On the Death of Ralph Wilson

By Bryan Knowles

A legend of the National Football League has passed away.

Ralph Wilson, founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, died on Tuesday afternoon.  He was 95 years old.

Wilson was one of the original founders of the American Football League, bringing professional football back to Buffalo for the first time since 1949 and the All-American Football Conference.

Wilson was more than just another owner, however.  He was a driving force behind the success of the AFL, and helped the league grow to the point where it was a legitimate competitor to the NFL.

Wilson was one of the few original AFL owners to be in a fine state financially, and he was willing to help the other franchise owners stay afloat in the early years of competition.  The Oakland Raiders, for example, floundered early on, thanks in part to their direct competition with the San Francisco 49ers.  Wilson loaned the team $400,000, keeping them in business, despite it being against the AFL's bylaws.

A few years later, Wilson helped negotiate the television contract that kept the AFL afloat, and brought them into direct financial competition with the NFL.  NBC, having lost out on the rights to broadcast the older league, went and offered the AFL $600,000 a team a season, as compared to the NFL's $1 million.  Wilson fought back and negotiated, and managed to up the offer to $900,000, giving the fledgling league a platform to fight for quality players with their older rivals.

Wilson negotiated the first television package leaguewide, as opposed to the team-by-team approach the NFL had taken.  It kept each and every AFL franchise on equal footing, and insured smaller markets like Buffalo and Oakland could compete in the new, television-fueled landscape.  Wilson also was integral in arranging for the sharing of gate revenues for the new clubs, keeping all teams afloat.

Under Wilson's ownership, the Buffalo Bills thrived.  They won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, fielding great players like Jack Kemp and Cookie Gilchrist.  Along with the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs, they were the class of the AFL.

Ralph Wilson, founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills. Photo by www.huffingtonpost.com

Wilson also served on the committee that negotiated the eventual merger of the NFL and AFL.  He helped ensure that none of the existing teams would be forced to fold, keeping football in Buffalo.

Indeed, "keeping football in Buffalo" is the lynchpin of Wilson's legacy.   He voted against every single franchise relocation vote that ever came up, attempting to keep teams in their historically accurate cities.  He refused to sell or give up any control over the Bills for the majority of his lifetime, such was his passion for the team and determination to keep them in the smaller Buffalo market.

"People become attached to the franchise," Wilson said. "They take their children to the game. So many people across the country I have met have said, 'My father used to take me to the games in old War Memorial Stadium in downtown Buffalo. We used to stand in the end zone.' The people in a community become attached to a team. It gives them a quality of life."

Wilson's death was met by tributes from his fellow owners and former players.

Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement praising Wilson's legacy.

"Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America's most popular sport," Goodell said in a statement. "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 advisor to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues. His lifelong loyalty to the game was instrumental in his richly deserved induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We are grateful for his many contributions to the NFL and offer our heartfelt sympathy to the Wilson family."

The future of the franchise in Buffalo now gets plunged into doubt.  Wilson's efforts to keep the team in Buffalo despite an aging stadium and a small market single-handedly kept them in town.  There has been interest to move the team to Toronto or Los Angeles, as well as several groups who have hoped to keep the team at least in western New York, if not Buffalo proper.

One way or another though, Wilson's legacy to the city of Buffalo is secure.  While the Bills floundered in recent years, it was Wilson who build them up and created their legacy, from the early days in the AFL through the Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith years in the early ‘90s.  Wilson's impact on football is rivaled only by that of George Halas and Bud Adams, the only three men to have owned a professional football team for fifty consecutive years.

He will be missed by the entire NFL family.

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