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Have we seen and heard the last of Ralph Wilson?

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Ralph Wilson's last public appearance was the Aug. 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Pro Football Hall of Fame research facility he funded.

 

By Tim Graham

Tuesday's focus was on football: how Russ Brandon might change the culture at One Bills Drive, what roles Buddy Nix and Doug Whaley will have, who the next head coach will be.

Not much time was spent reflecting on how much Ralph Wilson has faded from his beloved Buffalo Bills.

Wilson, 94, is one of two surviving members of the "Foolish Club," the group of entrepreneurs who dared to challenge the NFL establishment by forming the AFL in 1959.

The startup fee was $25,000. Forbes magazine in September valued the Bills at $805 million. Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

But what of Wilson now?

His presence has regressed considerably the past couple years -- almost to the point of invisibility as far as fans are concerned. Health questions hover. A lack of mobility prevents Wilson from traveling much. He was hospitalized for about a week this summer.

In the past couple weeks, Wilson missed two of the most important news conferences in franchise history.

Sunday's revelation that he was stepping away from daily control of the organization and abdicating his presidency to Brandon was momentous. Wilson also skipped the Dec. 21 announcement of the team's 10-year lease for the stadium that bears his name.

Wilson didn't attend a Bills game this season. He went to one last year.

He was at the team's holiday party last week, but his arrival was brief and unannounced. He didn't speak publicly or stay for Sunday's season finale against the New York Jets.

On Aug. 3, Wilson appeared in a wheelchair at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $2.5 million Pro Football Hall of Fame research center he funded. He read from a prepared statement, but he didn't speak with reporters.

When Brandon went to Wilson's home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., on Monday it sounded deeper than a meeting about organizational control. Brandon spoke of how poignant the conferral was for him, said that he choked up.

"Mr. Wilson has been a mentor to me, a father figure to me, quite frankly," Brandon said. "He is a dear friend of mine. I've had the pleasure of working for him for 16 years, and I love the man dearly.

"When he provided me the opportunity and told me he was passing the torch to me to run the operation with no restrictions or limitations, it was a very daunting, emotional day.

"Like I said, it now starts and stops, those final decisions, with me, and moving forward I will continue to run the organization like I have, by continuing to empower people beneath me."

We don't know how Wilson handled the meeting, but it's difficult to imagine he sat there stone-faced.

If he truly is stepping aside, then Monday was a seminal occasion for him and his franchise, tantamount to walking a daughter down the aisle and turning her over to the groom. Only he's raised this baby for 53 years, not twenty-something.

As those who follow the team, we all should acknowledge the gravitas of Tuesday's transferral and consider that Brandon running the team without limitations means the end of an era.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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