The American Football League was created by Lamar Hunt. But it was saved by Ralph Wilson Jr.
Wilson, the sole owner of the Buffalo Bills since the team’s inception and a member of the “Foolish Club” that founded the AFL in 1960, died Tuesday. He was 95.
The AFL was in just its second season when Oakland owner Wayne Valley told Wilson that the Raiders’ owners wanted to fold their franchise. Wilson, worried that the league would collapse if one club folded, spotted the Raiders $400,000 to get through the 1961 season.
Wilson never regretted writing that check. The money kept the AFL afloat, and in 1970, it merged with the NFL.
“Hey, we were rolling the dice,” Wilson told The Star before his 2009 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I’m a guy who takes a risk. The people in my hometown, Detroit, laughed at me. They asked, ‘Are you goofy, going into some honky-tonk league?’
“I said, ‘Well, maybe so. We’ll see.’ ”
Wilson, a minority investor in the Detroit Lions during the 1950s, chose Buffalo for his AFL franchise after he was unable to reach an agreement with officials at the Orange Bowl for a team in Miami because the old All-America Football Conference franchise had left a trail of debt.
“Ralph was a prize,” said former Chiefs president Jack Steadman, who was Hunt’s right-hand man in league matters as well as running the team. “Ralph was one of the great owners who was so involved and had so much to do with the success of the American Football League.
“He was great with Lamar. He was great with me. He was great with the other owners. We had to have owners who could be successful in the league, and he was one of them.”
Wilson’s death follows that of Houston/Tennessee’s Bud Adams, another member of the Foolish Club, who died in October. Wilson and Adams were the last living members to still own their teams.
Wilson had been in failing health since having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit, he attended the Hall of Fame induction weekends during the last few years.
Wilson was known as the “conscience of the NFL” for his loyalty to fans and the several stands he took against franchise relocation. As president of the AFL in 1965, Wilson served on the Expansion Committee and the AFL-NFL Negotiations Committee, which led to the merger.
“Ralph had a significant impact on the evolution of pro football,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said. “He took risks and made decisions that helped mold the NFL into what it is today. As two of the original members of the AFL’s Foolish Club, my father and Ralph shared a unique bond and a special friendship.
“I had the privilege of knowing Ralph and his family my entire life. His sense of humor was extraordinary and his passion for the Buffalo Bills was remarkable. He was a gentleman and a family man and will be missed dearly.”
Buffalo chairman Russ Brandon informed commissioner Roger Goodell and other owners of Wilson’s death at the annual NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.
“No one loved this league more and his fellow owners and his players more than Ralph Wilson,” Brandon said. “Great man, unbelievable leader and sort of fitting it is here at the league (meeting) where he and the original owners put this league in the position it is in today.
“It’s a difficult, difficult period right now.
“It is unbelievable what he has accomplished. It was unbelievable when he put on the yellow jacket and went into the Hall of Fame. I always said the only two things I wanted to see was Mr. Wilson put on that yellow jacket and hand him the Lombardi Trophy.
“We’re still working on the second part obviously, but it is fitting that he is in the Hall of Fame for all of that he’s done for this organization, for this league and all he has meant to western New York and the community.”
During Wilson’s 53 seasons as owner of the Bills, his team won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and four AFC championships during 1990-93 as Buffalo played in an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.
“Mr. Wilson was a visionary and pioneer of professional football,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “We have lost a founding member of the NFL family, but Ralph’s lasting impact on the NFL will forever be felt.”