Ralph Wilson Jr., the founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, has died, team president Russ Brandon announced Tuesday. Wilson was 95 years old.
Wilson was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the longest tenured active owner.
"No one loved the game of football more than Ralph Wilson," Brandon said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "They don't make 'em like Ralph Wilson, they just don't.
"He passed away peacefully at his home with his beautiful wife, Mary, and his daughters by his side."
During his ownership, the Bills won two American Football League championships (1964-65) and, after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, four consecutive AFC championships (1990-93) to reach the Super Bowl.
In last five months, three NFL owners have passed away: Bud Adams of the Tennessee Titans, William Clay Ford of the Detroit Lions and now Wilson.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement:
"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. He brought his beloved Bills to western New York and his commitment to the team's role in the community set a standard for the NFL.
"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."
Brandon later released a statement from the team:
"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. We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Mary, his daughters Christy and Dee Dee (Edith), his niece Mary and his entire family.
"Mr. Wilson had a relentless passion, a deep love for his Buffalo Bills, the City of Buffalo and the National Football League. He also loved the Bills fans and all of the people of Western New York who embraced the Bills.
"This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills. His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out 'Hi Ralph!' He will be greatly missed by those in our community whose lives he touched.
"Mr. Wilson was a man of true integrity, charisma and a hero in every sense of the word. His service to his country in the South Pacific in World War II is well documented. He was a pioneer in the American Football League. He was instrumental in forging the merger between the AFL and the NFL. Mr. Wilson will long be remembered as a man who was true to his word and did countless acts of kindness and generosity for so many, while never seeking the limelight in doing so.
"More than anything, he wanted to bring a Super Bowl championship to Western New York. He wanted it for the players, the coaches and the franchise. But mostly he wanted it for the fans. No owner has wanted a title more for these reasons than Mr. Wilson. In the end, he was extremely proud that his Bills are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls.
"For those of us fortunate to have worked for him, we'll miss his kindness, his insight, his leadership, but mostly his sense of humor. He possessed the unique ability to turn a negative into a positive.
"Our organization, our league, our community has lost a great man."
Brandon said in the statement that the Bills' plans for future ownership would be "addressed in the near future."
"Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss," Brandon said. "We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would. We understand our fans' curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization."
According to the Buffalo News, the team will be placed in a trust, which likely will control the franchise for a minimum of a few years. Eventually, the trust will sell the team, with the proceeds going to Wilson's estate, the newspaper reported.
Wilson brought major sports to Buffalo in 1959, when he joined a group that became known as "The Foolish Club," eight businessmen led by Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who founded the AFL. The initial cost to Wilson was $25,000, and it was considered a risky venture to challenge the established NFL
Wilson's team is valued today at roughly $870 million, based on estimates by Forbes Magazine. The Bills arguably are the single-most identifiable and unifying institution in Western New York, according to the Buffalo News.
"The strength of the Bills franchise is the passion of the fans," Wilson said after signing a 15-year lease deal in 1997. "Buffalo is a community of down-to-earth, hard-working families who, in large numbers, are also avid sports fans. You know how the people here feel about you because they are very straightforward. That is a quality I admire."
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder paid his respects in a statement.
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ralph Wilson," Snyder said. "All of us have lost a NFL legend whose passion for his team was inspiring. We will always be thankful for Ralph's contributions to the development of the AFL and NFL."
Bills running back C.J. Spiller, a first-round pick of the team in 2010, issued a statement.
"I would like to send out my condolences to the entire family of Mr. Ralph Wilson," Spiller said. "He will forever be remembered and loved by myself and the rest of the Bills fans across the world. I personally want to thank Mr. Wilson for drafting me and showing me what a great organization he has built.
"As I sit here and think back, I remember first meeting him shortly before my press conference the day after the draft. He looked me in the eye and said, 'I know that you will put some points up for us.' I will not let you down, Mr. Wilson. May God be with you and your family always. This world has lost a great leader, but his legacy will surely live on forever."
Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 17, 1918 and moved with his family to Detroit when he was a youngster. He attended the University of Virginia and later attended law school at the University of Michigan before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He earned his commission within a year and served aboard minesweepers in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
After the war ended he took over the successful insurance business of his father and invested in Michigan area mines and factories. He eventually purchased several manufacturing outlets, construction firms, and radio stations, and founded Ralph Wilson Industries.
Although he made his fortune in the business world, the Bills were always Wilson's No. 1 love. For most of his tenure as owner he attended all of the games, home and away, and only in last few years did he skip games, usually because the travel became too cumbersome for him, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.