Ralph Wilson was a true visionary - NBC Sports

Ralph Wilson was a true visionary
He was a dreamer who helped turn professional football from a vision to American mainstay.
AP Photo
Front row from left: Robert L. Howsam, Max Winter, Lamar Hunt, and K.S. Adams. Jr. In the back row from left: Barron Hilton, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., and Harry Wismer.
March 25, 2014, 10:15 pm

Well, Barron Hilton is now alone, the last living member of that small group of schemers and dreamers who helped create that runaway American phenomenon we call professional football. There were eight of them. They were called “The Foolish Club.”

Ralph Wilson was the penultimate one to go -- he died Tuesday at his home in Michigan at age 95 -- and like the others in The Foolish Club, he did not really know what he was doing at the beginning. Lamar Hunt came up with the crazy idea. He was the son of oil baron H.L. Hunt, one of the richest men in the world. Lamar Hunt did not want a revolution. He just wanted to bring a professional football team to Dallas.

But this was the late 1950s, and the NFL had no interest in expanding. They had 12 teams. That was enough. The NFL was more of a dysfunctional family then than a business in those days. Heck, they had two teams in Chicago and couldn’t figure out how to fix THAT problem. They told Hunt there would be no expansion. And, hilariously, they told him that they didn’t think Dallas was a viable pro football market.

Hunt then did what he would do often in his life -- he started sketching out an idea. It only took him a few hours to form: He would start a new football league. It was insane, of course. New competitive leagues almost never worked … the last successful new league in American sports was baseball’s American League back in 1901.

But Hunt was pretty ticked off that the NFL wouldn’t expand to Texas, and, more, he had this feeling that pro football was about to become America’s most popular sport. And he found a handful of like-minded loonies willing to join him. Bud Adams was a Houston oil baron who had also been spurned by the NFL in his attempts to get a team. Bob Howsam was a minor league baseball operator in Denver with too big a stadium. Chet Soda was a flamboyant Oakland businessman who would call associates “Senor”* Barron Hilton was the son of the hotel mogul Conrad Hilton and he wanted to call his team “Chargers” but NOT, he insisted, because of his new business of credit card charge cards.

*Soda’s original idea was to name the Oakland football team the “Senors” and according to Michael MacCambridge’s excellent “America’s Game” he handed out sombreros to members of the press to announce the name.

Ralph Wilson was a wealthy Michigan insurance executive at the time, and he owned a small piece of the Detroit Lions. He wanted a football team of his own, and wanted that team in sunny Miami. Unfortunately, he could not quite figure out how to make that stadium deal work. But it turned out that Buffalo had a stadium and a lot of eagerness. Well, you know, Miami … Buffalo … same difference, right?

And so began one of the great love affairs in American sports.

The Foolish Club called their league the “American Football League” and it almost collapsed dozens of times. The NFL tried to kill the AFL before it was even born by announcing that they had suddenly seen the wisdom of putting an NFL team in Dallas (they hoped that either Hunt would own the team himself and abandon the AFL or that he would see the hopelessness of competing with the league head-to-head).

When that didn’t work, people mocked their efforts -- Wilson would say friends and business acquaintances ridiculed him mercilessly. Then owners ran out of money. Ralph Wilson famously lent the Oakland Raiders $400,000 to keep them afloat. Hunt supposedly lost a million dollars that first year; this led to the classic (and probably apocryphal) quote from H.L. Hunt when asked if he was worried about Lamar losing so much cash: “Certainly I’m worried. At that rate, Lamar will be broke in 250 years.”

Then there was the all-out war with the NFL over players and television and everything else. But The Foolish Club -- with a few of them exiting and entering -- stayed with it, and the AFL survived, it thrived, it changed the way football was played, it expanded pro football into cities that never dreamed of having it. Soon the AFL merged with the NFL (Wilson played a large role in negotiating the merger), creating a superleague that would become America’s most popular, creating the biggest game in American history, the game Lamar Hunt named: The Super Bowl.

And all the while, Ralph Wilson kept his Bills in Buffalo. As of today, Buffalo is the 49th largest market in the United States behind -- among many non-NFL cities -- Birmingham, Ala., and Louisville, Ky., and Oklahoma City, Okla. Buffalo has the smallest metropolitan population of the 32 NFL teams.

But the passion for Bills football is overwhelming and has been going back to the earliest days, when the team played football at an ancient place called War Memorial Stadium. The Bills did win back-to-back AFL Championships behind quarterback Jack Kemp in the mid-1960s, but fortunes turned after the merger. The team lost a lot of games. The highlight for the first couple of decades was the running of O.J. Simpson.

The Bills never did win a Super Bowl, but in the early 1990s -- playing a no-huddle free-for-all offense and an attacking defense led by Bruce Smith -- they appeared in four straight. In those years, there would be 80,000 at every game in Orchard Park, N.Y., and the parking lot smelled like wings, and the scene was as raucous and joyous as anyplace in American sports.

In recent years, it has been harder in Buffalo. The city has lost population and businesses. The stadium in Orchard Park that is named for Ralph Wilson is showing wear (a $200 million renovation is in the works). The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. They have had six different coaches over that span and eight different regular quarterbacks and countless master plans. At times, the Bills have tried to make a big push with some splashy free agent hires but it just hasn’t worked. Much of this, Wilson admitted, was his own fault. A year before he died, Ralph Wilson gave up his role as team president.

Still, to the end, Ralph Wilson did love Buffalo.

“It was a lucky pick,” he said of Buffalo during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009. “Because over the years they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

Channel Finder