In this edition of Walking the Wall of Fame, we turn our eyes to the founder of the Buffalo Bills: Ralph C. Wilson Jr. He was an interesting man, and his life was far from a simple one. From his humble beginnings in Columbus, Ohio, to being the last original owner of an AFL team, Ralph Wilson was a tenacious man committed to his community.
Born in 1918, on the back end of World War I, Wilson was the son of a salesman and a farmer. Those blue-collar beginnings built a man who was dedicated to the people around him. Fortunate enough to get an advanced education, Ralph Wilson attended the University of Virginia. He returned to Michigan to complete his graduate degree at the University of Michigan Law School.
Unfortunately, his quick start to life would be put on hold. In 1941, Ralph Wilson enlisted with the US Navy. He was deployed to both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. Wilson stayed in the Navy until 1946.
Upon his return from military service, Wilson took over his father’s insurance sales business. Wisely, he invested in the Detroit area significantly over the years, building a diverse and successful portfolio that would raise him to newfound wealth and stability. His investments included radio, manufacturing, television, and much more, aiming to help sustain Detroit’s economic boom.
Still, he always had love for the game of football, and his fresh fortune let him into places he couldn’t go before. In almost no time at all, he was a minority owner of the Detroit Lions. Knowing he could never take complete ownership, he was ready for a new kind of investment. He was ready for his own team. In a display of perfect timing, the famous Lamar Hunt came knocking.
Founding The Buffalo Bills
Now, Buffalo wasn’t Ralph Wilson’s first choice, but he wasn’t about to miss his opportunity either. When his initial request to establish a team in Miami was turned down, he accepted the chance he was given. In September of 1959, Wilson made a decision…
“Count me in with Buffalo.”– A telegram from Wilson to Hunt, confirming his participation in the AFL
He founded the team immediately after, choosing the name “Buffalo Bills” in honor of the previous Buffalo team from the All-America Football Conference (1946-49), which merged with the NFL a decade previously. Though three teams survived that merger, Buffalo was not one of them.
The loudest voice in Western New York clamouring for a professional football franchise was a man named Patrick J. McGroder. McGroder was asked to buy out the AAFC Bills when the league was consumed, but knew it wouldn’t make the leap to the NFL and declined. He was then offered the AFL Buffalo team before Wilson was, and declined again, firmly holding onto the belief that the team would only last if it was in the NFL. He believed Buffalo deserved to be an NFL city. Ralph Wilson immediately sought him out, and the two became fast friends.
Together, McGroder and Wilson ran a solid franchise, and McGroder’s contributions to the team would see him inducted into the Wall of Fame in 1985. It was Wilson, however, who took the plunge. He paid $25,000 (roughly $220,000 today), for the rights to start the team, and the initial team budget came out of his own pocket.
Keeping the AFL Afloat
He didn’t just pay for his own team, however. Wilson knew that, if this league was to last, it needed stability; an early foundation of consistency upon which to build success. To prevent other teams from collapsing and ruining his new-found dream, he made sacrifices. Ralph lent the Oakland Raiders $400,000 (roughly $3.77 million today) to keep them afloat, and assisted the Boston (soon to become New England) Patriots as well.
Unlike every startup football league in American history, the AFL didn’t have any teams fold. This is largely due to Ralph Wilson putting his own money on the line to save these struggling franchises. As one of only three of the original AFL owners to have secure financial footing, Ralph took great risks to keep his dream alive.
He made strides in terms of business management as well, pioneering gate and TV revenue sharing amongst the league and teams, which gave the AFL a strong financial footing and ensured their initial survival. These policies are still foundational principles of the NFL we know today.
An Owner of His Own
Ralph Wilson wasn’t your usual football fan. He liked to win, sure, but was largely concerned with managing his team as a business in the beginning. In a famed conversation between Wilson and O.J. Simpson’s agent, the idea of Simpson being a rare talent capable of winning the team a Super Bowl was raised. He famously remarked the following:
“What good would a championship do me? All that means is everybody wants a raise.”– Ralph Wilson To O.J. Simpson’s Agent
His frugal attitude waned through the years, once stability was secured in what was (at the time) an ever-changing landscape. He began to take risks, and pay for them too. He put the team in a position to win, and win they did. His involvement in the building of the legendary ‘90s Buffalo Bills is immense. Not winning a Super Bowl in his lifetime became his greatest regret.
The people of Buffalo may not have been Ralph’s own, but they became a family to him. When the Buffalo market share began to fall out of the country’s top 20, Wilson was inundated with requests to move his team to a more profitable location, namely Los Angeles. He was unmoved, as was his franchise.
“I couldn’t bear to do that to the people of Buffalo.’’
“They’re such good people, and they love that team. They need that team.”– Ralph Wilson on moving the team out of Buffalo to a bigger market
Wilson was outspoken throughout his entire life, putting the team and the league ahead of personal concerns time and time again. He was known to be petty at times, as his famed dispute over the Rich Stadium naming rights is well known, but put the team’s wishes above his own with regularity.
Unfortunately, nothing can last forever. As his health began to wane, he knew it was time to say goodbye to the franchise he’d given his life to. He prepared for the eventual sale of the team, with no intent to leave it to his loved ones. His express wishes were to keep the team in Western New York, and his estate made the sale to the team’s current owners, the Pegulas, with that in mind.
The Pegulas have since worked out a new stadium deal to keep the Buffalo Bills where they are indefinitely. Ralph Wilson passed away of natural causes on March 25th, 2014. He was 95 years old.
Remembering Ralph Wilson
His last great act was leaving parts of his fortune to the communities he loved. He created the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, with the aim to give away $1.2 billion to his communities, as per his wishes. Recently, the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation awarded $100 million donations to both Southeast Michigan, where had built his life, and Western New York, where he made the Buffalo Bills a staple. The money would go to restoring and maintaining waterfront parks and trails. The foundation will give away the entirety of the original sum over the next 20 years.
A “Foolish” Founder
He’ll always be remembered for his participation in “The Foolish Club”, the group of men who founded the AFL all those years ago. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
“The historic AFL-NFL merger that these men brought to fruition more than 50 years ago helped make the NFL the pinnacle of sports that it is today, capturing our imaginations like little else. Whether you live in Buffalo, Kansas City, or anywhere else, if you love pro football, you owe Ralph Wilson a debt of gratitude. He was the last of the AFL founders and was a true pioneer of our sport.”former USA Football chairman/KC Chiefs PResident Carl Peterson on Ralph Wilson’s death
To continue to enjoy the Walking the Wall of Fame series, check out the table below!
|O.J. Simpson (1980)||Jack Kemp (1984)||Patrick J. McGroder (1985)||Tom Sestak (1987)||Billy Shaw (1988)|
|Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (1989)||The 12th Man (1992)||Elbert Dubenion (1993)||Mike Stratton (1994)||Joe Ferguson (1995)|
|Marv Levy (1996)||Joe DeLamielleure (1997)||Robert James (1998)||Edward Abramoski (1999)||Bob Kalsu (2000)|
|George Saimes (2000)||Jim Kelly (2001)||Fred Smerlas (2001)||Kent Hull (2002)||Darryl Talley (2003)|
|Jim Ritcher (2004)||Thurman Thomas (2005)||Andre Reed (2006)||Steve Tasker (2007)||Bruce Smith (2008)|
|Booker Edgerson (2010)||Phil Hansen (2011)||Bill Polian (2012)||Van Miller (2014)||Lou Saban (2015)|
|Cookie Gilchrist (2017)||Reserved For|
The Golden Era