Pro football loses another iconic leader

Bills owner Ralph Wilson left indelible imprint on sports and business

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 2, 2014

 In 2009, Ralph Wilson Jr. earned the NFL’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 2009, Ralph Wilson Jr. earned the NFL’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills


GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Only weeks after the passing of Detroit Lions football team owner William Clay Ford, fellow businessman, philanthropist, Shores resident and NFL franchise owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. has died.

Wilson, 95, died at his lakefront Grosse Pointe Shores home the afternoon of March 25, with his wife, Mary, and daughters Christy and Edith — better known as Dee Dee — at his side. He was predeceased by his daughter, Linda Bogdan.

Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 17, 1918, but his family moved to Detroit when he was only 2 years old. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and attended law school at the University of Michigan before he joined the Navy during World War II. He earned his commission within a year and was given a commendation medal after serving aboard minesweepers in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, according to a biography on the Ralph Wilson Foundation website. When he returned home, Wilson started working for his father’s insurance business. He went on to own companies in professional sports, trucking, construction, television, insurance, energy and manufacturing, and he had success in real estate, and horse racing and breeding.

In 1959, Wilson established the Buffalo Bills and, with seven other individuals, he created the American Football League the same year. He later played a pivotal role in the merger of the AFL and the National Football League. Wilson’s many honors in the sport include the Pete Rozelle Award from the Touchdown Club in New Orleans, the NFL Alumni’s Order of the Leather Helmet, and in 2009, he earned the NFL’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills,” said Bills CEO and President Russ Brandon in a statement on the team’s website. “His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways, and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out, ‘Hi, Ralph!’ He will be greatly missed by those in our community whose lives he touched.”

In a statement on the Bills’ website, Bills Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy said Wilson “wasn’t my boss — he was my friend.” Levy knew Wilson well, having worked with him for almost two decades.

“I truly enjoyed getting together with him,” Levy said. “If we were at League meetings, we would get dinner together or get breakfast together. He was fun to be with. We shared interest in many things, certainly in the game of football. He was a unique man to work for in that he would strongly express his opinions and he would really listen, maybe even if you had a contrary opinion. I remember once he wanted me to replace an assistant coach on the staff, and I thought it was wrong to do and I knew I’d put myself under the gun. Then at the end, he said, ‘Ah, I still don’t agree with you, but you’re the coach.’ He held no malice, and after a few years, he really liked the guy, by the way.”

Many former players remembered Wilson fondly, as well.

Steve Tasker, a special teamer and wide receiver who was added to the lineup in the mid-1980s, said one of his favorite memories of Wilson was the first time he met him, before Tasker’s second game.

“I had been (with the Bills) for about eight days,” he recalled in a statement on the team’s website. “I was sitting in the locker room at my locker in my game pants and a T-shirt, getting ready to play about two hours before the game, and this gentleman walks up in a coat and tie and trench coat — a nice older guy — and he came up to me and said, ‘Hey Steve, I just wanted to tell you I’m Ralph Wilson. I want to welcome you on board. I hope it goes really well for you here. Good luck today. I hope you play well, and I just want to say welcome.’ I said thanks, and then I went over to Ed Abramoski and asked him, ‘Who is this Ralph Wilson guy?’ He said, ‘He owns the team.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me. He seems like a great guy. Is that true? That’s him?’ From that moment on, I knew it was going to be different in Buffalo for me than it had been (with a previous team). And that certainly proved to be the case. For all the things that happened to me personally, my family in western New York, to say goodbye to a guy who had so much to do with how good it has been for my family, that’s pretty difficult today.”

Former Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson, who was drafted by the team in 1973, remembered a particular Saturday afternoon when he was practicing throwing the ball on the field and Wilson stopped by.

