There is something bittersweet about pro football realizing that Ralph Wilson deserved to be a member of its Hall of Fame in his ninth decade, his fifth as the owner of one of its storied franchises.
Yet it is understandable. Wilson has always operated quietly. He has never been a limousine person; his owner's box was never outfitted like a suite at the Ritz; he never felt to move in the company of a platoon of footmen.
It was just recently that the Pro Football Hall of Fame electors became fully aware that he had a giant hand in the survival of the American Football League, one of the great success stories in the history of sports in this country. It was Wilson who negotiated the rich contract with NBC television in 1964 that allowed the AFL to continue competing with the rival NFL for front-rank players.
It was Wilson who secretly purchased a large chunk of the Oakland Raiders and gave the Patriots a franchise-saving giant loan that kept the AFL alive in "a league is only as strong as its weakest link" situation.
Bills fans are much more aware of Wilson's moves to keep his franchise operating in Western New York when the health of the local economy deteriorated. When the NFL wanted an update on the Orchard Park stadium, it was done without bells and whistles, keeping it at a reasonable price. Tickets to watch a Bills game are still the lowest in the 32-team league.
Like almost all owners of big league sports teams, Wilson has been the object of a love-hate relationship, depending upon how the Bills fare. No owner in any sport has handled it better. During downbeat times, such as the current one, he has had bricks thrown at him by the media, some from this direction. Speaking personally, we have been friends for many years and we remain friends. He is a classy man.
It's fitting that Ralph entered the Hall of Fame in the company of Bruce Smith, the great defensive end from the team's Super Bowl era. Wilson has always been a great admirer of Smith, whom he calls "the best pass rusher I've ever seen and I've been watching pro football since the early '30s."
Once, near the end of one of his rich contracts, Smith called Wilson from training camp and requested a personal, one-on-one meeting concerning his new contract negotiations. Wilson made himself available early in the morning but Smith never showed. "That's Bruce," laughed Wilson. Nevertheless Smith got a contract that satisfied him.
It's also fitting that the owner has watched so many of the Bills family enter the Hall.
Quarterback Jim Kelly, the most prominent Bill of them all, was inducted in 2002. Running back O.J. Simpson was the first, in 1985. Guard Billy Shaw, captain of the 1964-65 AFL championship teams, entered in 1999. Guard Joe DeLamielleure and wide receiver James Lofton entered in 2003, running back Thurman Thomas in 2007 and coach Marv Levy in 2001.
May Ralph be in Canton when more of his Bills are inducted.Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.