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As a kid, I never knew or cared that there was more to sports than the players on the field. My earliest memory of finding otherwise came on a very humid August day as a pre-teen. I recall – very vividly – a frail, white-haired man in a sweater (on a ninety degree day, no less) sitting in the passenger seat of a golf cart as he was slowly driven past the fan-packed bleachers at St. John Fisher University. While en route to his destination, the man offered his hand to us all in a wave reminiscent of royalty, and he was met with some of the most vicious boos and lewd remarks that I’d heard to that point in my life.
Taken aback by this, and now incredibly curious, I remember asking my father who the man was and why everyone hated him – being well versed in nothing but books and professional wrestling at that stage, I’d lavishly imagined he was some evil former player from a rival team, there to antagonize everyone in the crowd for his own benefit. I mean, it seemed plausible back then, so why not? Before my old man could chime in, though, a surly and sweaty mess sitting a few feet away offered up his own explanation. “That man,” he blurted out “that man owns the Bills and he is all that is wrong with sports. That’s our ‘fearless’ leader who will make you cynical and bitter if you stick around long enough to let him.” While mildly preposterous to imagine that I’d remember an exchange like that as well as I’ve accounted, the message sunk in and it drove me to find out about him.
The entire car ride home was peppered with questions about that geezer that ground everyone’s gears. Being a Raiders fan, my pops wasn’t much help. He had his own ridiculous, polarizing senior citizen running the team he loved to worry about, after all. Thankfully, I grew up in Bills country and was able to ask other kids’ dads, teachers, and whomever else I could get to their opinion on this guy. In all the people I’d talked to though, I never found a single one who had a nice thing to say about him. They say your first impression is a lasting one, and boy was that true. For years, I despised the guy. When I’d fully understood the sport and its inner workings, and later began writing about them, I’d begun to find out more about Ralph Wilson Junior as a man as well as our owner.
In September of 1959, sports pioneer Lamar Hunt received a telegram from an ambitious and eager 40 year old man from Michigan. This message, sent from the desk of Detroit area insurance agency, read simply “Count me in with Buffalo.” That was the start of it all. That spry young lad (whom we can now imagine as anything but – see my initial impressions of him for that), Ralph C. Wilson Jr., gave the city of Buffalo his first great gift on that day – a franchise with the upstart American Football League.
Now, as is the case with most, Buffalo wasn’t Wilson’s first choice. His initial bid to join Hunt’s new endeavor would have placed a team in sunny Miami, Florida – chosen from a list of five US cities provided by Hunt. Unfortunately for Wilson, the city of Miami shot down his request which led him to consult friends within the media who advised him (then a part owner of the NFL’s Detroit-based franchise) to choose Buffalo over the three cities left in his pool of options. Borrowing from an AAFC team who played in the city during the late 1940’s and enjoyed moderate popularity in their time; the new club was named the Buffalo Bills. On October 28th, 1959, they officially became the seventh to join the AFL for their inaugural season.
Beyond player acquisitions – the team dominated the early years with stars like Cookie Gilchrist, Jack Kemp, Tom Sestak, Billy Shaw, and some… Simpson fellow – Wilson helped to develop a revenue sharing system, still used to benefit his and other small-market teams today. Furthermore, he made financial contributions to opposing franchises in order to keep them from going under before assisting in the orchestration of a deal merging the AFL with the competing NFL in 1970. Without his help, it’s possible that the merger never would have happened. That would mean no Bills, and the way many see it, no football – at least in the capacity we have it now.
It’s easy to forget all of that, though. Ralph, over the years, has become a lightning rod for criticism and negative conversation due to some of the more stubborn, boneheaded maneuvers he’s made with this team. After securing one of the first ever stadium-naming deals in sports with Rich Foods, Wilson let the deal expire in 1998 and refused all of the myriad corporations making offers in favor of naming the team’s Orchard Park home after himself. He’s had public conflicts with coaches and pushed them out of town for no discernable reasons and, in what many fans see as a major slap in the face, he doesn’t even live in – much less visit – Western New York for more than a week or two each year. Notoriously cheap, so the stories go, he wants to pinch every penny and has oftentimes intervened with personnel management to make sure that a player who is set to make big money doesn’t return to the team after their contract’s conclusion. None of us has any way of knowing the true level of validity in those claims, but in looking back over the years, it’s easy to find the trends. In recent memory, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Travis Henry, Nate Clements, Willis McGahee, Jason Peters, Jabari Greer, and Marshawn Lynch are all players that we have made quick work of – jettisoned off when they still had plenty left in their tank, most having yet to enter their prime – just to save a buck.
