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There is no doubt that Mary Wilson’s passion for helping young girls realize the importance of becoming active in sports is both genuine and heartfelt.

The wife of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., herself a former tennis star, on Saturday offered words of encouragement to more than 230 inner-city Buffalo girls, ages 9 to 12, in the Bills’ Healthy Zone Fieldhouse. She also was there to receive an award for her work with the Western New York Girls in Sports program, which she founded in 2004 and has run since then.

“My mother inspired me to do this. She taught tens of thousands of girls to do sports,” Wilson said of her mother, a former physical education and English teacher. “When I was 12 years old, my mother took me off the football field and put a tennis racket in my hand. I played tennis for 50 years and now play golf.”

Her main message to the girls on hand for her program’s annual clinic: “Find a sport, fall in love with it and play it the rest of your life.”

Wilson was honored with the 2012 President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition Community Leadership Award – one of 47 individuals and organizations across the country to be honored for making sports, physical activity, fitness and nutrition-related programs available in their communities.

“It means more than you can imagine because my mother inspired me,” she said. “I would like for girls to have more opportunities to play sports and learn to play on a team, learn to lose and win graciously.”

Many praised her for her dedication. She, in turn, thanked the 100 volunteers and partnership organizations that help with the program and its clinics.

“Mary Wilson is one of those rare people who has translated her passion – for sports and athletics – into life-changing service to the community,” said Michael Weiner, United Way of Buffalo and Erie County president, who presented her with the award.

“She is a natural athlete, and studied physical education. She has coached and taught tennis, and has been a competitor in national tournaments and a member of several international cup teams representing the United States.”

Bills officials also praised Wilson and spoke of how her girls sports program complements the NFL’s PLAY 60 initiative, encouraging kids to be active for at least 60 minutes daily.

“Mary Wilson’s enthusiasm in leading the Western New York Girls in Sports program has had a profound impact on girls in our area and continues to change lives in a positive way,” Mary Owen, Buffalo Bills executive vice president of strategic planning, said in a prepared statement.

“We were thrilled to be able to nominate Mrs. Wilson and we look forward to continuing the Girls in Sports program,” she added.

Wilson, at 60, was ranked the nation’s No. 1 player in her age group in singles and doubles tennis. She has since given up the game because of arthritis in her right wrist, which, she said, has no cartilage left in it.

But that hasn’t sidelined her. “I fell in love with golf the last five years,” she said.

Wilson also taught high school physical education and coached tennis.

“I fell in love with it and I had to be on the tennis court every day, or I cried,” she recalled.

Wilson thanked her husband for helping “pay for the [Girls in Sports] program.”

“I’d like for [the program] to get bigger, but don’t tell my husband,” she said, with a grin.

email: krobinson@buffnews.com