Tonawanda News

March 26, 2014

Ex players, fans remember NFL's 'conscience'

Staff and wire reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — As social media sites lit up Tuesday afternoon over the news that the iconic Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson had died at the age of 95, those in the Tonawandas had mixed opinions on what his passing will mean for the future of the team.

What was certain, however, was the outpouring of admiration and respect for a man with a practically unrivaled legacy in professional sports.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wilson “set the standard” for NFL ownership.

“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,” Goodell said. “As a trusted adviser to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.”

Fellow NFL owners expressed admiration for Wilson, who was frequently referred to as the “conscience of the NFL” for principled stands against teams relocating and creating a revenue-sharing deal that allowed small market teams to remain financially viable.

“As two of the original members of the AFL’s Foolish Club, my father and Ralph shared a unique bond and special friendship,” said Clark Hunt, son of the late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who with Wilson founded the AFL. “I had the privilege of knowing Ralph and his family my entire life. His sense of humor was extraordinary, and his passion for the Buffalo Bills was remarkable.”

Hall of Fame Bills coach Marv Levy, who led the team during its Super Bowl runs in the early 90s, said Wilson’s legacy in football and in Western New York will long be remembered.

“(I’m) deeply saddened to hear about his passing. 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, and he’s going to be remembered so fondly by everyone who knew him,” Levy said.

Former players, including Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, traveled to One Bills Drive to speak with the media about Wilson’s legacy. The emotional response was evident as a teary-eyed Thomas recalled Wilson calling him his “favorite son.”

“I was truly blessed to be around Mr. Wilson during the glory days. ... To have him in the locker room after a game, to see the excitement but also on the other side to see the disappointment of never winning a championship, but also coming into the locker room after big games, after Super Bowls, and always hearing him remind players, each one, that we wouldn’t have got here without you. ... So I’m going to miss him, without a doubt. He used to call me his favorite son.”

Locally, fans took in the news with sadness and many expressed long-held fears about what will happen once the team is sold.

“Unfortunately, in five years, I can see them no longer being here. I hope they find someone to keep them here,” said Denis Fountain, who had stopped in at East Avenue Tavern on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda Tuesday evening. “They were one of the original AFL teams. They really drive the economy. If they leave I think people will be disappointed in a big way.”

The bar’s owner, Gary Wudyka, said he remembers when the Bills first began playing in Buffalo, in 1960. Like many, the ties to the Bills run deep for him.

“I remember them playing at the Rock Pile. Ralph would want them to stay here in Buffalo,” Wudyka said. “It’s good for business, restaurants, hotels, we get crowds here for Sunday games. There are a lot of die hard fans here.”

Not everyone, though, was as downtrodden about the team’s long-term future in Western New York, including Dan Arnold, 23, of Buffalo, who took in the news at Dwyer’s Irish Pub on Webster Street in North Tonawanda.

“I think the future of the Bills is safe,” Arnold said.

Friend Nate Getze agreed, noting Goodell is a Jamestown native and is widely seen as a proponent of keeping the Bills in Buffalo.

“I’m a little nervous about it but I don’t see a move happening,” Getze said of the team relocating. “Los Angeles already tried having a team twice and I don’t see the Bills moving to Toronto.” 

News staff reporters Michael Regan and Mia Summerson contributed to this story.