By Tim Graham
CANTON, Ohio -- John Madden gave a fist pump when he saw Buffalo Bills founder Ralph Wilson arrive this morning at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It's just good to see him," Madden told me after 121 inductees posed for a group photo to commemorate the Hall of Fame's 50th anniversary. "I'm glad he's here.
"You're just happy to see it when they make it and say, 'Ralph's back and he's OK."
Wilson, 94, made a rare public appearance to be in the Hall of Fame photo and attend the prestigious Ray Nitschke Luncheon. Wilson was expected to return to his home in suburban Detroit tonight.
He has attended only one Bills game the past two seasons and none last year. His last public appearance was a year ago at the Hall of Fame, where he cut the ribbon on the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center.
"It makes you feel good that he's here," Jim Kelly said. "We all are excited about it."
Wilson had been planning his Hall of Fame trip for weeks. But given his age and lack of mobility, even those close to him were unconvinced he'd show up until they saw him for themselves.
He sat in a wheelchair. He was with wife Mary, niece and Bills executive Mary Owen and four personal assistants. He did not speak with reporters.
Wilson stood for his photo. Jim Brown and Frank Gifford helped him rise from the wheelchair. Wilson steadied himself with a walker until the photographer was ready.
Gifford firmly held Wilson's left arm. One of Wilson's assistants crouched behind to make sure Wilson didn't tip backward.
"He's a wonderful man," Gifford said afterward. "He's done many great things."
Wilson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, was an original AFL founder. He not only owned the Bills, but also financed the Oakland Raiders to keep them from folding.
"I got my opportunity in the American Football League," said Madden, the former Raiders head coach. "I wouldn't have had that opportunity if it weren't for guys like Ralph Wilson.
"I go back to my debt that I have to him and the guys that started that league and gave us opportunities. The Raiders at one time were going to drop, and Ralph gave them money and was a part-owner.
"It's great to see him. Great to have him here. I go way back with him when he really was an important part of my life."
After the group photo, Bills legends Marv Levy, James Lofton and Kelly visited with Wilson briefly and posed for photos.
"We all hope there will be many, many more years," Kelly said.
taggedJim Kelly | John Madden | Ralph Wilson