Tonawanda News

March 25, 2014

DUVALL: Wilson's passing brings fond memories, fears for the future

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — We stood in my grandparents' den, like my heroes on the sideline, holding hands. 

There we were. Jim, Marv, Bruce, Thurman, Andre, Steve, Cornelius, Daryl. And behind them all, Ralph.

We prayed together Norwood's kick would fly a true 47 yards and deliver the salvation we so desperately wanted and deserved. 

It was just a few feet off.

It's impossible at 8 years old, as I was for Super Bowl XXV — or just "25" — to know I was about to encounter a moment that would come to define so much about my life and my home.

The fellowship, the frustration and futility. The misery, the hopefulness it'll be better next time and the pride when, if only for a minute, it is.

It's all there in being a Buffalonian and the Bills have come to embody it.

Now the man who's responsible for it — and who may eventually come to be the man who let it slip away — is himself gone.

Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the Bills' founding owner and a true icon in Western New York, has finally passed at age 95. With it comes a palpable and very personal grief. There is much fear for what the future holds for our beloved team. There is an abiding gratefulness for all the wonderful memories we share because of them — because of Ralph.

On top of the already grim news Jim Kelly's cancer has returned and spread, I feel about like what I would imagine Marino used to feel like when Bruce tore around the corner and drilled him from the blind side.

Ralph's legacy in pro sports is rightly the stuff of legend. From his visionary quest in the upstart AFL a $25,000 investment turned into a franchise worth an estimated $860 million. Stories of his generosity and philanthropy fill the local airwaves on television and talk radio. Bills fans the world over are raising a beer in tribute. The barrooms from Oliver Street to Orchard Park are packed with the memories of a team that's so much more than that.

Still, our relationship with Ralph was hardly all roses. Fans have alternately chided him as cheap and praised his commitment to preserving our place in the pro sports landscape of America. We're on the map because of Ralph, even if our place on it is a rather dubious one.

But that's the national perspective. Living here, we know the Bills aren't woven into the fabric of life in Buffalo. The Bills are life in Buffalo. Even if you're not a sports fan it's impossible to separate Buffalo from the Bills. They're as much a part of us as snowstorms and chicken wings. 

So many Sundays have been spent with family and friends — with my city — united in common purpose. Maybe who wins a football game in and of itself doesn't mean anything and really, it doesn't. But to say the Bills mean a great deal to us and our lives is a gross understatement. There is literally nothing that brings more of us together than the Bills and you can't write that off as "just sports."

Now it is in danger of changing. It goes without saying if the Bills ever left it would be one of the darkest days our city ever experienced and we've had our share of them around here. To even think of it breaks my heart.

Mr. Wilson's death makes what has always been an existential threat of the team leaving entirely real. I'm consoled, slightly, by the team's stadium lease, which locks them in for at least the next seven years. But what after that? What if someone buys the team and waits it out? What if they leave and find the success that's eluded us for so long now in Los Angeles or Toronto? What then?

Why didn't Ralph do something to prevent it? Why didn't he announce a succession plan? Why couldn't he cement his legacy as Buffalo's greatest sportsman and a true civic icon by doing something — doing anything — to ensure his beloved team would stay ours after he left it?

Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for all the memories your football team has brought me. I hope there are many more to come.

Thinking about it, it feels like I'm back to my grandparents' living room as a boy, praying we get something we deserve. 

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.