Buffalo, N.Y. (WBEN/AP) - Ralph Wilson Jr., the only owner the Buffalo Bills have ever had, has died at age 95.
Bills President Russ Brandon made the announcement at the league's winter meetings in Orlando on Tuesday.
"No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson," Brandon said in a statement. "It's very tough. What he's meant to the entire organization. He's our leader, our mentor our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don't make them like Ralph Wilson."
Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., around 1:40 p.m., said Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner's office. "He had been receiving in-home hospice care." she said
Wilson had been in failing health for several years after having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home suburban Detroit, he was well enough to attend the Hall of Fame induction weekends over the past few years.
Wilson was the founder and sole owner of the Bills after establishing the team with the upstart American Football League in 1960. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
The death of the football hall of famer, businessman and philanthropist is being mourned by the team and the entire league, as well a large segment of the Buffalo business and philanthropic community.
His death also raises a question that Wilson himself often addressed in life, about the team's ability to stay in Buffalo long term, now that he is gone.
In his lifetime, Wilson took a team founded on $25,000 in 1960 and he turned it into a team that according to Forbes magazine turned a profit of $35 million in 2008. But many experts have suggested that new ownership would require large loans, with interest payments that could wipe out most any current profit estimates, based on available revenues in Buffalo.
|The Team's Future:
While he lived, Ralph Wilson regularly ruled out the possibility of his family taking over the team after his death. The Bills will instead be sold, though that sale would likely be put off for a few years, with the franchise being operated through a trust.
The team's short-term future in Buffalo was also secured when the Bills signed a 10-year lease with the state and Erie County to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The $271 million stadium deal includes a provision that essentially locks the Bills in for the next seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay $400 million if it decides to leave before 2020. The team then has the option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.
Several groups have expressed interest in purchasing the Bills, including one led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. In November 2013, CBS Sports.com's Jason La Confora reported that rock legend Jon Bon Jovi was also interested in the team- but the reports were shrugged aside by his publicist.
Wilson first purchased a minority share in the National Football League's Detroit Lions before joining a group of other team owners - then called "The Foolish Club"- with teams in the American Football League . He was the only original AFL owner who kept his team in the city where it was founded.
He played a significant role in the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and has served on nearly every League committee since. Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August 2009 for his work on behalf of the league.
"It has been a grand ride for me, and tonight is the high point," said Wilson, during the ceremony in Canton. "My luck prevails, and closing in on 91, I still feel that I have youth on my side."
Wilson has steadfastly kept his team in a small market while other owners sought bigger markets and larger stadiums. He often spoke out to league officials on behalf of small market teams, and their financial viability in a league that includes the nation's largest media markets.
"The town of Buffalo, and It's no secret, is diminishing in size....Buffalo is dwindling in population, in jobs," Wilson said in February 2008 when unveiling the team's plans for games in Toronto. "What am I going to say to the fans in Buffalo? I'm going to say 'Hey I can' t speculate. I can't speculate on what happens in the future For now, don't worry'."
During his tenure, Wilson saw his team win two AFL Championships (1964-65) and four AFC Championships. Under his tenure, the Bills also had an NFL-record four consecutive Superbowl appearances, and players from that era remember Wilson as a down-to-earth, hands-on owner.
"No one wants to see the white-collar owner who's the corporate type," quarterback Jim Kelly told the New York Times, before Superbowl XXV in 1991. "He comes out and catches passes. The guy is just like one of us, down to earth. He's like a father and a grandfather to us. He treats us just like one of his kids."
In early 2008, Wilson approached Congress to try and work with the NFL on incentives for small market teams, and approached Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins to try and get support for small market teams.
"There should be efforts now on the part of the league to create a framework within which we have a fighting chance to keep the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo," Higgins said at the time, proposing a change in community ownership rules.
His death not only puts the team's long term future in question and removes a large civic leader from the local community.
Wilson has worked closely with the Ronald McDonald House Charities, The United Way, S.P.C.A., the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Shea's Performing Arts Center
He was on the board of the Hospice Center of WNY, which named a new building wing the Mary and Ralph Wilson, Jr. Hospice Inpatient Unit in 2004, to honor a $500,000 donation.
In September 2011, he and his wife Mary gave $1 million to the University at Buffalo's Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine
Though his Ralph Wilson Medical Foundation, he has donated over $9 million to specific initiatives at The Roswell Park Cancer Institute, The Cleveland Clinic, The Mayo Clinic, Wayne State University, and The University of Miami´s Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which was instrumental in Buffalo Bill Kevin Everett's spinal recovery.
He has also funded the Education School named after him at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. Since 2001 he has sponsored a full four year scholarship for a Western New Yorker at the University of Virginia, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1941.
Wilson was born in Columbus in 1918, and moved with his family to the Detroit area , where he lived until his death, commuting to Buffalo often for his beloved Bills.
Ever since leaving the navy as a youth , Wilson has been involved in a range of businesses beyond the Bills. After leaving his father's insurance business, he started investing in mining, drilling, and various Detroit-area factories, founding Ralph C. Wilson Jr Industries for his manufacturing companies, and the $31 million Ralph Wilson Equity Fund. Through Ralph Wilson Enterprises, he owns several TV Stations, and is also involved in trucking, construction, insurance, and energy businesses.
He was an avid tennis player and fan of the game and competed regularly in the international veterans tournaments held each summer in Europe.
Wilson owned several thoroughbred race horses and was a summertime regular at the track in Saratoga Springs N.Y.
He is survived by his wife Mary, and two daughters: Christy Wilson-Hoffman, and Dee Dee Wilson. ilson-Hofman, serves as a merchandising consultant to the team.
His daughter Linda Bogdan, the NFL's first woman scout, died in April 2009 and was a Bills Corporate Vice President,