Whatever differences Buffalo Bills fans have had with Ralph Wilson over the years seemed forgotten, or at least forgiven, upon their hearing about his death.
There was little talk of Wilson’s hirings or his firings or playoff droughts or ticket prices or the years he didn’t open the checkbook to sign players.
Instead, Bills fans Tuesday talked fondly about the founder of their franchise, a man responsible for bringing to Buffalo a team that is so beloved it is inextricably woven into the fabric of the community. The region went into a collective state of mourning, with flags lowered to half-staff at city and county buildings.
But maybe what fans will remember most about Wilson’s tenure as owner is that he kept the Bills in Buffalo. When the city was down and out, when people were leaving the region in droves and companies packed up for someplace better, the Bills stayed.
• Obituary of Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
• What is next for the Bills franchise?
• Jerry Sullivan: His loyalty to Buffalo crowned Wilson’s legacy
• Photo gallery -- Wilson through the years
• Timeline: Key developments in Wilson’s life
“He brought pro football here and he kept it here,” said Kevin Widdowfield of Glenwood. “That didn’t happen in a lot of other cases. He could have chosen to move them somewhere else.”
That’s why when the news of Wilson’s death began to filter out Tuesday, the thoughts of Bills Nation understandably turned from Wilson and his family to the scenario that has been wondered about aloud for years:
What happens to the team when Mr. Wilson dies?
“That’s the first thing I thought,” said Cindy Amacher of Holland.
All of this and more were discussed Tuesday at kitchen tables, restaurants and barrooms across the Buffalo region, including the Big Tree Inn at Big Tree and Abbott roads in Orchard Park.
The well-known watering hole situated near Ralph Wilson Stadium had been a favorite haunt of Bills players from years past. It’s still decorated with team memorabilia and photos of players who walked through the door, so Wilson’s death was big news at the bar.
“I met Ralph three or four times,” recalled Big Tree owner Dan DeMarco, who was perched on a stool at the bar. “Ralph always was a nice guy.”
“You know how you meet someone who thinks they’re way above you?” DeMarco said. “Not Ralph. He was a regular guy. He didn’t care if you had $2 million or $2. He treated everyone as a person. He wasn’t one of those stuffy guys.”
From the archives:
• Mark Gaughan’s profile of Ralph C. Wilson Jr. before his Hall of Fame induction
• Jerry Sullivan’s column on Wilson’s having the heart of a fan
• Mark Gaughan’s article about the inductions of Wilson and Bruce Smith
• Larry Felser’s column about Wilson’s getting his due
DeMarco reminisced about watching the Bills with his father at War Memorial Stadium, the team’s glorious Super Bowl run of the 1990s and all the players he has befriended during his three decades of owning the bar. He’s grateful to Wilson for all of that.
“Ralph’s going to be missed,” chimed in Walter Pankow, who was wearing a Bills cap as he sat next to DeMarco with a beer in his hand.
“He helped so many businesses around the area because of having the Bills here,” said Pankow, of Lackawanna. “He stuck with this place. He never gave up on Buffalo.”
Everyone knew Wilson was getting up in age, but the news of his death still came as a bit of a surprise for Widdowfield, another Big Tree patron.
It was also a surprise for Amacher and Jackie Metzger, two Bills fans who are among the construction crew working on improvements at the stadium. The two had just gotten off the job site and were in Tailgaiters Bar & Grill on Southwestern Boulevard in Orchard Park when they learned about Wilson’s death.
“No!” Amacher said. “I didn’t hear that.”
The two debated what’s going to happen to the team, then agreed they still hold out hope that the franchise will somehow stay in the Wilson family.
“I think he was always trying to do the right thing for the fans,” said Metzger, of Mount Morris. “I just can’t believe he really died.”
At the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, the same conversation was being replayed between Caleb Peterson of Olean and Katie Greiner of Port Allegany.
The two were with friends on a day trip to the Queen City when the big news broke.
“You, in some way, expected him to live forever,” Greiner said.
Peterson, a lifelong Bills fan who admitted that he wasn’t always one of Wilson’s biggest supporters, was nervous about what happens now.
“To me, he never really said anything about what would happen to the team after he passes,” said Peterson. “But at the same time, he could have sold or moved the team.
“Even though he was tight with his money, he always kept them in Western New York,” Peterson said. “That says a lot about his character.”
Jamie Johnson, the bartender at the Irish Times across from Coca-Cola Field, said Wilson’s passing on Tuesday is tough to take alongside news about the recurrence of Jim Kelly’s cancer.
“This is a bad day for the Bills,” Johnson said, “and a bad day for Buffalo.”
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