GENEVA — Sad day. Huge loss.
These were two of the many phrases expressing the thoughts of Buffalo Bills fans Tuesday, the day Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. died at the age of 95.
“Sad day. Ralph was always a guy who cared about Buffalo,” Geneva High School boys basketball coach and longtime Bills fan Brian Miller said. “He had the opportunity to move the team but didn’t want to.”
Wilson spent $25,000 in 1959 to found the Bills franchise and bring it to Buffalo. American Football League championships in 1964 and ’65 and four straight Super Bowl appearances a quarter-century later brought relevance and respect to Buffalo and to Wilson.
“It’s a huge loss for the Bills community and fans,” Geneva High School girls basketball coach and Bills fan Ed Collins Jr. remarked. “He helped bring a tradition to Buffalo with football. He brought pride to western New York too. He took a team that struggled for a long time and made them a Super Bowl contender in the early 1990s. You always had hope.”
Miller’s father bought him season tickets to the Bills in 1980. He kept them through 1995, and resumed as a season-ticket holder in 2000.
Miller, the associate director for compliance at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, saw Buffalo’s first three Super Bowls in person.
A faithful supporter of the team, Miller met Wilson a couple of times and said he will always remember his generosity.
“Where we used to tailgate in the early 1990s was near the administrative office, and we would see him after the games and he would drop by and say hello,” Miller commented. “He was very cordial and a nice man. He gave us tickets to an AFC playoff game in Pittsburgh (in 1993) and had them waiting for us at will-call. They were 50-yard-line seats — five tickets — behind the Bills bench, 15 rows up. The whole way down we were wondering if there was really going to be tickets for us, but they were there. They were from Mr. Wilson.”
Two common themes come to mind when fans of football think of Wilson, the first being his ability to stay out of the club’s day-to-day operations.
“He was behind the scenes and let the general manager and coaches do their jobs,” Miller noted. “He hired people that he felt could do the job and you appreciate that as a fan.”
“He was a leader who didn’t want the spotlight,” Hobart Athletic Director and Pittsburgh Steelers fan Mike Hanna commented. “His job was to be behind the scenes, and that’s what he did.
“He was hugely important for western New York and the region. He was a humble person. You rarely saw him in the headlines or in photographs. He loved his Bills, and I give him credit. As time goes on, his legend, and rightfully so, will grow.”
Maybe more important than anything to Bills fans was the loyalty that the 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee showed to Buffalo and its fan base.
“Buffalo is a market that has been struggling for 35 to 40 years, and Mr. Wilson maintained a commitment to keep the Bills in Buffalo and had a sense of pride in Buffalo,” Vice President for Student Affairs at Hobart and William Smith Colleges Robb Flowers, who has had season tickets since 1985, noted. “That commitment cost him tens of millions of dollars, but the Bills were so important to the pride of the city and pride of the region. That’s a remarkable commitment of an owner to a city when his opportunities were more vast than keeping the team in Buffalo.”
“That’s what I really admire about him, is that he probably could have made a lot more putting the team somewhere else,” Hanna added. “I admire the loyalty to the region and the Buffalo Bills fan base.”
Wilson’s passing leaves a huge void in the Bills community, and the ongoing questions about the franchise’s future are likely to resurface.
“Looking back, you appreciate what he did for the city and to keep the franchise viable in western New York,” remarked Miller, who lived in western New York for 41 years before moving to Geneva five years ago. “It’s a staple of that whole area and region. It’s made Buffalo more big league and put the city and region on the national map.
“He was a guy that appreciated the blue-collar nature of the fans in Buffalo. He appreciated the fan base and what we Bills fans feel for the franchise. He became one of us.”