Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant, and Edith Wilson. There's also niece Mary Owen, who serves on several NFL committees while working as the team's executive vice president of strategic planning.

Kelly has expressed interest in buying the franchise and has previously said he's assembled a group of investors.

Kelly's health, however, has become an issue. He is expected to have surgery for a second time in a year following the recurrence of cancer that his wife described as aggressive and "starting to spread."

Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula is also considered a candidate to purchase the Bills and keep them in Buffalo.

That doesn't remove the possibility of outside interests making offers and relocating the team to larger markets such as Los Angeles or nearby Toronto.

The Bills' future in Orchard Park is secure for the short term. The team negotiated a 10-year lease in December 2012 with the state and county to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, Wilson moved to Detroit three years later when his father, Ralph Wilson Sr., took a sales job at an auto dealership. The father turned to insurance and in the mid-1930s landed a deal with Chrysler Corp.

Among Wilson's first moves upon taking over his father's insurance business in 1959 was selling his minor share in the Lions and investing in the AFL.

In 1964, Wilson traveled to the Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria, where he slept on the floor of a reporter's room because all the hotels were booked, to help broker the AFL's landmark TV deal with NBC.

Wilson always maintained a healthy perspective in regards to what mattered when it came to football, including his place in the game.

When asked about the fragmented state of football in the mid-1990s, Wilson joked: "It's such a great game, it'll survive us."

Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.

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