Ralph Wilson, owner of Buffalo Bills, dies at 95

March 25

Ralph Wilson, the last surviving founder of the American Football League and who owned the Buffalo Bills for more than 50 years, resisting efforts to move the franchise to larger cities, died March 25 at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. He was 95.

His death was announced Tuesday by team President Russ Brandon at the National Football League’s annual meeting in Orlando. No other details were reported.

Mr. Wilson’s Bills won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965, and American Football Conference titles in the 1990 through 1993 seasons, making an unprecedented four straight Super Bowl appearances. The team’s 103 regular-season wins in the 1990s were second only to the San Francisco 49ers.

Mr. Wilson, who helped initiate the AFL’s merger with the NFL, entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 as its oldest inductee. He became the longest-tenured NFL owner after the death of Tennessee Titans owner K.S. “Bud” Adams Jr., another AFL founder, who died in October 2013 at 90.

Mr. Wilson was a football fan who attended his first professional game in 1935, between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. In 1948, while working in his father’s insurance business, he bought a minority stake in the Lions.

By 1959, Mr. Wilson wanted his own team. He sought an NFL franchise to no avail. Then he read a newspaper story about Lamar Hunt, a 26-year-old son of a Texas oil baron, who was forming a new league after also being rebuffed by the NFL. Mr. Wilson joined Hunt and six others as founding team owners of the AFL. They called themselves “the Foolish Club.”

Mr. Wilson, who paid $25,000 for his franchise, first tried to locate his team in Miami, where he had a winter home. City officials there opposed his pitch. He then chose Buffalo over four other cities that Hunt offered up: Cincinnati; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; and Louisville, Ky.

“It was a lucky pick because over the years, they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams,” Mr. Wilson said in Canton.

Mr. Wilson helped set in motion the merger that brought the NFL and AFL together in 1966, and led to the creation of the Super Bowl the following year. The merger of the two leagues was complete in 1970.

Ralph Cookerly Wilson Jr. was born on Oct. 17, 1918, in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Detroit. He graduated from the University of Virginia and attended the University of Michigan law school before serving in the Navy during World War II.

Returning home, he took over his father’s insurance business and began investing in mines, factories, construction companies and broadcasting stations.

As a team owner, Mr. Wilson was popular with his players. He would visit practices and catch passes, said Jim Kelly, the quarterback who led the Bills in their Super Bowl run, according to a New York Times article in 1991.

The Bills’ record for consecutive Super Bowls is haunted by another precedent: No other team has lost the game four straight times.

Mr. Wilson resisted moving the Bills away from Buffalo, the second-smallest market — and one of the coldest cities — among the NFL’s 32 franchises. As other clubs moved away from Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis and other cities, Mr. Wilson stubbornly voted against every relocation of an NFL franchise.

In the 1970s, he spearheaded the construction of a new stadium outside Buffalo that now bears his name. In 2012, the Bills agreed to play there for 10 more years, with New York state committing to help pay for a $130 million renovation.

Mr. Wilson stepped down as president and chief executive of the Bills last year.

Survivors include his wife, Mary McLean Wilson, whom he married in 1999; and two daughters from an earlier marriage.

— Bloomberg News

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