You don't have to be a Buffalo Bills fan with a Jim Kelly poster on your wall to appreciate Ralph Wilson Jr.
Wilson, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 95, played a huge role in keeping the American Football League -- the original home of the Bills, Jets, Patriots, Broncos, Chargers, Bengals, Dolphins, Titans, Raiders and Chiefs -- afloat before it merged with the NFL. Though this was just one part of Wilson's legacy in 55 years steering the team, it helped preserve the fabric of everything that is important to the NFL as we know it today.
Without the financial wherewithal of Wilson and Oilers/Titans owner Bud Adams, the upstart outfit spearheaded by Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt likely would have been backed down by the already popular NFL, which was still reveling in the success of the 1958 Championship Game, aka "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
Of course, that NFL was a mere 12-team operation. The 32-team entertainment behemoth of 2014 has drawn strength from the AFL organizations it eventually assimilated as well as the loyal fans of each of those new clubs -- such as the Oakland Raiders, who borrowed $400,000 from Wilson in the 1960s to keep going. If you're over 40, try imagining Sundays without Al Davis, Marcus Allen and Ken "The Snake" Stabler.
Again, though, this was just part of Wilson's story. Sometimes referred to as "the conscience of the NFL," Wilson championed revenue sharing, an idea that started in the AFL and was adopted by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle early in his tenure. Without that -- without the sharing of TV funds and gate receipts -- the Green Bays of the world likely would have kissed their teams goodbye. Yes, late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara had much to do with establishing the concept in the NFL, but bear in mind he was influenced by Rozelle, and bear in mind the fact that the AFL was doing it first. Wilson -- who notably kept the Bills in the small market of Buffalo -- was an immense part of that equation.
"Wilson had the opportunity to leave Buffalo and wouldn't do it," Horrigan said. Staying in Buffalo "was not something he didn't think through and wouldn't see through. He lived up to his commitment."
Wilson made his fortune in several industries, including insurance, manufacturing and radio. In 1959, he put that money to good use, supplying a professional football team to the people of Buffalo, who lost their entrant in the All-America Football Conference a decade prior, when that league folded in the shadow of the already entrenched NFL.
This is fitting, because success defined Wilson, who was an effective businessman, an ambassador for the game and a representative of the little guy. You can count on one hand the number of individual owners who had more wins than Wilson: small-time players, you know, like George Halas and Al Davis. And Wilson certainly contributed to life beyond the football field, endowing more than $11 million to medical research and giving $2.5 million to the Hall of Fame.
"He was very generous, including to my family ... he never looked for the credit," Horrigan said.
Wilson gave to his country, as well, serving in the Navy during World War II and eventually seeing action in the Pacific theater. According to Horrigan, Wilson was one of the first responders after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and was on the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered.