During his 95 years, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson went from fan to “Foolish Club” member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, enjoying every step along the way.
The NFL lost the person regarded as the league’s “conscience” on Tuesday, when Wilson died at his home around 1:40 p.m. Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wilson’s death at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
His death resonated among the owners — from old to new. Wilson played an integral role in establishing the modern game, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 1959, Wilson founded the Bills in helping establish the upstart American Football League, whose owners were dubbed “The Foolish Club” for having the chutzpah to challenge the NFL. Some five years later, Wilson played an influential role in setting the framework of the two leagues’ merger.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.”
The last surviving member of the original AFL owners, Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., said Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner’s office. He had been receiving home hospice care.
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 Hall of Fame induction weekends. He was a regular at Bills home games since founding the franchise, but had not been there since going to one game in 2010.
Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president’s title to Brandon.
Wilson earned a well-established reputation for loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.
Though he butted heads several times with late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, it did not affect their friendship.
As Davis said in 2009: “There were a lot of guys saying (Steelers owner Dan) Rooney was the conscience. But certainly, Mr. Wilson was more of a conscience of the league.”
Wilson also earned the respect of his former players.
“I’m broken-hearted,” Bills receiver-turned-broadcaster Steve Tasker said. “I had a lot of respect for him and I owed a lot of my success professionally and personally to him and this organization. I never forgot that, and I never will.”