BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson never forgot how he was made to feel like an outsider for having the audacity to challenge the NFL.
It was 1959, and Wilson had just invested $25,000 to join Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams in helping establish the upstart American Football League. Wilson and the seven other owners were immediately dubbed “The Foolish Club.”
“You’d go to cocktail parties back in those days,” Wilson recalled in an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, a month before being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “And they’d look at me like, ‘What kind of dope are you, going into a new league?’”
Some 54 years later, Wilson was being remembered as a “visionary” for playing a key role in helping establish the modern-day game.
The Bills lost their sole owner, and the NFL lost its last surviving AFL founder and a person regarded as the league’s “conscience” on Tuesday, when Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich. Wilson was 95.
Bills president Russ Brandon announced Wilson’s death at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “He brought his beloved Bills to western New York, and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set the standard for the NFL.”
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson called Wilson’s death “the end of a real important era.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones referred to Wilson as “one of the cornerstones of the AFL.”
And in Buffalo, where Wilson’s influence resonated as the region’s patriarch of professional football, he was being sorely missed. In honor of Wilson, the Bills kept one bank of lights on at the stadium that bears the owner’s name.
“He wasn’t my boss, he was my friend,” Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy said. “He meant so much to the game that both of us revered, and to the community of Buffalo and beyond. It’s quite a loss.”
Wilson had been receiving home hospice care, and had been in failing health since having hip surgery in 2011.
Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president’s title to Brandon.
“No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson,” Brandon said. “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 earned a well-established reputation for loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.