Thank you Ralph

A look at the life of Ralph C. Wilson Jr, a pioneer of the AFL and founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills

Thank you Ralph

A lot of times, when you want to become successful, you will have to put up with people putting you down and calling you foolish. That’s exactly what Ralph C. Wilson Jr. had to put up with over half a century ago when he started his own AFL franchise, the Buffalo Bills.

When Wilson died on March 25, 2014, the NFL lost one of its true pioneers and one of the greatest figures in sports history.

Born on March 25, 1918 in Detroit, Michigan, Wilson graduated from University of Virginia and served in the Navy during World War II. He attended his first ever professional football game in 1935 at the age of 17, between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions.

After the war he became a minority owner of the same Detroit Lions team, and later sold his shares to form his own team in the newly created American Football League, or the AFL. He initially wanted to place the franchise in Miami, Florida, but those negotiations fell apart from a disagreement on the use of the Orange Bowl. In the end he decided on Buffalo because he knew they had good football fans and would make the team great.

He famously telegrammed AFL founder Lamar Hunt with the now famous words, “Count me in with Buffalo.”

The Buffalo Bills officially became the seventh AFL team on October 28, 1959.

The Bills went 5-8-1 in their inaugural 1960 season, but later went on to win AFL championships in both 1964 and 1965 (the ’65 championship remains the last time the city of Buffalo has won a pro sports championship)

Wilson was a source of inspiration and guidance during the AFL era. He was the one who spoke up and petitioned the decision to not play any games the Sunday after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the NFL games were played as scheduled. He also lent money to Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis and Boston (later New England) Patriots owner Billy Sullivan to help keep the franchises from folding and keep the AFL alive.

After the AFL-NFL merger, Wilson’s Bills were not competitive again until the 1990’s, when they became the first and only team in NFL history to go to four straight Super Bowls.

Wilson was a key component in building those Super Bowl-bound teams. He and coach Marv Levy helped draft players such as Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, and defensive end Bruce Smith, but the two ultimately could not get the big win they were looking for.

Even as he became one of the oldest owners in the league, Wilson still remained one of its loudest voices.

He was one of the only owners to vote against the Cleveland Browns relocation to Baltimore in 1995, and he and some other owner named Mike Brown were the only two owners to vote against the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. The two were later applauded for speaking out when the agreement led to the lockout in 2011.

Perhaps Wilson’s most infamous moment came in 1998, when then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined Wilson $50,000 for criticizing officials in a game against New England, and Wilson responded by writing a letter and making a mockery out of the fine and laughing at Tagliabue for criticizing someone who has been involved in football much longer than he has. (see link)

In his final years, Wilson kept out of public eye for the most part.

In 2001 he gave team control to then-General Manager Tom Donahoe, only to reclaim it in 2006 when Donahoe was fired and replace with former coach Marv Levy.

He negotiated a deal in 2008 to play one home game a year in Toronto through the year 2017, a deal that has brought much speculation about whether the Bills would move to Toronto full time, and this game has been postponed for the 2014 season.

On August 8, 2009, Wilson was finally elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, along with his former defensive end Bruce Smith.

His last big move came on January 1, 2013, when he once again surrendered control of the team to CEO Russ Brandon and continued to consult moves with him.

On March 25th, 2014, the team announced that Wilson had peacefully passed away at his home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan at the age of 95. His funeral was held on Saturday, March 29th and the next owner of the Bills will soon be determined.

Whether you’re a Bills fan or not, you have to respect this man for all he’s done for the game of football in general. He was one of the founding fathers of the AFL, and we probably wouldn’t have the great NFL like we do today if the AFL hadn’t ever existed. Especially in a small-market city like Cincinnati, we should appreciate what he did  because he proved that if a tiny market like Buffalo can support a giant NFL team than we shouldn’t worry that we might be too small of a city for a team.

Being a Bills fan myself, I especially appreciate what Ralph Wilson what did for football and for the city of Buffalo in general because he showed that he generally cared about the people of the Buffalo, and only didn’t move the team because he couldn’t do that to the people of Buffalo.

He was a classy owner who loved the game of football enough to speak his mind when he saw something he didn’t like and always stand up for what he thought was right.

Ralph  C. Wilson Jr. was a great man and what he did for the game of football and the city of Buffalo is just indescribable. Hopefully Mike Brown will take a page out of Ralph’s notebook one of these days.