Many mourn passing of Hall of Famer

On Tuesday, Buffalo Bills fans received word from team president Russ Brandon that owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. had passed away at the age of 95.

“He passed away peacefully at his home with his beautiful wife, Mary, and his daughters by his side,” Brandon said in a statement from the National Football League owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1959, grew up in Detroit. He was an accomplished man who graduated from the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan School of Law, before serving his country during World War II as a member of the U.S. Navy.

“It’s tough,” Brandon said. “It’s very tough. I worked for him for 18 years and talked to him every day for 18 years – sometimes multiple times a day. What he’s meant to the entire organization … He’s our leader, our mentor, our friend. How he loved his players and loved our community. Special guy. They don’t make them like Ralph Wilson. They just don’t.”

After serving his country during World War II, like so many other men and women who would later be known as the Greatest Generation, Wilson took over his father’s successful insurance business, invested in mines and factories in the Michigan area and subsequently founded Ralph Wilson Industries.

During this time, Wilson bought a minority ownership in the Detroit Lions of the NFL. It was also during this time that Wilson heard of a plan being put into place by future Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, to start a new professional football league – the American Football League – to challenge the NFL. And after paying $25,000, Wilson established the Bills, who began play in the newly-formed league in 1960.

“Mr. Wilson was a man of true integrity, charisma and a hero in every sense of the word,” Brandon said in a later press release. “His service to his country in the South Pacific in World War II is well documented. He was a pioneer in the American Football League. He was instrumental in forging the merger between the AFL and the NFL. Mr. Wilson will long be remembered as a man who was true to his word and did countless acts of kindness and generosity for so many, while never seeking the limelight in doing so.”

For 53 of the past 54 years, Wilson was in charge of the Bills, having stepped down as president of the team at the beginning of 2013, handing the job over to Brandon.

“For those of us fortunate to have worked for him, we’ll miss his kindness, his insight, his leadership, but mostly his sense of humor” Brandon added “He possessed the unique ability to turn a negative into a positive. Our organization, our league, our community has lost a great man.”

Bills fans near and far were, understandably, saddened by the news, as “R.I.P Ralph C. Wilson Jr.” posts could be seen across social media sites.

“It is never a happy moment when anyone passes,” former Dunkirk resident Jeffery Hatfield said. “Especially if it’s the father of your favorite franchise.”

“I just want to say rest in peace,” Steamburg resident Victoria Lytel said. “Thanks Ralph, for keeping the Bills here so long.”

With Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly – quite possibly Buffalo’s most famous and recognizable former player – battling a second round of cancer, Bills’ fans hearts were already hurting. The news of Wilson’s passing just helped to build another wall in what is becoming a true Factory of Sadness at 1 Bills Drive.

“I was truly saddened by the news of Ralph Wilson Jr. passing away,” longtime season ticket holder and Fredonia resident Josh Tedone said. “Although he lived an amazing life, his passing is a huge blow to the community and leaves a sense of uncertainty with the team. My lasting memory of Ralph Wilson will be the famous photo of Ralph and all the other Buffalo Bills Hall of Famers sporting their Hall of Fame jackets.”

“I will always remember what Ralph Wilson did for the Buffalo Bills, other NFL Teams and the fans,” Dunkirk resident Barbara Rybij-Kubera said. “My life centered around the Jim Kelly years and for this, I thank Mr. Wilson. So many great memories. May you rest in eternal peace. We will all miss you.”

Even area residents who are fans of other teams were able to appreciate what Wilson has meant to the Bills, their fans and the NFL.

“Without the help of Ralph Wilson, there would have been no (Oakland) Raiders team back in the day,” Dunkirk resident, and Raiders fan Paul Phillips said. “Rest in peace. He was a very important part of football history.”

Wilson’s loss was felt across the NFL as well as at home in Western New York.

“I would like to extend my sincerest sympathies to Ralph’s wife, Mary, his daughters and his extended family, including every coach, player, staff member and fan of the Buffalo Bills who are mourning his loss (Tuesday),” New England Patriots’ Chairman and CEO Robert Craft said. “As one of the founding fathers of the AFL, Ralph deserves a lot of credit for taking that initial risk and for the many contributions he made to the NFL over the past 54 years.”

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ralph Wilson,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President and Executive Director David Baker said. “His impact on the game is immeasurable. His leadership and commitment helped steer the course of history at a time when the sport was positioned to explode across this country.

Wilson, whose Bills teams won a pair of AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, and went to an unprecedented four Super Bowls in a row in the early 1990’s, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

“On behalf of the entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family, we extend our deepest condolences to Ralph’s wife Mary Wilson, the Bills community of fans and all who love the game of football on the loss of such a great man and a Hall of Famer for the ages,” Baker added.

Buffalo Sabres’ owners Terry and Kim Pegula, like many others in the Buffalo sports community, were saddened by the news as well.

“His contributions to the city of Buffalo over his 50-plus years of owning the Bills were immeasurable and his legacy in Western New York and the sports world will be long-lasting,” a statement by the owners said. “With his passion for the game and never-ending loyalty to the great fans of Buffalo, he embodied what all owners in sports strive to be. On behalf of the Buffalo Sabres, we would like to offer heartfelt condolences to his wife, Mary, the Wilson family and everyone in the Buffalo Bills organization.”

For the last several years, the thought of what comes next for Buffalo after Wilson passed away, was always something that was on the minds of Bills fans. Now that the day has finally come, the real worrying can begin.

“I’m hoping that the family will see how much love the Bills fans have for this team and know win or lose, we always stand by our team,” Dunkirk resident Chandra Davis said.

“I don’t see how anyone could take them out of Buffalo,” Dunkirk resident Heather Zebracki added. “We have the most dedicated – and maybe a little crazy – fan base in the NFL.”

For now, as Buffalo News sports reporter Mark Gaughan reported Tuesday, citing sources with the Bills and the NFL, the team will be run by a trust for likely the next couple of years before it is put up for sale.

“It’s a sad day for Bills nation,” Fredonia resident Billy Rybij said. “Hopefully someone that will keep the team (in Buffalo) will step up and buy them. I don’t expect anything to happen right away.”

And right now, the Bills organization and its many fans in Western New York and across the globe should take solace in the fact that the Bills are still here and they have Wilson to thank, admire and remember for it.