AFC East: Ralph Wilson dies

The Bills issued the following statements Wednesday from general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone:

Whaley: Since I joined the Buffalo Bills organization four years ago, I have been truly humbled to work for a man like Mr. Wilson -- someone with so much knowledge of the game of football and someone so important to the growth and stabilization of the National Football League in the past half century. Men like Mr. Wilson, Mr. Rooney and George Halas are pioneers of this league and entered this business for the love of the sport and not for the economics. I admire those pioneers for their principles.

My heart goes out to the Wilson family and our fellow employees at the Bills organization. When I heard the news, I melted. Mr. Wilson has affected my life tremendously in my relatively short time with the team.

He has set the foundation and laid the blueprint for us to build a winning organization. Mr. Wilson said it best "this is a people business." He cared about everyone -- from the security guards to the training staff to the players, coaches and management. We are a family and everybody matters. That is the blueprint Mr. Wilson put forth for us and I along with Russ Brandon and Doug Marrone subscribe to it whole-heartedly. We are all in this together as we move forward on this journey to getting the Bills back to being a consistent, competitive team competing for championships. We are all pointed in one direction and we will continue fighting to get to where we need to be.

Marrone: First and foremost, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to Mary Wilson and the Wilson family during this extremely difficult time.

Prior to joining the Buffalo Bills, I was aware of Mr. Wilson’s role as a visionary leader in development and growth of the National Football League in his 54 years as owner of one of the most storied franchises. But when I joined his beloved organization as its head coach a little more than a year ago, my admiration for him only grew. I have met and spoken with Mr. Wilson on occasion through this year and I can honestly say there is no one who cared more for his players, coaches and his entire organization.

He lived his life to make a difference in both the game of football and the communities he held dear to his heart -- Buffalo and his hometown of Detroit -- as well as numerous other initiatives around the country. Our players and coaches greatly admired Mr. Wilson for the lasting impact he made on this organization the opportunity he afforded us to represent his team in the National Football League.
The following is a collection of statements and thoughts from various NFL figures, following the death Tuesday of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson:

ESPN NFL host Chris Berman:
"Ralph Wilson was a giant in the truest sense of the word. He loved life and treated every day as one in which the glass was half full, not half empty. He had a twinkle in his eye and a cackle and his easy laugh for every one of his 95 years. He was loyal to everyone and everything pro football, and of course, he was loyal to Buffalo. Others might have considered moving the Bills, but Ralph Wilson understood they are an integral part of the fabric of western New York, and never gave it a thought. He was loyal to the NFL – if it was good for the league, it was good for him. If he hadn’t lent money to teams in the early days of the AFL, that league wouldn’t have survived, and the NFL wouldn’t be what it is today. Above all, he served the United States in World War II in the Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Long ago, they stopped making men like Ralph Wilson."

Bills running back C.J. Spiller:
"I would like to send out my condolences to the entire family of Mr. Ralph Wilson. He will forever be remembered and loved by myself and the rest of the Bills fans across the world. I personally want to thank Mr. Wilson for drafting me and showing me what a great organization he has built. As I sit here and think back, I remember first meeting him shortly before my press conference the day after the draft. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I know that you will put some points up for us.’ I will not let you down, Mr. Wilson. May God be with you and your family always. This world has lost a great leader, but his legacy will surely live on forever."

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank:
"Mr. Wilson was a visionary and pioneer of professional football. He was instrumental in the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970 and was a key reason for the success of the NFL as we know it today. On behalf of my family and the entire Falcons organization, I extend our condolences and prayers to Ralph’s wife, Mary, his daughters and his extended family, as well as to members of the Bills organization. We have lost a founding member of the NFL family, but Ralph’s lasting impact on the NFL will forever be felt."

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft:
"I would like to extend my sincerest sympathies to Ralph’s wife, Mary, his daughters and his extended family, including every coach, player, staff member and fan of the Buffalo Bills who are mourning his loss today. As one of the founding fathers of the AFL, Ralph deserves a lot of credit for taking that initial risk and for the many contributions he made to the NFL over the past 54 years. He built a franchise that the Buffalo community loves and embraces. Personally, I will always be grateful for how he welcomed me when I first entered the league. He was always a gracious host and I will never forget that. I will miss him."

