Commentary

Wilson valued for impact on past, future

Originally Published: August 6, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Ralph WilsonUS Presswire/AP PhotoRalph Wilson's influence on pro football spans generations. In the 1960s, he was president of the American Football League owners and key player in the merger with the NFL. In 2008, Wilson is pictured addressing a Bills crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Saturday in Canton, Ohio, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. will become the oldest person inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He's 90, and not getting any younger. In recent years, Wilson often has spoken about his death and what it'll mean for the team he owns, the Buffalo Bills -- and more specifically, for Buffalo and the NFL as we know it.

A champion for small-market teams, Wilson has declared that the Bills won't remain in his family after he dies. The team Wilson has owned since its conception 50 years ago won't be passed to his wife, Mary, or his two daughters. Too many issues are involved to keep the team in the family, least of all steep inheritance taxes.

So there will be change in Buffalo after he's gone, hopefully not soon, and nobody knows what the change will look like. The Bills could stay or go. The only certainty is that NFL fans -- not just Bills fans -- should appreciate Wilson and his beliefs more than some of his fellow owners do.

Perhaps more than any other Hall of Famer, Wilson is as crucial to the game's future as he has been to its past.

And he's meant plenty: A World War II vet and original "Foolish Club" member of American Football League owners, he purchased the team for $25,000. A former minority shareholder in the Detroit Lions, Wilson did not buy the Bills as a vanity purchase.

"He got into the game not because he knew it would be a moneymaker but because he loved it," former Bills coach and GM Marv Levy says. "And still does."

Wilson always has been daring. His deceased daughter, Linda Bogdan, was the game's first female scout. He's always been kind: He extended former GM Bill Polian's health benefits even after he fired him. And he's always been blunt: Lou Saban, who coached the Bills in the 1960s, once groused to Wilson that he wanted to quit because he had lost the team. Wilson snapped, "Well, where did you put it?"

Two of Wilson's teams won AFL championships. Buffalo played in four consecutive Super Bowls, a record that is as underappreciated as the collection of talent that set it (including Wilson's fellow HOF class of 2009 inductee, defensive end Bruce Smith). During those years, Wilson purposely stayed in the background, allowing his coaches and players to soak up the spotlight. He lost Super Bowls to owners who did the opposite, such as Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Jones.

"He's always understood that owners own, coaches coach, and players play," former Bills player Paul Maguire says. "He always knew to stay in the background, as hard as it is for some owners to do."

In recent years, that task has been harder for Wilson.

The work of his youth -- running a world-class, small-market team -- has become the cause of his later years. The league as he knows and loves it is gone. He's now known as one of the stodgy "old-guard" owners fighting the newer, younger, slicker power brokers over the collective bargaining agreement. Never mind that he had the foresight to oppose the current CBA two years before every other owner followed suit and opted out of it.

His precious team in a precious football town is in trouble. Wilson has had some desperate moments in handling it, whether it's eliciting former New York Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Charles Schumer as support to get the league's attention to increase revenue sharing, or playing eight games in the next five years in Toronto, which would be a top-five market if it were in the United States. The Bills will make $78 million for those games, a nice bump but still far shy of the dough pocketed by Dan Snyder and Jones.

Once known for his bold moves -- such as turning down numerous tempting trade offers for the rights to Jim Kelly in 1987 by saying, "He's the cornerstone of the franchise" -- Wilson recently has presided over mediocrity.

The team has finished the season with a winning record only once in the past nine years. Local media speculated that the only reason Wilson didn't fire coach Dick Jauron after last year's 5-1 start turned into a 7-9 record was that he was too cheap to pay the contract's buyout. In a move that can be characterized only as desperate, reputed team killer Terrell Owens is now a Bill -- when he's not filming his reality show, of course. Losing never strengthens bonds between a city and team.

On top of that, Wilson has had a tough go recently: Bogdan died; so did former U.S. congressman and Bills quarterback Jack Kemp; so did No. 1 fan Tim Russert.

But Wilson has believed that when life is tough, lend a hand. After all, he lent money to the fledgling Oakland Raiders during the AFL's early days.

As Wilson stands behind the podium in Canton this weekend and accepts his introduction, remember that he's a league-first guy.

"I can tell you that I have great respect for Ralph's understanding and wisdom when it comes to the economics of the game," said Polian, now the president of the Indianapolis Colts.

"He's right on almost all the time. That's something that everyone can benefit from."

Let's hope so.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.