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In his heart, Ralph Wilson is a fan. Oh, he has his moments, like any sports fan. The Buffalo Bills owner can be rash, emotional, impetuous. But it has always been the love of the game, and the sheer joy of athletic competition, that drove him.

Actually, Wilson's first love was baseball. He was a boy in the 1920s, in the time of Babe Ruth. Wilson played as a freshman at the University of Virginia, with modest success.

But it was pro football that became Wilson's passion. He attended his first game in 1934, the year the Lions moved to his hometown Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio. Wilson vividly recalled that clash between the Lions and Bears.

"I'll tell you a little story about that game," Wilson said Tuesday. "Back in the 1930s, the league had a rule that you had to be 5 yards behind the line to throw a pass. They changed the rule [in 1933], but not all the teams knew it.

"Bronko Nagurski was a great fullback for the Bears. It took five guys to bring him down. In that game, they snapped the ball to Nagurski and he headed to the line. All the Lions defenders converged on him. He got behind the pile and, at the last instant, he jumped up and threw the ball to Bill Hewitt for a touchdown."

Wilson chuckled at the memory. He was a teenager again, sitting with his dad and watching George Halas' Bears, who went 13-0 before losing to the Giants in the NFL title game. Wilson's youthful love of football reaches across the generations, from leather helmets to helmets with radios, from Bronko Nagurski and Blood McNally to Buck Buchanan and Bullet Bob Hayes.

It stretches over 75 years, from that game in '34 to the stage in Canton, Ohio, where Wilson and Bruce Smith will be among six men enshrined tonight in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nagurski was in the first Hall of Fame class in 1963. So was Halas, the legendary owner and coach of the Bears. Tonight, when Wilson and Smith are inducted, it will be the first time an owner enters the Hall with one of his former players since that inaugural class of '63.

So it's a special day for Buffalo fans. They'll descend on Canton to honor Wilson, who has owned the Bills for 50 years and was a driving force in the AFL-NFL merger, and Smith, one of the most fearsome defensive players in league history.

Who knows what might have happened if the Bills hadn't taken Smith first overall in 1985? Maybe the Bills don't reach a Super Bowl. Maybe Smith winds up on a bad team. Their fates are forever entwined; it seems fitting that they go in together.

It's hard to imagine what will be going through Wilson's head at the podium tonight. "It'll be great," Wilson said. "All those great players will be sitting there. I've seen them play, either live or on TV. Every one of them."

Wilson doesn't expect to be emotional. Maybe it'll happen when Chris Berman introduces him, and he sees the Hall of Famers assembled on the stage. He's in the company of legends.

"I think it will hit him when he's there, experiencing it," said Mary Wilson, his wife. "It's going to be a tough weekend, but he'll handle it. When he gets there, he will be so energized. I swear he's gotten 15 years younger in all this."

How do you put all those years into one speech? How do you figure out who to put in, who to leave out?

"It's tough," Wilson said. "They allot you 10 or 12 minutes. It's very difficult to condense the experiences of 50 years into such a short period of time. I have some bullet points. I don't believe in getting up there and just reading a speech."

Mary says he'll nail it. I'll be pulling for him. I've had my quarrels with Wilson. He's made some dubious decisions over the years. His combustible nature has cost him some very good football men.

But through it all, Wilson hasn't lost his love for the sport. For better or worse, he has kept a team in Buffalo for half a century and given Western New Yorkers many of their greatest sporting memories. He was an AFL pioneer and a force in the NFL-AFL merger. He has been a persistent, impassioned advocate for small-market teams.

Fans might be ambivalent, particularly with the team's long-term future in doubt. But Wilson has given Buffalo its link to big-time sports in America. All owners have their failings. Wilson got to four straight Super Bowls. That, combined with his legacy as a founder, made him a Hall of Famer.

I'm paid to be the Bills' top critic. But over time, things soften. Thurman Thomas and I had our dustups. Andre Reed, too. Now when we see each other, we're like old buddies.

Even Smith, the most egotistical player I've ever covered, seems mellowed by the passage of time. He brought tears to my eyes when he spoke about his father on the day he was voted into the Hall.

Smith and Wilson were two of the greatest figures in Buffalo sports history. Wilson is probably the most significant. Today will be a dual celebration -- of the Bills' 50-year history and of an unforgettable group that took a town on a ride to four straight Super Bowls.

They were a fiercely competitive but flawed team, a reflection of their owner. Failure after great striving made them seem utterly human. Bills fans can curse and question Wilson, but he's their guy. They should thank and embrace him.

Wilson said he stopped worrying about criticism years ago. He retains his essential humanity, a fan's bottomless capacity for hope. He still loves the game, after 75 years. Today, finally, the game gets to love him back.

e-mail:jsullivan@buffnews.com