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The Buffalo Bills family knew this day was coming, but that didn't make it any easier.

Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1960 and owned the team for 54 years, died Tuesday at his home in Michigan. He was 95.

Wilson was the third-longest tenured owner in NFL history, behind Chicago's George Halas (63 seasons) and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney (55 seasons).

"A lot of Bills fans have been standing on this cliff for a long time, but for those of us who played for him and knew him, we were hoping it would never come," former Bills special-teams ace Steve Tasker said. "I’m sad. I’m brokenhearted."

Tasker, who played for the Bills from 1986-1997 and was a member of each of their four AFC championship teams, was one of several Bills players who shared their memories Tuesday, hours after Wilson's death.

One of Tasker's teammates, running back Thurman Thomas, stepped to the podium and told reporters he might have been too emotional to take questions.

"I don't know if I'll be able to answer any questions or stay as long as those guys did," Thomas said. "My heart had been heavy the last 24-48 hours [and] with Mr. Wilson passing today, it hurts."

Thomas was noticeably shaken by what has become a difficult time for the Bills. Thomas and teammates Andre Reed and Bruce Smith recently visited quarterback Jim Kelly -- the face of the franchise for 11 Hall of Fame seasons -- who is battling a recurrence of oral cancer.

While the Buffalo community rallies around Kelly and his family, it must now also mourn the loss of Wilson, who brought professional football to the region and kept it there for over five decades.

Wilson was the last surviving member of the "Foolish Club," the group of businessmen who founded the American Football League in late 1959, who still owned his franchise. Barron Hilton, the original owner of the San Diego Chargers, is 86.

Former Bills guard Ruben Brown, a first-round draft pick in 1995 who played nine seasons in Buffalo, gave a passionate speech Tuesday about Wilson's contributions to the region.

"He brought you, Buffalo, an NFL franchise that has been here several, several years. I’m from Lynchburg, Va. -- really Paddington, Va. There’s no football team there," Brown explained. "There’s no pro team where Thurman Thomas can get off work and come over to my high school and inspire me. See what I’m saying? That’s what Ralph Wilson gives Buffalo.

"There’s a professional athlete, there’s a professional business and one of the biggest business in the United States that’s happening right now is NFL football and Ralph Wilson put it in your backyard. And not only did he put it in your backyard, but he kept it."

Yet it wasn't until the 1990 season that Wilson first tasted the Super Bowl. His Bills would lose that game in crushing fashion and also were defeated in the next three Super Bowls, but their success during that era propelled the Bills onto the national stage.

"His thrill about the Super Bowl: I could sense the glow and how proud he was," former head coach Marv Levy recalled Tuesday. "Here's a guy who had come into the beginning of the AFL so many years previously and really had never gotten there until the 1990 season. It wasn't just Ralph Wilson that was going to the Super Bowl; he saw to it that everybody in the organization [went]. He really set an example of total organization wins.

"Not just a great owner, not just a coach or a quarterback, it was total organization. We'd go to those Super Bowls and he took everybody, the security guards, everybody. The people that cleaned up at night, they were part of the Buffalo Bills at the Super Bowl."

The Bills have long been the NFL's underdogs, playing in an outdated stadium and a small market. But Tasker remembered Wilson as a man who was responsible for shaping the current landscape of the NFL, a league that has grown significantly since Wilson's day as an AFL owner.

"Ralph took a lot of criticism here in Buffalo when the team was 0 for the '70s against the Dolphins and we couldn’t get into the playoffs. He took a lot of heat because he wouldn’t spend money and all the things people say about owners everywhere," Tasker said. "I’ll tell you this: The NFL is the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports leagues, and it’s because of men like Ralph Wilson. He’s not the only one. But he’s certainly the template for the kind of man, the kind of leader that has made the NFL the institution on the American landscape that it is."

