1. He was a proud member of the “Foolish Club.”
That’s what the co-founders of the American Football League called themselves — The Foolish Club. In 1959, after Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams were denied by the NFL, they decided to make a league of their own, and they designed it to be in direct competition with the NFL, a league that has existed since 1920. Ralph Wilson was one of these eight “fools” who started franchises; his was the Buffalo Bills. Of course, the AFL later merged with the NFL in 1970. The fools’ gamble payed off.
2. He was the longest-tenured owner in professional football.
Wilson has been the only owner of the Buffalo Bills in the franchise’s history — all 54 years.
3. The Oakland Raiders might not exist without him.
Back in the early days of the AFL some of the franchises were struggling financially — one of them being the Oakland Raiders. Since the AFL needed all eight teams to be taken seriously, Wilson loaned the Raiders franchise $400,000 to stay afloat. Without Wilson’s help there’s a good chance one of the most storied franchises in the NFL simply wouldn’t exist.
4. He hired the first female scout in the NFL — his daughter.
Linda Bogdan was hired as the first active female scout in pro football in 1986 after she “got tired of too many 2-14 seasons.” She also served as the team’s corporate vice president until she died of cancer in 2009.
5. Wilson donated two Bills tickets to the Boys and Girls Club for every game in Tim Russert’s name.
According to a Tweet from Tim’s son Luke, after the Meet The Press host and lifelong Buffalo Bills fan died in 2008, Wilson was also one of the first to send flowers to the Russert family.
6. He was considered by many to be the “conscience” of the NFL.
He earned this high praise for his loyalty to the fans for consistently voting against franchise relocation. According to deceased Raiders owner Al Davis, “[Wilson’s] steadfast loyalty to Buffalo is undeniable. He’s worn the colors of Buffalo with pride and poise and class. He’s the star among stars. When he got up, you knew he was speaking from a small market, he was speaking for the good of the league.”
7. He made sure no AFL games were played the Sunday after JFK’s death.
The NFL played on that weekend, but Wilson ensured his league paid the proper respect to the fallen president.
8. He is one of the few owners enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.
In fact, Tim Graham of the The Buffalo News reports that Wilson “could claim he saw every Pro Football Hall of Famer play.”
9. Even in his final days he was still giving draft input.
10. His players loved him.
After Wilson’s passing Tuesday, there was an outpouring of love from current and former players that is rarely seen for an owner. Judging by the tweets and interviews, Wilson was revered and beloved by former stars, current ones, and everyone in between.
11. And so did the rest of Western New York.
Ralph Wilson was a grandfather to the entire city of Buffalo.
12. He was the Buffalo Bills’ biggest fan for 54 years.
As Buffalo Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon said in a statement today: “No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson. It’s very tough. What he’s meant to the entire organization. He’s our leader, our mentor, our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don’t make them like Ralph Wilson.”
More than 50 years ago Wilson brought a professional football team to Buffalo, and over that half century he made damn sure it stayed in Buffalo; hopefully it always remains that way.
13. Even though the Buffalo Bills never won a Super Bowl, Ralph Wilson was and always will be a champion.
Rest in peace, Ralph.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post stated that the AFL and the NFL merger occurred in 1966. The merger between the two leagues was agreed upon in 1966, but did not take place until 1970.