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Wilson's Bills enhanced Western New York's quality of life

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Rochester Business Journal
April 4, 2014

Ralph Wilson loved to laugh. And unlike many of his stuffed-shirt, self-important peers in the NFL ownership fraternity, he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself. The man who paid the Bills had a million stories, and one he reveled in telling was about the time in the early 1960s when some friends persuaded him to go down to the Bills locker room at halftime to rally his struggling team.

“We were trailing the New York Titans 21-7 in War Memorial Stadium, the Old Rockpile, and I gave one the most inspiring speeches you’ll ever hear,” Wilson recalled. “I was like Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Well, the final score wound up being 51-7, and somebody said to me afterward, ‘Wilson, you talked to the wrong team. You should have gone down and talked to the Titans.’ Needless to say, that was the last time I ever addressed my players during a game.”

There was another occasion, during the Bills’ first Super Bowl in Tampa in 1991, when Wilson was asked if he had been inundated with ticket requests. “Yes,” he quipped. “I have heard from a lot of relatives I didn’t know I had.”

He obviously was in his glory during those Bills glory years. He truly loved his team, and he loved seeing the people of Buffalo have something to shout about. “Fans used to throw their programs at me,” he liked to say back then. “Now they want me to sign them.”

There has been a great outpouring of gratitude by Bills fans since Wilson’s death last week at age 95, and I’m glad to see that. Yes, the team hasn’t made the playoffs in 14 years and has lost close to 60 percent of the games in its history, but, hey, it’s better to have lost at love and football than never to have loved at all.

There’s been much discussion about Wilson’s legacy since his passing. Here’s the bottom line: He brought the Bills here and he kept them here, and that has made for a half-century’s worth of fun, even amid the losing. This franchise, for better and for worse, has become part of the soul of Western New York, and we have Wilson to thank for that.

His initial game plan was to set up shop in Miami, which later would become the home of the despised Dolphins, aka the Fish. That’s where Wilson first looked in 1959, when he was approached about joining Lamar Hunt and the other American Football League founders who became known as the “Foolish Club.”

Fortunately, Miami wanted nothing to do with the upstart league, so Wilson was given a list of several other cities, including St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Buffalo. He asked a sportswriter he knew in his hometown of Detroit this question: “If you were dumb enough to go into a new football league and you had these cities to choose from, which one would you pick?’’ Without hesitation, the scribe answered, “Buffalo.” So Wilson visited the “City of Good Neighbors” and the rest is history.

He told me the AFL had a one-in-10 chance of surviving against the established NFL. “They weren’t good odds,” he said. “But I had always been a risk taker in business. I really believe in going for it on fourth and one.”

It was a real struggle early on. Wilson floated loans to keep other teams, including the Oakland Raiders, in business. “I never thought about throwing in the towel, but there were times when I did remind myself that I used to pay $5 a ticket to a Detroit Lions game and I enjoyed myself and had no headaches,” he said, chuckling. “I would ask myself what I was doing here.”

By January 1965, he had stopped asking himself that question. Wilson’s Bills were coming off their first AFL title, and he had joined Baltimore Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom for secret talks about the possibility of a merger with the NFL.

“The thing that had made us players was the network television contract we had landed,” he said. “I think that gave us legitimacy, and I think the NFL had made the cardinal business mistake by underestimating the competition. They became complacent.”

The merger, of course, eventually came to fruition, and the NFL wound up becoming the most lucrative sports league on the planet. That’s one of the reasons there’s a bust of Wilson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Over time, he would be regarded as a voice of reason and conscience in the rapidly changing NFL. He became a champion of small-market teams, often butting heads with large-market owners such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins, who often seemed more concerned with self-interest than the good of the league.

Wilson was a man of principle. It always bothered him to see franchises up and leave. He was one of only two owners who voted against the Cleveland Browns’ move to Baltimore in the 1990s. During the lean years with the Bills, Wilson was courted by other cities to pull up stakes, but he stayed put. And he never regretted the decision. Even though it cost him tens of millions of dollars, he made out OK in Buffalo. His $25,000 investment is now valued at more than $800 million. Some fool, huh?

The last time I interviewed Ralph (he always insisted that I and others call him that because he was “not into formalities”), I asked him how he would like to be remembered. There was a long pause.

“There are a lot of people who go through life who don’t do anything for anybody,” he said. “They’re born. They live. They’re gone. I believe people should make some sort of contribution to make the world better. It doesn’t have to be major. It can be minor. I would like to think that by bringing the Bills to Western New York, I’ve made a contribution to improving the quality of life here. That’s how I would like to be remembered.”

He made many, many contributions to help make the world better, especially his donations of tens of millions of dollars to various philanthropic projects. But his most notable contribution was the Buffalo Bills. He brought them here, and he kept them here, and for that we should be grateful.

Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year as a journalist. He interviewed Ralph Wilson scores of times through the years.

4/4/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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