The Buffalo Bills have had an incredibly storied history since they began playing professional football in 1960. From four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (and their subsequent infamous losses) in the early 90s to a playoff drought that spanned over an achingly-long 17 years, the Bills and their fans have had their share of heartache. However, they’ve also experienced the joy of sending multiple players and even a coach to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the pride of having one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history and the feeling of unity watching their fans and the City of Buffalo come together to raise money for charities and support players in need.
When it comes right down to it, though, none of these things would have been possible without the leap of faith from one man: Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.
Born in 1918 in Detroit, Wilson became a successful businessman after taking over his father’s insurance company and investing in mines and factories around Michigan. Combining his excellent business acumen with his ever-growing passion for sports, Wilson eventually became a minority owner of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. In 1959, he took his ownership in American football a step further when he chose to begin an AFL franchise in Buffalo, New York (after Miami turned him down, it should be noted).
In 1966, Wilson was one of the instrumental pieces behind the AFL-NFL merger and many believe the National Football League would not exist as it does today if he hadn’t stepped in. The financially stable owner of the Buffalo Bills loaned money to the AFL’s Oakland Raiders and Billy Sullivan, then owner of the Boston Patriots (they became the New England Patriots after the merger), which would aid in keeping those franchises afloat.
Many people, but especially Bills fans, have differing opinions of Wilson as an owner. He had been dubbed as cheap plenty of times throughout the years and confidence in him opening up his pockets to ensure the Bills would retain or even pursue quality players was always exceedingly low. Former Bills running back and current Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson gave his own account to Tim Graham, then of The Buffalo News, of Wilson’s frugality. He recalled that during his contract negotiations with the team, his agent mentioned that Simpson could help make the Bills a championship contender. Wilson countered by rhetorically asking, “What good would a championship do me? All that means is everybody wants a raise.”
Questions regarding Wilson’s financially conservative antics aside, there’s no argument that he was a strong opponent of relocating already existing NFL teams. In February of 1996, Wilson and Dan Rooney, then owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, were the only two “no votes” on the relocation of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. In fact, the Bills’ founder never once voted for a franchise to move.
Full credit also must be given to Ralph Wilson, Jr. for finding ways to keep the Bills in Buffalo—a small market in comparison to places like Philadelphia and Dallas—and fans have done just that by developing slogans such as “In Ralph We Trust” and taking pictures with the statue of his likeness that stands outside of the stadium.
Outside Ralph Wilson Stadium for unveiling of statue of former Bills owner. Fans invited to shake his hand. pic.twitter.com/sHsdD0jK9x— Stephen T Watson (@buffaloscribe) September 12, 2015
On January 31, 2009, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he is celebrated for his team having won two AFL Championships and four consecutive AFC Championships. In 2011, he and his wife, Mary Wilson, donated $2.5 million to the Hall of Fame for the construction of a football research and preservation center, which was named after him upon it’s completion.
Ralph Wilson's Hall of Fame bust on display pic.twitter.com/oseC4dQkuK— Howard WGR (@hsimon62) September 14, 2014
On March 25, 2014, at the age of 95, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. passed away at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan. Though fans were deeply saddened after the news of his death spread, they were also concerned that the Bills would be relocated once a new owner purchased the team. Mary Wilson, with an eye toward the legacy of her late husband, ultimately sold the Bills in 2014 to current owners Terry and Kim Pegula. The Pegulas have always maintained their desire to keep the team in Buffalo, allowing Wilson’s wishes to live on.
For what would have been Wilson’s 100th birthday in October of last year, The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation donated $100 million each to the communities of Southeast Michigan and Western New York to improve waterfront parks and related trail systems in those areas.
It seems that Wilson has left behind a legacy in the NFL that is arguably unmatched and he touched the lives of many of the league’s owners, players and staff members. He will be remembered throughout history as the founder of the Buffalo Bills, as a great philanthropist, and as a driving force in helping to create the NFL as we know it today. Any new Buffalo Bills fan would be wise to learn about the man that started it all.
Editor’s note: this is the first in an ongoing series of posts with everything new Bills fans need to know about the history of the team. More to come.