It finally happened: Ralph Wilson, Jr. died. I say that with as most a somber tone as can be because it truly did not seem that the day would ever come.
When I was younger, Wilson was just some old guy who owned the Buffalo Bills. I basically only knew his name because family and friends would complain about him in the offseason saying things like, “Ralph, open your pockets and spend some money,” or “Why can’t Ralph just die so we can buy some good players?” It seems insensitive as I have gotten older, but he was just something that existed only in the mouths of fans.
As I got older, the term “Ralph” came to mean so much more. It represented the stadium, the fans, the energy, Sunday, football and the Buffalo Bills, but more figuratively than anything else. Only once I reached a certain age did I understand that the term “Ralph” literally represented all of those things.
I do not even know if I will ever be able to truly grasp how good he was for the NFL. I “know” he was great because I am told he was. And what I am told is that he is an original owner of a start-up football league at the time, a major proponent behind the AFL-NFL merger and arguably the sole reason the Bills have remained in Buffalo.
His legacy goes beyond the limits of Erie County, however. He lent money to financially strapped teams like the Oakland Raiders and – for better or worse – the New England Patriots. He lobbied for gate and revenue sharing to improve a competitive balance across the league. Most nobly, possibly, he was the voice vouching to cancel games after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, while the rival NFL league played as scheduled.
Within the greater Buffalo area, he brought life and energy. Many people believed that Buffalo was too small of a market to be successful, but he defied that. People often forget that he and the Bills won consecutive AFL championships in 1964 and 1965. Those same people also forget that getting to four consecutive Super Bowls means four consecutive AFC championships – an unprecedented feat to this day.
Maybe Wilson’s stubbornness, rather than the fans, is to be credited with Buffalo’s success. Time and time again, he adamantly refused to leave Buffalo for what seemed to be greener grass.
In 1998, the stadium was named “Ralph Wilson Stadium,” choosing to forgo millions of dollars in revenue by selling the naming rights. Whether this was a smart decision or not, being able to attend the games at “the Ralph” as opposed to “Bank of America Stadium” or “AT&T Stadium” makes the fan experience that much better.
It is often said that a dog takes on the traits of its owner, and I think that is precisely the case in Buffalo. Wilson always had high expectations and wanted the best. With him, “next year” was always the year.
As a die-hard Bills fan, I know full well how blinded our fan base often is, and I blame it on Wilson.
The discussion of the Bills’ future is inevitable, especially now with him gone. It is not a concern of mine at this moment, however, because I am finding too much joy in reflecting on the memories. Not of him as a man but of what he provided to Buffalo.
I said earlier that I do not know if I will ever be able to truly grasp how great he was – and I mean that. Nonetheless, if the feeling I get every time I am at the Ralph watching a game is any inclination of his greatness, then he was an incredibly special and powerful man.
Thank you, Ralph Wilson, Jr. Rest in peace.