NEW: Andre Reed calls Wilson a father figure; current player says he was a "great man"
Ralph Wilson was a co-founder of the American Football League
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009
Bills CEO: "We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend"
Ralph C. Wilson Jr. – the founder and longtime beloved owner of the Buffalo Bills, not to mention a leading figure in the NFL’s rise to prominence – has died, his team announced Tuesday.
He was 95.
Upon forming the Bills in 1959, Wilson became one of the co-founders of the American Football League. A few years later, he was key to negotiations with leaders of the rival National Football League that paved the way for today’s immensely popular and profitable professional football league. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called him “a driving force in developing pro football.”
Those efforts and his stewardship of the Buffalo franchise – including overseeing its run of four straight Super Bowl appearances and keeping it in western New York – helped earn Wilson entry in 2009 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“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!’” Russ Brandon, the Bills CEO and president, said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed by those in our community whose lives he touched.”
The Columbus, Ohio-born Wilson served in the South Pacific during World War II. After returning to the United States, he got into pro football first by buying a minority share in the Detroit Lions and then staking his claim to the Bills franchise.
And his new team found almost immediate success, including AFC championships in 1964 and 1965.
It took the Bills longer to make history in the newly reincarnated NFL. But for four straight seasons in the early 1990s, the team was the class of the AFC thanks to players like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith.
Still, while the Bills notched the second-most wins of any club in the 1990s, they never broke through with a Super Bowl win.
Wilson remained a presence in Buffalo for many years, including lending his name to the Bills’ home stadium. He gave up control of the organization on January 1, 2013.
On Tuesday, the man who took the reins lamented the loss of “our founder, our mentor, our friend.”
“For those of us fortunate to have worked for him, we’ll miss his kindness, his insight, his leadership, but mostly his sense of humor,” Brandon said. “He possessed the unique ability to turn a negative into a positive.”
Bills players past and present responded with sorrow and tributes to news of Wilson’s passing.
Andre Reed, a standout wide receiver on those Super Bowl teams who was recently picked for the Hall of Fame, tweeted that Wilson was a “#GreatOwner #Fatherfigure.”
Current Bills offensive lineman Eric Wood wrote: “Rest in peace to a great man.”