Tasker became emotional when he remembered Wilson's joy after some of the team's signature wins.

"Occasionally when we’d win a big one, it was great to see what it meant to him. He didn’t fake his joy. He didn’t put on a front of how happy it made him. He didn’t make up any emotions to make it look good for any media or any fan. When the Bills won a big game, it was as if he was the only fan," Tasker said. "And sometimes, in the dark days, maybe he was. But this team mattered to him deeply. For all the criticism, for all the bad years and dark times and back to back 2-14 teams, let me tell you this, it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He cared deeply."

The Bills will hold a memorial for Wilson in the coming days, an event that figures to attract throngs of Bills fans.

It will be a celebration of Wilson's legacy, one that Brown tried to hammer home Tuesday.

"He brought you something to be excited about. He brought you something to root for. He brought you something for you to call your own and make your area, your home unique because he gave that to you," Brown said. "Yeah, there’s no Super Bowl as of late, but I’m sure all of Buffalo fans can be proud of what the Buffalo Bills are -- a tough, gritty team, and Ralph Wilson was that, too."

ORLANDO, Fla. -- New York Jets owner Woody Johnson spoke to reporters Tuesday about Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who died at the age of 95:

"It’s the end of a real important era. He was so important in developing football to what it is today -- the NFL. He was the AFL. He was always a guy that was up to the task. He had a great sense of humor, he was a great speaker, Hall of Fame. I heard his Hall-of-Fame speech he gave at 91. It was better than most people could give at 31. Really just an incredible leader. Great vision. And so it’s the end, really, of a major, major part of American football, to lose a guy like Ralph Wilson."

Johnson said Wilson was one of the first owners he met after purchasing the Jets in 2000.

"He described the satisfaction he got out of it, working with the players, the fans and building this league," Johnson said. "It sounded like something that was very interesting."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell broke the news to the owners in a meeting.

"We’re lucky to have had a guy like that, because you had a guy like that at the right place at the right time, who formed this league," Johnson said, adding: "He was always a presence in the room. He always spoke very fluently about the past and what football meant to him, and how we were getting away from it if we were going off course. He'd let us know."
Reaction has poured in Tuesday afternoon from players, coaches, fans, and others following the death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

Here are some of their tweets:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released the following statement Tuesday following the death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson:
"Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport. 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 adviser 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."
The following is Buffalo Bills CEO Russ Brandon's statement on the death of owner Ralph Wilson:
"I speak for everyone within the Bills organization when I say that we are all suffering a deep and profound sadness with the passing of our Hall of Fame owner Mr. Wilson. We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Mary, his daughters Christy and Dee Dee [Edith], his niece Mary and his entire family.

[+] EnlargeBuffalo Bills
Mike RodakFlags were lowered to half-mast at the Buffalo Bills' facility in Orchard Park, N.Y., Tuesday in honor of the late Ralph Wilson.
Mr. Wilson had a relentless passion, a deep love for his Buffalo Bills, the City of Buffalo and the National Football League. He also loved the Bills fans and all of the people of Western New York who embraced the Bills.

This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills. His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out "Hi Ralph!" He will be greatly missed by those in our community whose lives he touched.

Mr. Wilson was a man of true integrity, charisma and a hero in every sense of the word. His service to his country in the South Pacific in World War II is well documented. He was a pioneer in the American Football League. He was instrumental in forging the merger between the AFL and the NFL. Mr. Wilson will long be remembered as a man who was true to his word and did countless acts of kindness and generosity for so many, while never seeking the limelight in doing so.

More than anything, he wanted to bring a Super Bowl Championship to Western New York. 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.

For those of us fortunate to have worked for him, we'll miss his kindness, his insight, his leadership, but mostly his sense of humor. He possessed the unique ability to turn a negative into a positive.

Our organization, our league, our community has lost a great man.

Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss. We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would. We understand our fans' curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization and that will be addressed in the near future. But at this time, we are committed to honoring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the man who delivered NFL football to Buffalo."