There’s something innately bizarre about following the health of someone you have zero familial connection to. I imagine a waiting room filled with said person’s close family and friends, waiting patiently as their loved one is assessed and reassessed by the doctors tasked with keeping him alive. And then there’s me, refreshing news sites by the hour, hoping everything is alright for my own selfish reasons.
The NFL in it’s current state owes a lot to the efforts of Ralph Wilson. The franchises in Oakland and New England may not exist were it not for Wilson’s money, which he lent to Al Davis and Buddy Sullivan to keep their teams afloat. It was Wilson who made professional football viable in a small market like Buffalo – bringing in the likes of Cookie Gilchrist, O.J Simpson, and Jack Kemp. In those days the AFL was the NFL’s progressive brother, as James Harris became the first Black quarterback to start a season in 1969 as a member of the Bills. Buffalo’s transition to the NFL was rocky, but the team found it’s footing in the early 80′s thanks to the exploits of Joe Cribbs and Joe Ferguson.
Almost ten years later, the Bills went on a unparalleled run that was defined – unfairly in my opinion – by their failure in four consecutive Super Bowls. The core of those teams, including Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, and Darryl Talley remain kings in Buffalo to this day.
That’s the troubling part. Buffalo isn’t unique in choosing to immortalize players from days gone by – the continuing popularity of Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark in Toronto can attest to that. But the reason Kelly, Thomas and the like remain icons in the queen city is due to the below average product fielded since the Bills’ last playoff appearance – 1999 was a long time ago.
Which brings me back to Wilson. His relationship with Bills fans has deteriorated in recent years, and that’s putting it lightly. There was the decision to fire Bill Polian after the Bills third consecutive Super Bowl defeat in 1993 – a move clouded by rumors of a power struggle between Polian and Wilson’s inner circle.
John Butler took over, and found success mining America’s smaller schools, including Eric Moulds, Phil Hansen, and Marcellus Wiley. December 19th, 2000 marked the end of the line for Butler in Buffalo, and that cold winter day also marked the end of success for a franchise that enjoyed it’s greatest years in the NFL with Polian and Butler making the decisions.
I don’t blame Wilson for Butler’s departure – several contract proposals drew no response from Butler before Wilson decided to move on, and Butler’s battle with cancer may have been the reason he was reticent to act. But the decisions made in the aftermath of Butler’s firing would negatively affect the franchise for years to come. Wilson handed the keys to Tom Donahoe, giving him unprecedented power for a general manager in Buffalo. Bills fans know what happened next.
Last week news outlets in Western New York reported that Wilson was in hospital. The team wouldn’t disclose why, and he was listed as being in good condition. Last year the 93-year-old had hip surgery and was only able to attend one Bills home game.
When I heard the news I remembered the press conferences in recent years. A feeble looking and sounding Wilson announced the hiring of Buddy Nix, Chan Gailey and so on, and those appearances reminded me of the elders in my family, the once proud vanguards of the Desai clan who were slowly on their way out.
Ralph isn’t the perfect owner. No one wants to be included in a group with Mike Brown when it comes to stubbornness. But he’s the one Buffalo has, and without him, there’s nothing. There’s no wall of fame featuring the names of Bills legends. There’s no tailgating outside Ralph Wilson Stadium on a snowy December morning. As much as Bills fans may wish they had someone else – I know I have at times – it would be foolish to underestimate the impact Wilson has had on the community and league as a whole. There are people with deep pockets in North America – Toronto and L.A the obvious choices – waiting for the inevitable. Nobody knows what will happen when Wilson is gone, but his family has indicated they will weigh their options. That will include selling the team to outside interests.
Today there was good news. Wilson was released from hospital and returned to his home in Detroit on Tuesday night. He didn’t have his weekly meeting with Gailey, but the coach referred to his boss as “tough as nails.”
Keep fighting the good fight, Ralph. We need ya.