Buffalo Bills longtime owner Ralph Wilson, who helped found the American Football League in 1960, died at his home on Tuesday afternoon. He was 95.
Bills president Russ Brandon made the announcement at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s tough. It’s very tough,” Brandon said. “I worked for him for 18 years and talked to him every day for 18 years — sometimes multiple times a day.”
Wilson was the founder and sole owner of the Bills after establishing the team with the upstart AFL in 1960. He played a key role in the league’s merger with the NFL, and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., around 1:40 p.m., said Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner’s office. He had been receiving in-home hospice care.
“No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson,” Brandon said in a statement. “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 had been in failing health for several years after having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home suburban Detroit, he was well enough to attend the Hall of Fame induction weekends over the past few years.
After regularly attending Bills home games since founding the franchise, Wilson had not been to a game since 2010.
“More than anything, he wanted to bring a Super Bowl championship to western New York,” Brandon said. “He wanted it for the players, the coaches and the franchise. But mostly he wanted it for the fans.
“No owner has wanted a title more for these reasons than Mr. Wilson. In the end, he was extremely proud that his Bills are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls.”
Wilson purchased the Bills for $25,000 in 1959. The franchise’s estimated value was $870 million as of August 2013, according to Forbes.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League. He brought his beloved Bills to western New York and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL.
“As a trusted advisor to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues. His lifelong loyalty to the game was instrumental in his richly deserved induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We are grateful for his many contributions to the NFL and offer our heartfelt sympathy to the Wilson family.”
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