Ralph Wilson, the only owner the Buffalo Bills have known for its entire 54-season existence, passed away today. He was 95.
Wilson started the franchise with $25,000 in 1959. The Bills approach $1 billion in value today. He helped orchestrate the merger between the AFL and NFL more than four decades ago and gave his name to the stadium where the Bills play. But his greatest legacy may be keeping a franchise in an economically-challenged environment during an era when owners of the Rams, Raiders, Cardinals, Colts, Browns, Oilers, and other teams uprooted clubs and devastated whole cities.
Wilson enjoyed his greatest success in the AFL, winning back-to-back league championships with Jack Kemp as quarterback in 1964 and 1965. The franchise enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1990s with such players as Andre Reed, Thurmon Thomas, Jim Kelly, and Bruce Smith making up the core of their four Super Bowl teams. Though the Bills experienced a regular-season record-breaking runner in O.J. Simpson in the 1970s, and those near-great teams in the 1990s, they failed to win a Super Bowl during Wilson’s time as owner.
Wilson’s passing comes two weeks after Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford died and on the same day that the wife of Bills icon Jim Kelly announced that his oral cancer had spread and requires surgery. Wilson, a Navy veteran of the Second World War and 2009 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is survived by a wife, two of his three daughters, and a grateful city.