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Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson dies at 95

Ralph Wilson was the last surviving original AFL team owner.

Ralph Wilson was the last surviving original AFL team owner.

The American Football League was created by Lamar Hunt. But it was saved by Ralph Wilson Jr.

Mr. 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 at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He was 95.

The AFL was in its second season when Oakland owner Wayne Valley told Wilson that the Raiders might fold.

Mr. 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," Mr. Wilson said 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.' "

Mr. Wilson chose Buffalo for his AFL franchise after he could not reach an agreement with officials at the Orange Bowl for a team in Miami because the old All-America Football Conference franchise of the 1940s had left a trail of debt there.

Mr. Wilson's death follows that of Titans owner Bud Adams, another member of the Foolish Club, who died in October at 90. Wilson and Adams were the last living AFL club owners/founders to still own their teams and were contemporaries of Hunt, who founded the AFL and owned the Chiefs until his death in 2006.

Mr. Wilson had been in failing health since hip surgery in 2011.

"It's the end of a real important era," Jets owner Woody Johnson said. "Ralph was so important in developing football into what it is today. He was the NFL. He was the AFL."

Mr. Wilson was known as the "conscience of the NFL" for his loyalty to fans and the several stands he took against franchise relocation. As AFL president in 1965, Mr. Wilson served on the Expansion Committee and the AFL-NFL Negotiations Committee, which led to the merger.

In Mr. Wilson's 53 seasons as owner of the Bills, his team won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and four AFC titles during 1990-93 as Buffalo played in an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls — but lost them all, starting with XXV against the Giants in Tampa.

"I was truly blessed to be around Mr. Wilson during the glory days," Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas said. "…He used to call me his favorite son."

The future of the team is in the hands of team president Russ Brandon and Wilson's second-in-command, Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littmann. The Bills are expected to be placed in a trust before eventually being sold.

Mr. Wilson expressed no interest of leaving the team to his family. He is survived by wife Mary, daughters Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant, and Edith Wilson.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Ralph Wilson

Born: Oct. 17, 1918, Columbus, Ohio

Formative years: Wilson's family moved to Detroit in 1921 when his father, Ralph Wilson Sr., took a sales job at an auto dealership. The father later turned to insurance. The younger Wilson graduated from the University of Virginia, where he played baseball and boxed, and completed one year at the University of Michigan Law School. He made his fortune taking over his father's insurance business.

Military service: U.S. Navy, 1941-46, fought in World War II.

Pro football roots: Wilson purchased a minority share of the Lions, then sold it and helped found the American Football League in 1960. He formed the Bills in 1959, the seventh of the eight original AFL teams. He played a key role in the AFL merging with the NFL in 1970.

Hall of Fame: Wilson was inducted in 2009.

Did you know? In November 1963, Wilson lobbied successfully to have AFL games postponed the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy's assassination; NFL games were played as scheduled.

Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson dies at 95 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 10:53pm]
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