Perhaps reality set in when he broke his hip last July in his Michigan home, causing him to miss a Bills home opener for the first time in history. Maybe, in his 93rd year, he finally realized he doesn’t have much longer to see a championship team parade through downtown Buffalo, hoisting the Lombardi trophy. He came close to that scene four times in the early nineties, the last time he used forward thinking in managing team expenses, but we all know how that turned out. Still, his willingness to spend on legitimate talent – providing a then-high eight million dollar, five year deal to quarterback Jim Kelly in 1986 – got the ball rolling to build a perennial powerhouse in Orchard Park, a sign to fans who had stayed loyal during the dark times of the 70s and 80s that things were turning around. Along with the Kelly signing, everything seemed to fall in place. Amongst all of the other pieces, there was the head coach no one wanted, as well as the major acquisition of the top defender available – both putting the team on the fast track for success. Perhaps someone pointed out the similarities in change to Ralph this year. He’s got his quarterback. He’s got his once-washed-up coach whom had no other options, and his roster has quietly been falling in line, thanks to the risky hire of General Manager Buddy Nix.
One of his smartest decisions in recent years was bringing Nix onboard to manage the team and run all football operations. In that role, Nix has managed to work the draft and our own roster wonderfully, not only building a solid young core, but also doing the work to acquire and retain veterans who are actually good at the game of football – something that the old regime failed to do. Still, despite the change of direction from Wilson and improvements made across the board, the team has finished with only a cumulative 10 wins in the past two years.
Ralph, I’m willing to bet, knew it was time to break the bank. Time for his swan song. Time for him to go out in style. A year after selecting defensive lineman Marcell Dareus in the first round of the NFL draft, extending veteran Kyle Williams with a lofty deal to play alongside him, and snagging All-Pro linebacker Nick Barnett in free agency, the Bills still needed a better pass rush and more playmakers on defense. The man’s mentioned it on more than one occasion – his flirtation with death. He knows he’s not far from it, and the legacy he’d leave behind – the last remaining thought for a group of individuals who have loyally stuck by his franchise’s side over the past few decades – would be far from positive if he kept things on their usual track.
Knowing the risks involved with making splashes in free agency, Wilson also knew the potential rewards – and that they heavily outweighed them. Just a few days into this year’s free agent signing period, former first overall pick Mario Williams, a defensive end from the Houston Texans, became the newest Bill with the second richest contract in league history, signed off on by the team’s long-standing owner. Less than a week later, the team hit the market again, signing another defensive end – Mark Anderson – to a deal worth close to thirty million dollars. “I feel like we’re not that far away… I’d like to see us make the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl while I’m around. I don’t expect to be around that many years.” Wilson told the Buffalo News, following possibly the most shocking and impactful signing the team has made in their history. “I didn’t give a darn about the money. I can’t take the money with me. I did it to help the community, to help the team, to get back to the playoffs.”
Really, that’s the attitude he should have. At his age, leading a team that hasn’t managed a playoff berth in over a decade, his baby that he’s nurtured for more than fifty years; it only makes sense to go all out. Making this one last splash might do wonders for his team.
Ralph could have sold the team years ago, maybe to someone who wanted to move them elsewhere. He could have tucked his tail between his legs and stuck with the status quo – cheap players, ambivalent coaches, and lackluster personnel. He could have ridden off into the sunset on his golf cart chariot with a full bank account and a bad football team. He could have planted roots in Cincinnati instead, way back in 1959.
…but he didn’t.
In just a week, the Bills have ventured from pretenders to playoff hopefuls. National writers have good reason to say they have a league-best anything for a change, outside of the numerous compliments to the fan base. With the Ralph we all once knew and loathed, this offseason may have played out much, much different. Steve Johnson would have walked, we would have ‘had interest’ in definitive B-listers like Jeremy Mincey but passed on offering a contract, and we’d be led to believe that a Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman led line could bring us to the promised land. Thankfully, that’s not what happened.
Say what you will about the man, but he cares. He cares about this team, about this league, and he especially cares about these fans. Even if he doesn’t believe that we really are all that close, he’s giving us hope. If, grim as it may sound, this happens to be the final offseason of the Ralph Wilson era it’s been one to remember – and we’re only two weeks in. Maybe, after all of the years of garbage and neglect, he’s decided to treat us all. Let’s pretend for a minute that there are no shallow motives. No remember-me-as-such directives, because no man can possess enough naiveté to believe one week can rewrite a lifetime of misery. I’d like to think that he’s doing this for Bills nation – for the fans – for Buffalo.
So, to a man who hasn’t done much for us over the years besides providing a punchline for our jokes and an antagonist for our sports rants, I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for trying. Thank you for giving us a shot. Thank you for even giving us a team to complain about.
Even if these two new rich Buffalonians turn out to be duds, the impression has been made. When it counted, he did what he could to make his team viable again – to give his fans something to believe in. He may be all that is wrong with sports but, at least for one year, he’s all that is right with Buffalo.