Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the last surviving founder of the American Football League and only original AFL owner who had kept his team, New York’s Buffalo Bills, in its originating city, has died. He was 95.
His death was announced today by team president Russ Brandon at the National Football League’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, according to the NFL’s website. No other details were reported.
Wilson’s Bills won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, and American Football Conference titles in the 1990 through 1993 seasons, making an unprecedented four straight Super Bowl appearances. The team’s 103 regular-season wins in the 1990s were second only to the San Francisco 49ers.
Wilson, who helped initiate the AFL’s merger with the National Football League in 1965, entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 as its oldest inductee. He became the longest tenured NFL owner after the death of Tennessee Titans owner K.S. “Bud” Adams Jr., another AFL founder, who died in October 2013 at the age of 90.
“It has been a grand ride for me and tonight is the high point,” Wilson said at his hall of fame induction in Canton, Ohio. “The honor comes to one who never played the game.”
Wilson was a football fan who attended his first professional game in 1935, between his hometown Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. In 1948, while working in his father’s insurance business, he bought a minority stake in the Lions.
By 1959, Wilson wanted his own team. He sought an NFL franchise to no avail. Then he read a newspaper story about Lamar Hunt, a 26-year-old son of a Texas oil baron, who was forming a new league after also being rebuffed by the NFL. Wilson contacted Hunt and on Oct. 28, 1959, joined him and six other men as founding team owners of the AFL. They called themselves the “the Foolish Club.”
Wilson, who paid $25,000 for his franchise, first tried to locate his team in Miami, where he had a winter home. City officials there opposed his pitch. He then chose Buffalo over four other cities that Hunt offered up: Cincinnati; St. Louis; Kansas City, Missouri; and Louisville, Kentucky.
“It was a lucky pick because over the years, they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams,” Wilson said in Canton.
He named the team after another pro football club that played in the city -- and had broken up 10 years earlier -- which honored the 19th century frontiersman “Buffalo” Bill Cody, according to Tom Robinson’s 2011 book about the team.
Wilson helped set in motion the merger that brought the NFL and AFL together in 1966, and led to the creation of the Super Bowl the following year. In January 1965 he met with Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, to discuss a combined league based on revenue sharing among the teams, a key feature of the final agreement.
Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr. was born on Oct. 17, 1918, in Columbus, Ohio, to Ralph Cookerly Wilson Sr. and the former Edith Cole. He grew up in Detroit after the family moved there when he was young.
Wilson graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and attended the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. In 1941, he enlisted in the Navy, and served as a skipper on minesweepers in the Mediterranean and Pacific, according to “When Football Went to War,” the 2013 book by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin. He was discharged in 1946.
Returning home, he took over his father’s insurance business and began investing in mines and factories in Michigan. He founded Ralph C. Wilson Industries Inc. and added construction companies and broadcasting stations.
As a team owner, Wilson was popular with his players. He would visit practices and catch passes, said Jim Kelly, the quarterback who led the Bills in their Super Bowl run, according to a New York Times article in 1991.
“No one wants to see the white-collar owner who’s the corporate type,” Kelly said.
Kent Hall, the team’s center from that era, praised Wilson for not meddling in on-field decisions. As an owner, he was “not cocky, firing players or hiring players,” Hall said, according to the Times.
The Bills’s record for consecutive Super Bowls is haunted by another precedent: No other team has lost the game four- straight times.
In 2012, the Bills agreed to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, a Buffalo suburb, for another 10 years, with New York State committing to help pay for a $130 million-renovation.
Wilson stepped down as president and chief executive officer of the Bills in 2013.
He had three daughters: Christy Wilson Hofmann, Edith Wilson and Linda Bogdan, who was the NFL’s first female player scout when she worked for the Bills. Bogdan died in 2009.
In 1999, he married the former Mary McLean.
He kept his permanent residence in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.
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