Ralph C. Wilson, the only owner the Buffalo Bills NFL team had ever
known, died on March 25, 2014, at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, MI,
at the age of 95. Although he owned the team for 54 years, he always
resided in the Detroit area. Wilson was one of only three owners in NFL
history to continuously own a team for such a long period; the others
were Bud Adams, who owned the Oilers/Titans, and George Halas, who owned
the Bears (for 63 years!). Adams died last October.
been a part owner of the NFL’s Detroit Lions before he got involved in
the formation of the rival American Football League. When the AFL was
forming in 1959, he first applied for a franchise in Miami. He was
turned down, but tried again and received the rights for Buffalo. His
teams have a 376-436-8 record in 54 seasons and won two AFL
Championships, in 1964 and '65. Jack Kemp was the quarterback on those
He invested $25,000 in the initial franchise fee; the
team has been estimated to be worth $875,000,000 today. Buddy Gleason of
the Buffalo News
wrote, "Wilson was a sweetheart of a man, who got a
sweetheart of a deal." Although for years the Bills have been rumored to
be moving to Toronto or another city, Wilson kept the team in the NFL’s
second-smallest market, and voted against every other franchise
relocation that the NFL ever considered. In 1962, he loaned the Oakland
Raiders $400,000 to keep them afloat.
Wilson was known as a
"player’s owner" and was very involved in team management. He attended
practices and was a fixture in the locker room. The players said he
wasn’t aloof and never took a "big me, little you" approach with anyone.
When the Bills went to a record four straight Super Bowls (1990–1993,
losing them all), Wilson was said to have taken every Bills employee to
the Super Bowl games, all expenses paid. He was also known to be
generous in his philanthropy, supporting many Western New York charities
but, interestingly, none in Michigan, where he lived. He spread his
money around, often supporting “underdog” causes, and reportedly did not
make a big deal about it. (However, his name is on some medical
Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr. was born in Columbus, OH,
on October 17, 1918. His father was a successful insurance salesman, and
the Ralph C. Wilson Insurance Agency still exists today. After
graduating from the University of Virginia, Wilson entered the
University of Michigan Law School in 1940. His time at UM was cut short
by service in the Navy in World War II, where he served on a minesweeper
until 1946. After the war, he joined his father at the insurance
agency, where he diversified the business to include manufacturing,
mines, trucking, and radio stations. He called himself a risk taker and
apparently became very wealthy by following this strategy. It probably
helped that his father was wealthy, too.
Wilson was married
three times and had three daughters. His daughter Linda (Bogdan) was
active with the Bills, became the first female scout in the NFL, and
held the position of Vice President of Scouting; she died in 2009 of
cancer. Wilson is survived by his third wife, Mary, and his other two
daughters, Christy and Edith.
Wilson was inducted into the Pro
Football Hall of Fame in 2009. He was known as a good storyteller, often
telling stories about himself. In his HOF induction speech, he told a
favorite story about a halftime pep talk he gave in the Bills’ first
preseason. His team was down by two touchdowns at the half; they lost by
three touchdowns. After the game, his new coach told him, "Next time,
please talk to the other team."
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