ORLANDO, Fla. – Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon emerged from a conference room here Tuesday and fought back tears as he announced to reporters that team founder and owner Ralph Wilson had died.
It's never completely unexpected when a 95-year-old man passes away, but this news deeply rattled a proud franchise and its city. It's not enough to say Wilson was intrinsic to the Bills, as he founded the Bills. It's more appropriate to say he was intrinsic to the entire region.
"I speak for everyone within the Bills organization when I say that we are all suffering a deep and profound sadness with the passing of our Hall of Fame owner Mr. Wilson," Brandon said in a statement. "We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all."
Every NFL team likes to consider itself a family, but Wilson's Bills embodied that. He bought the team for $25,000 in 1959 and nurtured it into an $870 million international brand. He did so without flash, pomposity or bravado. Attending a Bills game is as much a reflection of the surrounding community as any NFL experience could be. That's at least in part because Wilson, when given a choice of cities for his football franchise, picked Buffalo.
[Photos: Ralph Wilson through the years]
"The Bills arguably are the single most-identifiable and unifying institution in Western New York," wrote the Buffalo News in its obituary Tuesday. The Bills' website, buffalobills.com, on Tuesday displayed only a photo of Wilson and his dates of birth and death on its homepage.
Perhaps Wilson's greatest legacy besides his team and his down-to-earth manner was his allegiance to NFL tradition. He was a minority owner with the Detroit Lions before joining "The Foolish Club" of men who launched the AFL. He led negotiations between the two leagues to form what is now the NFL. He was fiercely loyal to franchises in smaller markets, and he bailed out the Oakland Raiders with a $400,000 loan in 1962. He never got to see a Super Bowl championship in Buffalo, but the Bills' continued relevance – not to mention four straight title game appearances in the 1990s – are a testament to his leadership.
His passing compounds a heartbreaking day for Buffalo. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly's family announced Tuesday that the former Bills quarterback's cancer has returned. Kelly, who like Wilson is as much of the fabric of the franchise as any single person, is being treated for an aggressive form of the disease.
In 1986, Wilson gave Kelly what was then the most lucrative contract in NFL history. That decision to spend big paid off in the following decade of dominance. Tuesday's news raises sobering questions about who will be the next face of the Bills franchise. Wilson successfully fought for years to keep the team in Western New York, and there has been speculation about what happens after the passing of the man whose name is on the stadium. The Bills have played games in Toronto, and there was even a report about rocker Jon Bon Jovi having interest in owning an NFL franchise. That report was hotly disputed by the Bon Jovi camp, but the future of the Bills will be discussed greatly in the coming months. The Bills are the league's second-smallest franchise.
For now there is simply sadness for a giant of the league and the sport itself. Ralph Wilson belongs on the Mount Rushmore of pro football. In Buffalo, he's a monument in himself.