By Tim Graham
At every Friday practice for nearly three years, Ralph Wilson's golf cart would whir down the stadium tunnel ramp and onto the field.
Troy Vincent knew it was time to leave and shower up.
No matter that three practice periods still remained. Head coach Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray were helpless.
Mr. Wilson was there to whisk away their star safety for tuna melts and french fries at Danny's restaurant in Orchard Park.
"Sam Adams and Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher always used to tease me," Vincent said last week. "It made me feel very uncomfortable leaving the middle of practice.
"What do you say? Even Coach Mularkey and Jerry, you know ... It is what it is."
Wilson still was driving his Ford Taurus at the time, and Vincent would slip into the passenger seat for a drive across the vast stadium asphalt lot to the nearby corner bar.
"It would scare me to death," Vincent said of Wilson behind the steering wheel.
At the same table each week, they forged a bond that lasts today.
Vincent wonders aloud if even Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or Bruce Smith has as intimate of a connection with Wilson. Many former Bills curious about Wilson's health will call Vincent for updates because they don't feel comfortable calling Wilson at home.
"He just took to me," Vincent, now the NFL's vice president of player engagement, said during a break at last week's rookie symposium in Aurora, Ohio. "He became a wonderful friend and mentor."
Vincent provided a rare glimpse into Wilson from someone outside the organization. Virtually all of the updates we've received on the Bills' 94-year-old owner have come through his wife, team executives or coaches.
Wilson has been to only one Bills game the past two years. He didn't speak to reporters when he appeared at the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year ago.
There's been little insight into the thought Wilson put into abdicating his presidency to Russ Brandon in January.
"There's a time and a season for everything," Vincent said. "Mr. Wilson has been a pioneer, a maverick in some cases. He's just been a wonderful example of someone who has been totally committed to a city, to ownership. He embodies what the National Football League is all about. He was part of the merger."
Vincent then eased into a terrific Wilson impersonation, down to the facial expressions and cackle.
"But, as Ralph would say, 'Hey, I can't do this for the rest of my life, Troy! I'm old now, if you didn't know! Heh, heh ... ' and he would start to laugh. 'It's time to turn it over to some other people to take the organization where it needs to go.'
"You can appreciate that."
Vincent joined the Bills in 2005 after making five straight Pro Bowls for the Philadelphia Eagles. His seven interceptions in 1999 tied the NFL lead.
Vincent also was highly involved in the NFL Players Association. He was union president and considered a top candidate to succeed Gene Upshaw as executive director someday.
"I knew a lot," Vincent said. "Mr. Wilson took me to a whole another level."
Wilson might have viewed Vincent as more of a businessman than a player.
"We'd sit there for two hours," Vincent said, "and talk about football, talk about leadership, talk about business, share stories about the merger, give his thoughts on what we should be looking at the future.
"We'd talk about planning and expanding the game, taking the game global, what that means for the local economies, making sure the fabric of the game stays in the local communities where it means the most, making sure there's a balance where everyone can win with revenue sharing.
"We talked about why these things matter and keeping the most viable professional sport in America alive. These things must stay alive for that to happen."
To follow up on some of their Danny's skull sessions, Wilson would have business-related notes placed in Vincent's locker stall.
Partly inspired by Wilson's chats, Vincent also helped start the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program at the Wharton School.
"You talk about a professor," Vincent said wistfully about Wilson. "You talk about mentorship. You talk about learning the game of football."
Vincent showed how much he knew about the collective bargaining agreement in 2006 by one-upping Wilson.
The Bills placed Vincent on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in Week One. A little-known rule allowed him to be released once healthy. Vincent shocked Wilson with a phone call to exercise that right. Vincent signed with Washington.
Wilson obviously didn't hold a grudge with one of his favorite players.
Although Wilson had faded from public view, Vincent predicted we haven't seen the last of the Bills' founder.
"The days of him pulling up to practice down the middle of the field, which we've seen a hundred million times, I don't think those days are over," Vincent said. "That golf cart will come down that ramp again, and the old man will roll up and you just come around and give that man all the love that he deserves, that he's earned for the body of work and his leadership.
"I'd love to see that one more time."
taggedBruce Smith | Jim Kelly | Mike Mularkey | Ralph Wilson | Russ Brandon | Stephon Gilmore | Thurman Thomas | Troy Vincent