ORLANDO – The words “gentleman” and “sportsman” were not coined by Ralph Wilson, but they easily could have been.
He was a true gentleman-sportsman throughout his 54-year owner as founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills.
Mr. Wilson, who died Tuesday after being in failing health, leaves a legacy of grace in victory and defeat and as visionary who played a key role in expanding the popularity of pro football. He was 95.
Wilson’s death was announced Tuesday by Bills President Russ Brando at the NFL Annual Meetings here at the Ritz Carlton resort.
Tributes poured in to memorialize Mr. Wilson and what he meant to the Bills and the National Football League.
Lions President Tom Lewand spoke of Wilson’s passion for his team, and his vision for how the partnerships of the member teams benefitted the NFL as a whole. Lewand also referred to the impact Wilson’s loss will have on the Buffalo community, where the stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. bears the name Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“I know they were very much a family organization,” Lewand said. “Our condolences reach from Detroit to Buffalo and parts in between -- all the people who were so positively impacted by Mr. Wilson’s years of ownership.
“He was a really special person in a number of different ways, not the least of which, he was one of the great stewards of the partnership of the NFL and one of the true patriarchs of the league.
“You could always look to Mr. Wilson to give you a robust perspective on the value of that partnership and what it meant to the growth of this league.
“He was the last of the great pioneers to be with us. We’ve lost two of those original owners in the last 10 days.”
William Clay Ford, owner of the Lions since 1964, died on March 9. He was 88. Mr. Wilson attended his funeral.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement, praising Wilson for his role in expanding pro football’s popularity.
Goodell’s statement said in part:
“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.
“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.”
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ford both lived in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., and had a long-standing friendship despite their rivalry on the playing field.
Mr. Wilson was a shareholder in the Lions before purchasing the Buffalo franchise in 1959 as one of the original investors of the old American Football League. It played its first season in 1960 and quickly developed from an upstart league that many NFL old-liners poked fun for its wide-open style of play.
However, fans became attracted to the offense-driven league, and as its popularity increased, the NFL was forced to recognize it as a legitimate competitor for fans and players – both veterans and college prospects from the draft.
The NFL and AFL merged in 1970.
The Bills won back-to-back AFL championships in 1964-65 but never won the Super Bowl. They made it to the Super Bowl an unprecedented four straight years – playing in the championship game from 1990-93 – but lost all four games.
Despite the bitter losses, Wilson maintained the grace and sense of humor that made him a favorite figure at every level of the NFL – fans, players, members of opposing teams and media.
One year he entered the media room at the NFL meetings barely two months after another Super Bowl loss. He scanned the room, and when he had everyone’s attention he cracked: “6-love, 6-love. Blown out in the finals again.”
Wilson was an avid tennis player, and the reference was to losing a club championship.
The Super Bowl meant more to Wilson than that, but it was his way of showing that there were no hard feelings on his part.
The Bills teams that made four-straight Super Bowls would have qualified as a dynasty had it won a championship or two. But on its merits, it was one of the most successful runs in NFL history.
The Bills, led by Coach Marv Levy, had stars at every level, with a high-scoring offense and a strong defense.
The Bills had a roster of Hall of Famers who were on those Super Bowl teams – James Lofton, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Levy. Others who preceded them included Joe DeLamielleure, a guard from Michigan State and Center Line St. Clement High whose brilliant career ended in 1985.
As each member of the Bills was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they all paid tribute to Wilson for the warmth and caring he displayed as the owner.
Wilson joined them. He was inducted into the Hall in Canton in 2009.