BUFFALO, N.Y. — During his 95 years, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson went from fan to "Foolish Club" member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, enjoying every step along the way.
The NFL lost the person regarded as the league’s "conscience" on Tuesday, when Wilson died at his home around 1:40 p.m. Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wilson’s death at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
His death resonated among the owners — from old to new. Wilson played an integral role in establishing the modern game, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 1959, Wilson founded the Bills in helping establish the upstart American Football League, whose owners were dubbed "The Foolish Club" for having the chutzpah to challenge the NFL. Some five years later, Wilson played an influential role in the framework for the merger of the leagues.
"Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft released a statement saying how grateful he was for how Wilson welcomed him to the NFL, adding: "I will miss him."
So will Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, whom Wilson lured out of retirement to serve as the team’s general manager from 2005-06.
"He wasn’t my boss, he was my friend," Levy said. "Deeply saddened to hear about his passing. He meant so much to the game that both of us revered, and to the community of Buffalo and beyond. It’s quite a loss, and he’s going to be remembered so fondly by everyone who knew him."
The last surviving member of the original AFL owners, Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., said Mary Mazur, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner’s office. He had been receiving home hospice care.
Wilson had been in failing health since having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit, he attended Hall of Fame induction weekends. He was a regular at Bills home games since founding the franchise, but had not been there since going to one game in 2010.
Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president’s title to Brandon.
"No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson," Brandon said. "It’s very tough. What he’s’ meant to the entire organization. He’s our leader, our mentor our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don’t make them like Ralph Wilson."
Wilson earned a well-established reputation for loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.
Though he butted heads several times with late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, it did not affect their friendship.
As Davis said in 2009: "There were a lot of guys saying (Steelers owner Dan) Rooney was the conscience. But certainly, Mr. Wilson was more of a conscience of the league."
Wilson also earned the respect of his players.
Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas struggled with his emotions when discussing Wilson.
"With Mr. Wilson’s passing today, it hurts," Thomas said. "So I’m going to miss him, without a doubt. He used to call me his favourite son."
Wilson’s Bills have never won a Super Bowl. They came close in the early 1990s, when the Levy-coached and Jim Kelly-quarterbacked teams won four consecutive AFC championships, but lost each time.
The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999 and their 14-year post-season drought ranks as the NFL’s longest active streak.
Running back Fred Jackson said Wilson’s death provides the team new focus to end that drought.
"We want to continue to cement his legacy," Jackson said. "We want to honour him, and a great way to honour him is going out and winning a lot of football games."
Wilson never lost his sense of humour.
In 2010, with the Bills 0-5, Wilson began an interview with The Associated Press with an apology. "I want to apologize for this phone system," Wilson said, with a familiar chuckle. "It’s almost as bad as my team."
The future of the team is now in the hands of Brandon and Wilson’s second-in-command, Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littmann. For the meantime, the Bills are expected to be placed in a trust before eventually being sold.
Wilson expressed no interest of leaving the team to his family. He is survived by wife Mary, daughters Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant, and Edith Wilson. There’s also niece Mary Owen, who serves on several NFL committees while working as the team’s executive vice-president of strategic planning.
Kelly has expressed interest in buying the franchise and has previously said he’s assembled a group of investors.
Kelly’s health, however, has become an issue this week. He is expected to have surgery for a second time in a year following the recurrence of cancer that his wife described as aggressive and "starting to spread."
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula is also considered a candidate to purchase the Bills and keep them in Buffalo.
That doesn’t remove the possibility of outside interests making offers and relocating the team to larger markets such as Los Angeles or nearby Toronto.
The Bills’ future in Orchard Park is secure for the short term. The team negotiated a 10-year lease in December 2012 with the state and county to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The agreement includes a provision that essentially locks in the Bills through the first seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay US$400 million if it decides to leave before 2019. The team then has an option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.
Under Wilson, the Bills produced 10 Hall of Famers, including himself and Smith. The others were Kelly, Levy, Thomas, O.J. Simpson, offensive linemen Billy Shaw and Joe DeLamielleure, receiver James Lofton and receiver Andre Reed, who will be inducted this year.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, Wilson moved to Detroit three years later when his father, Ralph Wilson Sr., took a sales job at an auto dealership. The father turned to insurance and in the mid-1930s landed a deal with Chrysler Corp.
Among Wilson’s first moves upon taking over his father’s insurance business in 1959 was selling his minor share in the Lions and joining up with Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams to help found the AFL.
In 1964, Wilson travelled to the Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria — where he slept on the floor of a reporter’s room because all the hotels were booked — to help broker the AFL’s landmark TV deal with NBC.
Wilson still carried influence with Goodell, who leaned on the Bills owner for advice, and among current NFL owners.
Shahid Khan reached out to Wilson for advice before completing his purchase of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012.
"Given his legacy as a builder and visionary, I imagine Ralph was able to relate to my dream to one day join him as a team owner," Khan said. "I’ll never forget his kindness and will always treasure the letter he wrote welcoming my family to the NFL."
Wilson wore the "Foolish Club" badge with honour.
"What a damn fool I was," he told the AP in 2009. "But I didn’t care. I just wanted to own a team."
In 1998, Wilson received the "Order of the Leather Helmet" from the NFL Alumni Association for his contributions to professional football.
Wilson always maintained a healthy perspective in regards to what mattered when it came to football, including his place in the game.
When asked about the fragmented state of football in the mid-1990s, Wilson joked: "It’s such a great game, it’ll survive us."
Funeral arrangements have not yet been determined.