When the AFL started in 1960, a self-made former insurance agent turned manufacturing magnate from Detroit, MI named Ralph Wilson Jr. decided he wanted to get into the professional football game. When plans to buy the new Miami franchise fell through, Wilson set his sights on Buffalo, a city that appealed to his rust belt background. Wilson became the first owner of the Buffalo Bills in 1959, ahead of the 1960 debut of the AFL.
Wilson was influential in the early days of the AFL. The World War II vet was one of the most financially sound owners, and he evened kept the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots afloat for a time by lending them money. Without the influence of Wilson, it’s impossible to say whether or not the AFL/NFL merger would have ever happened and if the Super Bowl would have ever been invented.
In more recent years, Wilson has been criticized by the Bills’ inability to field a competitive team for over a decade. While he surely deserves some of the blame, he can’t be accused of trying new things. He’s brought in big name GMs (Tom Donahoe) and settled for guys he was familiar with (Buddy Nix). He has tried veteran coaches and rookies alike. He’s tried to spend big money and also tried to use it more frugally.
Regardless of the past 13 years of Bills’ football, Wilson’s larger influence could never be denied. He successfully lobbied for the AFL to cancel all games the weekend after the JFK assassination. His funding of the Patriots and Raiders made it so the AFL was the only league in sports history that never had a team fold under its watch. He also spoke out against the collective bargaining agreement that was signed by the league and the union in 2008. If you remember, that was the agreement that the NFL opted out of that lead to the lockout of 2011.
Wilson has seen a lot in his 95 years. He saw action on both Atlantic and Pacific fronts in World War II. He saw his daughter, Linda Bogdan, become the first ever full-time female scout in the NFL, and then saw her rise all the way up to Corporate Vice President before he buried her in 2009 after she lost her battle with cancer.
He’s seen many wins and losses. He’s seen countless players come and go. He saw Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, Ernie Warlick and George Saimes win him AFL Championships in ’64 and ’65, and then he’s since seen them all buried. He saw Kent Hull and Mitch Frerotte win four straight AFC championships in the early 90′s, then he saw them both leave the world far too early.
Ralph Wilson has had a lot of time on this earth, more than many others will get, but one thing you can’t say about Ralph, is that he’s wasted any of it. Even when he passes on, he’ll live forever with his name on the Bills’ stadium or his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His legacy in shaping that biggest sports entity in its history has been written in stone. I’d say that it’s been a pretty good life’s work.