It’s not a surprise when a 95-year-old dies.
After all, only a tenth of one percent of the population of this country reaches that age.
And, the reality is, as Bills owner Ralph Wilson eased into his 90s, the team’s fans became more aware of his mortality and the question of whether the franchise he brought to Buffalo in 1960 would remain in the city of its origination.
Now the speculation is rampant .
Wilson’s death, Tuesday afternoon at his Grosse Point, Mich. home, triggered all manner of memories and legitimate concerns about the future of the team in Western New York.
That’s particularly true since Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, an outspoken advocate of the franchise remaining in Buffalo, is battling a recurrence of an aggressive cancer in his jaw.
Wilson decreed that the team should be sold, rather than leaving it to his wife and two surviving daughters.
Thus, the Bills being in trust likely will mean they’ll remain here until 2020 when there’s a one-time buyout of the current lease for a mere $28 million. Before that, the fee is $400 million. And even if a new owner was willing to pay that, the process of a sale could take several years.
ALL OF THAT was set in motion with the passing of the franchise’s patriarch ... a man who evoked emotion from the team’s faithful, both ways.
My first encounter with him was in 1973, the year I started covering his team. That’s the season then-Rich Stadium opened and O.J. Simpson rushed for 2003 yards ... over a 14-game schedule.
By then, many Bills fans had warned me, “That team will never amount to anything as long as Ralph Wilson is owner ... he’s too cheap.”
And while that might have been true in the franchise’s early days, by the late 1980s he spent generously for a Hall-of-Fame-laden roster. And even when NFL free agency arrived in the early ‘90s, Wilson’s Bills spent to the salary cap.
Still, that negative assessment stayed with him.
As he often noted in later in life, “They once called me a cheapskate, and when you get a tag like that, it’s hard to get rid of it.”
OVER THE years I did several feature stories on the owner for various team publications, but I came to know him best when I was appointed to the Wall of Fame committee.
It was a small group, based on longevity, that consisted, at various times, of Van Miller, John Murphy (current and former play-by-play announcers) and Ed Kilgore, all from TV, Mark Gaughan, Milt Northrup, the late Larry Felser and Vic Carucci (now with the Browns) of the Buffalo News, Leo Roth of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, yours truly, and retired team trainer Ed Abramoski.
Ralph, though, was the symbolic chairman of the meeting, and he often started it by offering his choice for the newest inductee. He rarely encountered any resistance — we often joked, “When in doubt, remember the name of the stadium” — mostly because his choices were indisputable.
But he also wasn’t inflexible ... except on one person, Lou Saban.
Ralph loved Lou, one of the Bills most successful coaches over two stints, but insisted he would never be on the Wall of Fame.
“This is a man,” he’d remind us every year, “who quit on me ... TWICE!”
Ralph was so passionate about it, we’d bring up Saban’s name every year, just to get him going.
But while he wasn’t going to change his mind about Lou, several times we talked him out of his choice in favor of another.
WHAT I liked most about those sessions was Ralph’s stories which he always punctuated with a deep-throated laugh.
My favorite made the point of what he was dealing with, owning a team in the NFL’s second smallest market.
Ralph was close friends with Bud Adams, another of the original American Football League owners. He had moved his franchise from Houston to Nashville, where the Oilers became the Tennessee Titans.
As Wilson recalled of an exchange at a league meeting, “Bud was whining to me about how he was having trouble selling his luxury boxes for $440,000 apiece. I said, ‘Bud, mine cost $125,000 and it’s all I can do to get them sold. You’re talking to the wrong guy.’”
Those Wall of Fame meetings humanized Ralph and showed off his sense of humor, which very much altered my perception of him.
BUT LONG before that, I had learned for his love for the team and how far he would go to support and defend it.
The Bills were in the midst of a 20-game losing streak against Don Shula’s Dolphins that took up the whole decade of the 1970s.
Buffalo was 11 games into the skid in December of 1975, but had one of its greatest teams with O.J. Simpson in his prime running behind the Electric Company, Joe Ferguson at QB and Bob Chandler at J.D. Hill as the wideouts.
Late in the game, with the Bills down by three, Miami’s Mercury Morris took a pitch on a sweep deep in Dolphins’ territory and fumbled as he was hit. Buffalo defensive end Pat Toomay, trying to get to the loose ball, shoved head linesman Jerry Bergman out of the way and recovered the bobble.
But Bergman threw a flag, charging Toomay with “roughing the official,” a virtually unprecedented call.
Miami then drove the length of the field for a touchdown and won, 31-21.
Afterward Saban was furious and inconsolable and Ralph, standing outside the Bills’ Orange Bowl lockerroom, was in a rage.
Jabbing his forefinger in the air, Wilson fumed, “Those officials stole a chance for us to win that game ...”
Then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle probably didn’t like the outburst ... but there was never public indication of a fine, likely out of respect for Wilson’s loyalty and love for the league.
INDEED, it occurred to me that loyalty, probably Ralph’s most admirable trait, often proved his undoing in the early years.
Two of his general managers, Bob Lustig and Pat McGroder, were hired because of their friendship the owner, though their involvement with football was limited to player contracts.
And Harvey Johnson, whose qualification for coaching was seemingly a shared love of horse racing with his boss, went 2-23-1 in his two separate appointments as head coach.
Even then, though, Ralph wouldn’t fire him ... reassigning Johnson as a scout to finish out his career.
Then, again, it was Wilson’s team and loyalty isn’t such a bad legacy.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)