Wilson in 1961
|Date of birth:||October 17, 1918|
|Place of birth:||Columbus, Ohio, United States|
|Date of death:||March 25, 2014(aged 95)|
|Place of death:||Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan|
University of Michigan
Career highlights and awards
|Years of service:||1941–1946|
|Battles/wars:||World War II|
Ralph Cookerly Wilson, Jr. (October 17, 1918 – March 25, 2014) was the founder and owner of NFL's Buffalo Bills. He was one of the founding owners of the American Football League, the league that the NFL merged with in 1970, and was the last of the original AFL owners to own his team. At the time of his death he was the oldest owner in the National Football League, at age 95, and the second-longest tenured owner in NFL history (over 54 years, second only to the 63 years George Halas owned the Chicago Bears). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 8, 2009.
He graduated from the University of Virginia and attended the University of Michigan Law School. At the University of Virginia he joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. During World War II, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theater. After the war ended, he took over the successful insurance business of his father and invested in Michigan area mines and factories. He eventually purchased several manufacturing outlets, construction firms, and radio stations, and founded Ralph Wilson Industries.
A minority owner of the Detroit Lions, Wilson got wind of Lamar Hunt's plans for a new league, the American Football League, to challenge the NFL. He tried to put together a team in Miami, but was turned down. His next choice was Buffalo. In September 1959, Wilson sent Hunt a telegram with the words, "Count me in with Buffalo." He named his new team the Bills, after a previous team that had played in the All-America Football Conference from 1946 to 1949. On October 28, 1959 the Buffalo Bills officially became the seventh AFL team. Wilson made Professional Football a resounding success in a "small market", signing such stars as Cookie Gilchrist, Jack Kemp, and Tom Sestak and Hall of Famers Billy Shaw and O. J. Simpson.
He was a guiding force in AFL policies that ensured success, such as gate and television revenue sharing. As one of only three AFL owners to be on relatively solid financial ground (along with Hunt and Bud Adams), Wilson lent the financially troubled Oakland Raiders $400,000 and was also willing to lend money to Billy Sullivan of the Patriots. Wilson helped keep those franchises afloat, likely saving the entire league from folding (the AFL was unique among professional football leagues in that not a single AFL franchise folded in its history). In November 1963, Wilson lobbied successfully to have AFL games postponed the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy's assassination; NFL games were played as scheduled.
After the original naming rights deal on the Bills' current stadium expired in 1998, the facility's name was changed from Rich Stadium to Ralph Wilson Stadium. According to an article on msn.com, Wilson, described as "stubborn", turned down numerous naming rights deals for the stadium.
Wilson was one of the league's most outspoken owners, even near the end of his life. Wilson voted against the Cleveland Browns' relocation to Baltimore in 1995. He publicly rebuked NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in an open letter in 1998 over league policy, which disallowed criticism of referees, after poor officiating had a direct impact on a Bills loss that season. He was one of only two owners (the Cincinnati Bengals' Mike Brown being the other) to oppose the league's former (pre-2011) collective bargaining agreement. (Wilson and Brown were commended for their foresight when the agreement later led to the 2011 NFL Lockout.) He also negotiated a deal to have his team play home games in Toronto beginning in 2008.
Wilson retired from the position of president in 2001, giving operational control to General Manager Tom Donahoe; Wilson retook control of the team's operations in 2006. Wilson again retired as team president, this time surrendering all control of the team's operations to Russ Brandon, on January 1, 2013. He continued to consult with Brandon on team and league operations up until his death.
Wilson maintained a permanent residence in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan with his wife, the former Mary McLean, whom he met in 1989. He had three daughters from previous marriages, two of whom became involved in team business. Linda Bogdan (1948–2009), Pro Football's first female scout, was the franchise's Corporate Vice President up until her death. Another daughter, Christy Wilson Hofmann, currently serves as a consultant in the area of merchandising. The third daughter, Edith "Dee Dee" Wilson Jr., is not involved with the franchise. The highest ranking relative in the organization is Mary Owen, Wilson's niece, who serves as Vice President of Strategic Planning.
Wilson broke his hip in a fall at his home in July 2011, causing him to miss the Bills' home opener for the first time in franchise history. The injury left him wheelchair-bound. He issued a statement saying that he was undergoing physical therapy and hoped to attend at least one game during the season. Wilson also stated that he was "very surprised" at the team's 41-7 victory over Kansas City in Week 1. He was hospitalized in August and early September 2012 with an unspecified infection and missed the entire 2012 season. In April 2013, Wilson was reported as "doing really well," with a statement that he hoped to make the 2013 home opener.
Wilson died at his home on March 25, 2014, of natural causes at the age of 95. The trust that inherited the team will be controlled by his widow, Mary Wilson until its presumably eventual sale.
On January 31, 2009, Wilson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with former Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith. Joining the two legendary Buffalo Bills icons in Canton for enshrinement were defensive back Rod Woodson, offensive lineman Randall McDaniel, wide receiver Bob Hayes, and linebacker Derrick Thomas. The Hall of Fame game, played the day after the 2009 inductions, strayed from the usual AFC–NFC format and instead was contested by two original American Football League teams: the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers). This matchup was announced after Wilson was elected. Like Wilson, Titans owner Bud Adams was the only owner his team has ever had, and the two were the only living members of the "Foolish Club", the founders of the original eight AFL teams. Wilson and Adams are two of only three men who have owned a professional football franchise continuously for fifty years (George Halas, who owned the Chicago Bears from 1920 until his death in 1983, is the third).
The Hall of Fame game on Sunday, August 9, was a kickoff to the 2009 season, which would have been the 50th season of play for the AFL, if the NFL had not merged with it. Wilson was officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 8, 2009 with ESPN icon Chris Berman acting as his "presenter". Wilson was scheduled to receive his Hall of Fame ring in a halftime ceremony during the Bills game against the Cleveland Browns on October 11, 2009. However, Wilson cancelled the event at the last moment, without notifying the press or fans, and no explanation was given. It was widely speculated that Wilson cancelled the event out of fear of being booed by Bills fans for the team's chronic poor performance on the field and a series of highly unpopular managerial decisions.
Wilson donated US$2.5 million to the construction of a "Pro Football Research and Preservation Center" at the Hall of Fame; the facility was named in Wilson's honor on August 13, 2012.
Wilson was also involved for a number of years in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing both as a breeder and as an owner in France and the United States. He bred Santa Anita Derby winner Jim French, as well as two-year-old European superstar Arazi, winner of the 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and European Horse of the Year. Another horse, Outta Here, raced in the 2003 Kentucky Derby and finished in seventh place.
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education, St. John Fisher College, Rochester NY
The Mary & Ralph Wilson, Jr. Hospice Inpatient Unit of Buffalo Hospice is named after him:
Hospice Buffalo Campus 225 Como Park Boulevard Cheektowaga, New York 14227
The Wilson Building 150 Bennett Road Cheektowaga, NY 14227
Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Athletic Field at the NFL/Youth Education Town-Boys & Girls Club at the Dick & Sandy Dauch CAMPUS in Detroit, Michigan.