BUFFALO, NEW YORK – 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, Florida.
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, Michigan, 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.
“With Mr. Wilson’s passing today, it hurts,” said Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. “So I’m going to miss him, without a doubt. He used to call me his favorite son.”