Ralph Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio, and spent most of his life in Detroit, but he is best known as the owner and president of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. He founded the team as part of the original American Football League in 1960 when the new league was given little chance of survival.
“The first few years, nobody knew about the AFL or the Bills,” Wilson said. “I recall one night having dinner in Chicago and I mentioned the Bills. The waiter said: ‘I heard of them. They’re a singing group, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘No, not exactly.’ Now you mention the Bills anywhere around the world and people associate them with Buffalo.”
The AFL might not have made it if it wasn’t for Wilson, who loaned money to the Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots to keep their teams afloat in the early years. He also shaped the policy of sharing television revenue among the teams. That helped the league stay in business and finally merge with the National Football League in 1970.
The Reds Bagnell Award was created to honor someone who made a significant contribution to the game of football. The 89-year-old Wilson is the fourth NFL owner to win the award joining the late Lamar Hunt (Kansas City), Jerry Richardson (Carolina) and Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh).
“Ralph Wilson was an out-of-towner who took a chance on Buffalo,” said Van Miller, the Bills long-time radio announcer. “He had faith in Buffalo and he put the city on the map. He made Buffalo big league. You won’t find a finer owner. He loves this team and he has done everything possible to make it a success.”
During the AFL years, the Bills were the only team to qualify for post-season play four consecutive years (1963-66). They won the league championship in 1964 and ’65 led by quarterback Jack Kemp, who later became a New York Congressman.
In the 1990’s, the Bills won four consecutive AFC championships and while they never won a Super Bowl, they made their mark as one of the great teams of all-time with head coach Marv Levy, quarterback Jim Kelly, halfback Thurman Thomas, wide receiver James Lofton and defensive end Bruce Smith. All five have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
People say, ‘You must have been crushed by those losses,’” Wilson said, referring to the four Super Bowls. “I was disappointed, naturally, but not crushed. To get there four straight years was a tremendous accomplishment. No other team has done it. I still view it as a great legacy for this franchise.”
Wilson is graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan Law School. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he took over the family’s insurance business and expanded it into other areas, including construction and communications. An avid sportsman, Wilson jumped at the opportunity to be part of the AFL when it was formed amid great skepticism almost half a century ago.
“I was confident we could succeed, especially in Buffalo,” Wilson said. “They had a team in the All-America Conference in the ‘40s that was also called the Bills. I kept the name and the people embraced (the team). We became the team for that whole region, all of western and central New York. We still are.”
Wilson is the only original AFL owner who has kept his team in its originating city. He has been a leading figure in many charitable endeavors including the food banks of Buffalo and Rochester, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Hospice Center of Western New York which recently named a new building wing the Mary and Ralph Wilson, Jr., Hospice Inpatient Unit. He was named the “Top Sports Figure” in Western New York in the past millennium.
“Buffalo is a blue-collar town,” Wilson said, “and people here would skip lunch and dinner to have enough money to buy a ticket to a Bills game. That’s how much they love the team. It has been a big part of my life. I’ve enjoyed my association with the players, the coaches and the fans. It’s been great for me. I hope it’s been great for them, too.”
Owner Buffalo Bills