The NFL has lost one of its last originals.
Ralph Wilson, founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, died Tuesday. He was 95 and team president and CEO Russ Brandon announced the news of Wilson’s passing at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. Wilson was the oldest and longest-tenured (54 years) owner in the league, and the last of the original owners from the old American Football League.
Under Wilson’s ownership, the Bills won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and were the only AFL team to reach the playoffs in four consecutive seasons (1963-66).
Once the Bills joined the NFL in the 1970 merger, they became the only AFC team to win four consecutive conference titles (1990-93) and appear in four consecutive Super Bowls – all losses, to the New York Giants (Super Bowl XXV), Washington Redskins (Super Bowl XXVI) and Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII).
In 1998, the Bills renamed Rich Stadium in Wilson’s honor, and it is known locally as “The Ralph.”
But Wilson’s real legacy is stability. He was the only original AFL owner to keep his team in its originating city with the same name – as the Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles, and back; the Chargers moved from Los Angeles to San Diego; the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans; the Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs; the New York Titans became the New York Jets; and the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos changed owners.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged all of this in a 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 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 culmination of everything Wilson did and achieved was being elected to the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009. To borrow a line from Chris Berman, I know because I was there – as a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee.
When I entered the room that Saturday morning in Tampa, I was not intending to vote for Wilson. But I was sitting next to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, who presented Wilson to the group. Wilson was in failing health at the time. At the end of this presentation, Gaughan said, “If you feel Ralph Wilson belongs in the Hall of Fame, please vote for him now.”
Gaughan did not expand on that statement, but its meaning was understood. So I was among those who altered our original plans and voted for the man who had meant so much to the league – both leagues – for all those years.
Wilson became synonymous with the old AFL. He was instrumental in the NFL-AFL merger. He served on nearly every NFL committee at one time or another. He did it all with passion and compassion. That’s why many referred to him as the NFL’s “voice of reason.”
The league just lost that voice.