Many times people who are in a high-profile business are asked, "How did you get into this business?" I'm sure Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., has been asked this question on many occasions. For the record, here is how he became the owner of a professional football team:
The Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2009 is as good as it gets. Among the six enshrinees, you will find: Two of the most feared pass rushers of all-time (Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas)… an Olympic gold-medal sprinter (Bob Hayes)… a defensive back with a knack for the end zone (Rod Woodson)… a man who has been to more Pro Bowls than anyone else (Randall McDaniel)… and an original AFL owner (Ralph Wilson).
NFL.com's Gil Brandt has some observations and recollections of each:
In the summer of 1959, Wilson had some racehorses running in Saratoga, N.Y. As luck would have it, while he was there, he purchased The New York Times one morning and read about how Lamar Hunt was starting up a new professional football league. The story mentioned that the price for a new team in this league would be $25,000. Wilson liked the price, so he gave Hunt a call to inquire about starting a team.
Wilson, who was told that three others were interested in the Miami franchise, was summoned to Texas to meet with Hunt. After meeting with Wilson and looking over his balance sheet, Hunt quickly awarded him the rights to the Miami franchise. But there was one small problem: no stadium. The Orange Bowl had been home to an All-American Football Conference team in 1946, but that team left after one season without paying the bill. So the Orange Bowl said no to the AFL.
Hunt then told Wilson he had a choice of several cities -- Louisville, Atlanta, and Buffalo among them. Buffalo had an AAFC team from 1946-49, and Wilson's study of the attendance figures convinced him that was the place to be.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Once the Bills and the American Football League got going, the AFL and NFL began competing for draft picks. When I think about Wilson and the Bills in those early days, the one thing that comes to mind immediately is that the Dallas Cowboys for some reason always had a hard time competing against Buffalo to sign players. In particular, we lost two very good players in head-to-head battles with Wilson and the Bills -- guard Billy Shaw, who went on to become the only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to play his entire career in the AFL, and tackle Stu Barber, who was voted second-team on the all-time AFL team.
My first encounter with Wilson was at a party at the Sheraton West in Los Angeles before the first Super Bowl (it wasn't a "Super Bowl party," because it wasn't called the Super Bowl then -- it was the AFL-NFL Championship Game). Most of the AFL people were on one side of the room, with the NFL people on the opposite side. Wilson seemed to be the only person who wanted to meet everybody and ventured to the other side.
For 20-plus years after that, I would see Wilson at the NFL Annual Meeting, and I began to appreciate him as a person. He didn't talk a lot at those meetings, but when he did, people listened. Most of the time, he showed up at the meetings dressed to play tennis, a sport he loves almost as much as football; every year, Wilson sends out holiday cards with a picture of him on a tennis court.
Wilson has great loyalty to the people who work for him. Several years ago, I called to recommend someone for an open position with the Bills, and Wilson told me how strongly he felt about promoting from within. In fact, there are many, many Bills employees who have been with the team for 20 or more years -- a testament to the boss.
Wilson is a calm, reasoning force that the commissioner could always count on. If Wilson felt something was for the good of the league, then it was good for him. Chuck Knox, who coached the Bills from 1978-82, will tell you that Wilson was not a meddler or second-guesser, but he wanted his coaches to be accountable.
Levy welcomes Wilson
Last February, on the day the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announcing the class of 2009, I ran into a nervous Wilson in the lobby of the hotel in which we both were staying. He had been a finalist twice before and didn't make it, so he was concerned about the selection process that was already well underway. As it turned out, the third time was the charm. Wilson made it ... and he deserved it.
I was on the air with Sirius NFL Radio during and after the announcements that day, and we had Wilson on the show. He was proud as can be. We asked him who would be his presenter, and he didn't know -- but the one thing he stressed was that he didn't want to offend anyone within the organization. Wilson ended up choosing ESPN's Chris Berman as a presenter. He hasn't identified it as part of his reasoning for the surprising choice, but I'm confident Wilson would have worried that he would have left someone disappointed if he chose Marv Levy or someone else from the Bills organization over others.
That wouldn't have been the case, of course, but it's no surprise that in his moment of personal glory, Wilson was thinking of his employees first.