“He came out to where I was and he said, ‘Throw me the ball. I want to see what I’m getting for my money,’” Ferguson said in a statement on the Bills’ website. “He was about 15 yards away. I threw him an early little pass that hit his hands and he dropped it. He got it back to me and said, ‘Now throw it a little harder. I want to see what I’m getting.’ So I put a little heat on it and put it right through his hands and it hit him right square in the chest. Now, I didn’t throw it real hard. He bent over and coughed a little bit, and the trainer grabbed him and took him in. I’m going, ‘Oh, geez, I think I killed the owner of the Buffalo Bills in my first year.’ So I go in there and look around the locker room, and he’s nowhere to be found. I found him in the trainer’s room laying on one of those tables with an ice pack on his chest. … The next day, I walk into the locker room and there he was, standing bright and chipper.”

Wilson’s impact on professional football is undeniable, say those who follow the sport.

“I’ll tell you this, the NFL is the 800-pound gorilla in professional sports leagues, and it’s because of men like Ralph Wilson,” Tasker said in a statement on the team’s website. “He’s not the only one, but he is certainly the template for the kind of man and the kind of leader that has made the NFL the institution on the American landscape that it is.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wilson was “a trusted advisor” to fellow league owners, and someone who “brought a principled and commonsense approach to issues.” On the Buffalo Bills’ website, Goodell also noted Wilson’s importance to professional football.

“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” Goodell is quoted as saying, “He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League. He brought his beloved Buffalo Bills to western New York, and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL.”

Wilson also wanted to protect the history of football, and to that end, in 2011, his Ralph C. Wilson Foundation announced that it was donating $2.5 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. According to a press release, the gift was to be used to create a 10,000-square-foot professional football research and preservation center that was named in his honor. It opened in 2012.

Wilson may have been best known for his love of football, but he was equally passionate about tennis as a player and spectator. He and his wife won two international mixed doubles titles, and with partners Gardnar Mulloy and Bob Sherman, he won the international 80- and 85-and-over titles in European Doubles and Austrian Doubles Championship tournaments.

His philanthropic efforts have been extensive. He created the Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation in 1999, contributing $11 million toward medical research. When Super Bowl XL came to Detroit in 2006, he donated money to build the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Athletic Field as part of the NFL’s Youth Education Town legacy gift, and the field today is managed by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan. In 2012, his nonprofit foundation gave $500,000 to St. John Hospital and Medical Center for its telemonitoring program, which is managed by St. John Home Care. Wilson and his wife also contributed to the hospital’s hospice and endoscopy programs.

Wilson established a number of scholarships, including the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Scholarship at Canisius College in Buffalo, an annual scholarship at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. — where the Bills have a training camp — and a scholarship endowment for the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Scholars Foundation for students from the Buffalo area. For his contributions to the Buffalo region, Wilson received the Seymour Knox III Humanitarian Award in 2003. In 2007, Wilson was named Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year by the Western New York Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and that year, he and his wife were saluted as Philanthropists of the Year by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

Gov. Rick Snyder was among the many who paid tribute to Wilson.

“Ralph Wilson was a leader in more areas of business than I can count,” Snyder said via email. “Of course, he is best known for his love of football and his role in the founding of the American Football League and his own Buffalo Bills, but he had major accomplishments outside of sports. I visited with Ralph several years ago and found him to be a fascinating man. And in his long, productive life, he left an important mark on Michigan and the United States.”

In the often cutthroat worlds of business and sports, Wilson was known for his integrity, down-to- earth personality and sense of humor.

Brandon said Wilson was a “special guy.”

“They don’t make them like Ralph Wilson,” he was quoted on the Buffalo Bills website as saying. “They just don’t.”

The family was said to be having a private funeral service locally the week of March 31. The Buffalo Bills planned to hold a celebration and remembrance of Wilson from 1-4 p.m. April 5 in the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse.

Those wishing to make a donation in Wilson’s memory can make contributions to the Hospice Foundation of Western New York, the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter or St. John Hospital and Medical Center in support of the Wilson Telemonitoring Program.