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Local fans feel the loss of Ralph Wilson

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Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:00 am

OLEAN — Gary Lickfeld strolled into his bar, crossed his legs and rattled off memories.

He had been told a reporter was seeking reaction after the death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson. Like countless Western New York watering holes, the proprietor of AJ’s bar on West State Street had “seen it all.” He attested to what Bills fans had seen through the years: Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Joe Ferguson, O.J. Simpson, Joe DeLamielleure, Marv Levy, the “12th Man,” four straight Super Bowl losses and, of course, “wide right.”

They — like many other players, coaches and scenarios — were the chess pieces of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., who died at his Detroit-area home Tuesday at 95 years old.

Without a single question asked, Mr. Lickfeld began, “Not a lot of us have a stadium named after us, do they?”

In many ways, AJ’s bar has been a microcosm of the greater Bills pandemonium in Western New York — win or lose — for seemingly as long as anyone can remember. But Mr. Lickfeld’s recollections of the team extend beyond celebrations and despair Sundays at a corner bar 62 miles south of the stadium that bears the late owner’s name.

He was just a boy from Cheektowaga when the Buffalo Bills became one of the American Football League’s eight original teams in 1960.

“We were season ticket owners since 1960, my dad and I,” Mr. Lickfeld said. “It was very rare if you didn’t see him walking around at the game, always talking to fans. I was just a young kid then, but I remember my dad saying, ‘That’s Ralph over there.’”

His father stopped purchasing season tickets after the Bills’ 1964 AFL championship season — the first of two straight — due to job obligations. Those tickets then cost $4 per game, Mr. Lickfeld said.

“But I’ve been with the team for 55 years,” he maintained.

Indeed, he fell to his knees behind the bar with a head of dark brown hair after kicker Scott Norwood missed wide right in Super Bowl XXV, and now with a head of gray he continues to host football festivities at AJ’s amid 14 straight non-playoff seasons.

Though Mr. Wilson ceded complete control over football operations in later years, Bills fans had grown to question the late owner’s personnel decisions, Mr. Lickfeld admitted.

“He was the sharpest tool in the shed for a very long time, but even that gets rusty after a while,” he added.

But during those four consecutive Super Bowl seasons, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found at AJ’s. “So many” bar owners could say the same, he added. 

Mr. Lickfeld called Ralph Wilson a visionary. 

“Back in 1960, $25,000 was a lot of money (to buy the team), and he took a chance,” Mr. Lickfeld said. “What was the AFL? ... When he built the stadium, it was 80,020 seats. I mean, what was he thinking of? And he was filling them.”

And the fact the Bills continually sell out “The Ralph” is a testament to the stadium’s namesake, he added.

“They’re selling out every Sunday (until recent seasons), and they haven’t been to the playoffs in 14 years,” Mr. Lickfeld said. “Most fans, after four or five years, would say ‘screw you’ and find somebody else.”

Mr. Lickfeld had his daughter, Garen Leroy, in bed before that Super Bowl XXV loss Jan. 27, 1991. She was 9. 

Years later, Mrs. Leroy has tended bar at AJ’s for more Sunday afternoon Bills games than she can count.

She’s a fan. She loves her fellow fans. And so did Ralph, she said.

Asked to describe his legacy in one word, she said: “Sincere.”

“It’s sad and it’s tough because he was the heart and soul of that team ... He was their number-one fan,” Mrs. Leroy said. “In my mind, I think he’s happy with the fans, how the fans have been so dedicated. Whatever their record is, the fans still go and people still watch it on TV.”

Sitting down the bar, another lifelong Bills fan, Renee Congdon, chimed in: “To be a Bills fan, you have to be the biggest optimist in the world. Every year, you’re an optimist. Every year is the year. And when they’re not, it’s like, ‘Oh, well. We’ve got next year.’”

But much uncertainty has surrounded the Bills’ future in Orchard Park after Mr. Wilson’s death. Many believed the Bills’ series of “home games” at Toronto’s Rogers Center was an experiment into NFL football north of the border. A 10-year lease with Erie County, however, looks to keep the Bills in Buffalo at least for now.

Still, “Ralph Wilson was dedicated to keeping that team in Buffalo because of the fans. I’m afraid they’re going (to leave) now,” Mrs. Leroy said. 

Mr. Lickfeld suggested the Bills host a public funeral visitation on the 50-yard line at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“That first home game this year is going to be emotional,” his daughter added.

And so it’ll be at the corner of North 24th and West State streets come Week 1, Mr. Lickfeld said.

“This is just one, little corner tavern,” he concluded. “All of Western New York is like this. I do believe Ralph was a genuine Western New Yorker.”

Mayor Bill Aiello is a lifelong Bills fan.

"Ralph Wilson was such a tremendous asset to Western New York," the mayor said Tuesday evening after learning of the owner's passing. "I can remember seeing him when I went to the old War Memorial Stadium. Ralph brought so much to this area ... he was such a fantastic person for the Buffalo area and down here as well.

"He's going to be missed ... and this is a sad day for the Bills."

 (Contact reporter Kelsey M. Boudin at kboudin@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)

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