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Ralph Wilson Jr., Buffalo Bills' late owner, put league first

Ralph Wilson Jr., who passed away at 95 on Tuesday, was an unbelievable person. The former Buffalo Bills owner was always at league meetings and he always took the time to say hello. He was definitely someone who was always league-first.

He once told me this great story about how he came to acquire the Bills franchise. He said he was at a racetrack in New York when he picked up The New York Times and read about Lamar Hunt selling franchises for this new football league, which would of course turn into the AFL. So Wilson went down to Dallas and went to Hunt's office -- which he said was about as big as a phone booth -- and ended up buying one of the franchises. The franchise was supposed to be in Miami, but when that potential location fell through, he looked at the attendance figures to see who had the best numbers in the old All-America Football Conference and, upon learning that Buffalo was tops, decided to locate his franchise there. It was a heckuva way to pick a franchise and a city.

He had a ton of influence -- he was very, very helpful during the AFL-NFL merger, very active behind the scenes and in making sure the merger took place, according to Tex Schramm, who also liked him a lot -- and he cared a lot about the league. I remember when he was one of just two owners not to vote for that labor agreement that all the other owners eventually came to regret.

As an employee of the Dallas Cowboys, I also remember the days when the NFL and AFL used to compete with each other for players. There was one year that the Cowboys and Bills both drafted this offensive tackle from Penn State named Stew Barber. Somehow the Bills got him to play for them and he went on to have a pretty good career, earning all-AFL honors.

As powerful as Wilson was, he never acted like he was more than just a regular guy, always going to the league meetings in a button-down cardigan. I remember seeing him at the Hall of Fame and at Super Bowl games; in fact, we sat together at one Friday night party prior to one of those Super Bowls. He also used to regularly send a Christmas card. He was a very special person.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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