In November 1935, a lanky 17-year-old boy whose face seemed to always bear a happy confidence took in his first professional football game. He and his father watched their hometown powerhouse, the Detroit Lions, win a lopsided affair against the Chicago Bears.
From then on, the teen was a football fan.
He didn’t do much about it at first. He went to law school and later skippered a Navy minesweeper off the coasts of Africa and Italy. Back from World War II, he joined his father in the insurance business and grew wealthy on his own through an array of ventures.
Then in 1959 he acted on that love of football in a large way. For $25,000 he bought the rights to own a football team in the upstart American Football League. When a snag dashed his wish to place the team in Miami, he chose Buffalo.
For most of the next 54 years the owner monitored the team’s affairs from a Detroit-area office with low-slung beige-leather couches and a blond-wood desk. Shelves lining the walls filled up with game balls and assorted mementoes.
This, of course, is the story of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., as everyone who has ever set a toe on Bills Nation soil probably knows.
Wilson’s second choice of Buffalo gave it the enviable distinction of being an “NFL city.” It also made him the single-most important sports figure in the region’s history.
The story of Wilson’s “life well lived,” as one fan put it, went on display for the thousands of people who streamed through the Buffalo Bills field house in Orchard Park on Saturday, 10 days after Wilson died at age 95.
The Bills organization arranged, among other things, pictures of Wilson in his youth; a portrait of him watching one of the Bills’ four Super Bowl contests; pictures of him with players during great moments; a Saturday Evening Post feature showing him aboard that minesweeper in 1944; and a video of his induction into the pro football Hall of Fame. The team set his office furniture at the center of it all.
And at the end of the display for several minutes was Mary Wilson, his widow, who now holds a controlling ownership in the team. Fans expressed their sympathies to her, and she beamed at those who came.
“He was great for Buffalo,” Chuck Partsch of the Town of Tonawanda told her. Partsch cheered for the Bills of yesteryear in their “Old Rockpile,” War Memorial Stadium.
She and Partsch talked about “The Comeback,”’ the NFL playoff game in which the Bills came back from 32 points down to beat the Houston Oilers in overtime, 41-38. It was played in Orchard Park on Jan. 3, 1993.
“We were losing, like, what, 32 to something, and I said, ‘We are going to win this game. I know we are going to win this game,’ ” Mary Wilson said.
Frank Reich came on as quarterbacked for an injured Jim Kelly during that comeback. He was one of the former players attending the tribute.
“Months after the game he was still so moved by the whole game he came up to me and basically wanted to give me a gift,” Reich said of the owner. “He ended up writing a very large check to the charity of my choice. It was just something that was in his heart to do.”
The great defensive end Bruce Smith, crucial to the Bills’ four consecutive runs to the Super Bowl in the 1990s, is 50 years old. But he looks strong enough and fit enough to return tomorrow to the playing field.
“We looked at him as a father figure, a man with great integrity. When he gave you his word, that was his bond. It spilled over to the players,” Smith said. “You don’t find too many player-owner relationships like that, unless you are a quarterback. But I think that in this particular case there were a number of us that were fortunate enough to have a special personal relationship with Mr. Wilson that withstood the test of time.”
Fans were invited to sign two registers Saturday. One was a giant get-well placard for Jim Kelly as he deals with a recurrence of his cancer. The other was a guest book to leave their thoughts about Ralph Wilson.
“Ralph, thank you for caring about Buffalo,” one fan wrote.
“Mr. Wilson,” wrote another, “Thank-you for everything you did to put this city on the map. A life well lived. Go Bills!”