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Ralph Wilson, a fan at heart

By Jerry Sullivan

Like a lot of Bills fans, I had mixed feelings about Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who died on Tuesday at age 95. It was difficult to reconcile the Hall of Fame owner, the visionary who gave Buffalo so many sporting thrills and was a driving force in the NFL merger, with the man whose small-minded decisions often contributed to management dysfunction and a losing product on the field.

More than anything, I wished I had covered Wilson in the early days of the franchise, when he was young and vibrant and full of ideas. I envied the late Larry Felser, who covered the Bills from the start. Larry knew Wilson more than half a century ago, when the AFL was in its infancy and pro football was just beginning to take a hold on the American public.

I was the main Bills columnist toward the end, when Wilson allowed his franchise to founder and became something of a laughingstock in the sport. But Felser felt critics should not judge Wilson from his latter days as an owner, but for his entire half-century in the sport. Larry reached out to some of the veteran voters, and he helped convince them to put Wilson in the Hall of Fame in 2009.

"Look at the big picture," Felser told me after that vote. "He was a hell of a pioneer, one of the great stories in American sports, even though the NFL was a brother-in-law sport when the AFL came along. They were taking on a much bigger entity and they did what no one else thought they could."

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Bills fans had mixed feelings about Wilson. But he was a fan at heart himself. He fell in love with pro football as a young man in the mid-1930s. He told me once about attending a Lions-Bears game with his father in 1934, the year the Lions moved to his hometown of Detroit. He laughed at the memory of the great Bronko Nagurski throwing a jump pass for the George Halas Bears.

It's hard to imagine a man whose football memory reached from Nagurski and Halas to the NFL of today, with exotic defenses and instant replay and a three-day draft. But I never felt Wilson lost his essential love of football, the sheer joy of being a major player in his sport. I think that's why he stubbornly resisted a public succession plan. To the end, he wanted to be the man who owned the Bills.

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As I said, I had mixed feelings. I called Wilson doddering, a bumbler. I held him up for ridicule at times. But I have to say, I liked him. There was a playful side to the man. After he got into the Hall of  Fame, he told me "They've had me dead for years. They don't say the name 'Wilson' anymore. They just say '90'."

He enjoyed the back-and-forth with the media. He didn't hold a grudge, unless he felt you had burned him twice. That's why he would never put Lou Saban on the Wall of Fame, because he felt Saban quit on him two times. He stopped talking to me for a year when I called him cheap, but he eventually relented. He never stopped sending the chocolate football at Christmas.

I know Bills fans feel torn, too. I've been asked about Wilson's legacy. I think it depends on the ultimate fate of the franchise. If the Bills leave, most fans will never forgive him. I can understand the sentiment. But for now, it's better to celebrate the man who brought the Bills to Buffalo and provided so many thrills.

Covering the Super Bowl teams, soon after coming to The News, was one of the great pleasures of my career. Chronicling the dysfunction of the last 14 years has been a chore at times. After the Tom Donahoe years, I think Wilson was afraid to put his trust in outsiders. That's why he turned to Marv Levy as general manager, which was one of his more regrettable moves.

I'll never forget Wilson after his induction into the Hall of Fame. He sat in a chair in a big tent in Canton, greeting former players as they came up to shake his hand and congratulate him. I remember the looks on the faces of his former players as they approached him. They all seemed so happy to see him in his big moment.

That's how I choose  to remember Ralph, as a man who loved above all to be in the company of his players, to share in their mutual triumphs. He relished the scene in the locker room after big games, going from locker to locker to congratulate the Bills and share a joke with them.

It feels eerie, Wilson dying so soon after the news hit about Jim Kelly's cancer returning, on a day when a story in The News talked about Kelly needing a miracle. Wilson has seen a lot of good men go before him: Jack Kemp, Kent Hull, his daughter, Linda, scout Bob Ryan, Felser. They were all part of his football family. It had to be difficult to see them pass away.

I hope Buffalo fans remember him that way, too, as a titan of pro football, for better or worse, a man who was a major player in the most powerful sports league in American history. I don't know what will happen now. I wish I could say Ralph had some secret plan to ensure the Bills would remain in Western New York forever, as fans so desperately wish.

Wilson didn't seem to feel he owed that to Buffalo, which is why many people withhold their affection. He publicly wondered if Western New York was capable of supporting an NFL team over the long term. But he kept the team here for more  than half a century, even when the city was in decline and other teams moved in a cold, money-driven sport.

He gave Buffalo a team to be proud of, and some lasting memories. I have to think he was at peace about that in the end. The most towering figure in Buffalo sports history is gone. Even the most conflicted fan must be feeling a profound sense of gratitude and loss.

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Bills, NFL
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