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Saturday, August 8, 2009
Ralph Wilson's Hall of Fame speech


The transcript of Ralph Wilson's speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

RALPH WILSON, JR.: Thank you for all those kind words, Chris. I really appreciate it. It's an honor for me to be here. I went to my first pro football game in 1935. The Lions were playing the Bears. Since that time, I have been an avid pro football fan. As Chris said, I went away to college and the Navy. When I came back, I went to work for my father, worked every Sunday at home we would go see a pro football game.

During that time, I almost wanted -- I always wanted to own a football team so I'd have a little something to say about it. And let me tell you how I got into professional football. In the fall of 1959, I read in the paper where a young champ named Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams were starting a new professional football league. Lamar lived in Dallas, and he couldn't get an expansion franchise from the NFL. So I decided to start my own league. I happened to have a winter home in Miami, which was one of the prospective sites that I read in the paper. So I called Lamar and told him of my interest. And he said, well, if you're interested, you better get down here right away, because there are other people that are likewise interested. So I flew down the next day, and he granted me the Miami franchise. And we both went down to talk to the city fathers, and see if we could lease the Orange Bowl. It was the only place to play football in those days. The city fathers would not let a new league lease the Orange Bowl, because they had a bad time with another new league that came before us. So I flew home and forgot about it.

About four or five days later I got a call from Lamar, and he said, Ralph, we need an eighth franchise to balance out this new league. One from the east and one from the west. And I'll give you your choice of five different cities where you can place your franchise. And I picked Buffalo. It was a lucky pick, because over the years, they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams. And without the support, I wouldn't be on this platform tonight.

In the early days, an owner was considered brilliant if he could break even. And I remember the story of George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears. They played at Wrigley Field. And he always placed two of his big linemen in each end zone to retrieve footballs kicked through the uprights after a touchdown or a field goal.

It goes without saying that sometimes it was a little tussle to get the ball away from the fan that had retrieved it: The AFL started the new season in 1960. We played our first game in old War Memorial Stadium downtown which seated about 35,000, which was enough. And the first season in the exhibition we were playing terrible. Now towards the end of the exhibition season, we were playing the New York Titans. Now it's the New York Jets. And my friends in the stands said, Wilson, why don't you go down and talk to the team. You're behind 21-7. You can't do any worse. You've had a lousy start in your games up to date. And I said what am I gonna tell them? Well, tell them something.

So at their urging, I went down and walked into our locker room, and there was our head coach, Buster Ramsey. With that expression on his face -- what are you doing in here?

I said I want to talk to the team, Buster said. "Go ahead, talk to them." And I gave that team one of the most inspiring fight talks. It was reminiscent of maybe Newt Rockney or Vince Lombardi. And we lost the game 51-7. Shortly there after, Buster said to me, hey, Ralph, next time talk to the other team.

In the early 1960's, there was a battle going on for college players. And we heard a rumor that the National Football League might want to merge. So Barron Hilton appointed Sonny Werblin of the New York, well, Jets, and myself. To talk to the representative of the National Football League. We happen to meet Carol Rosenbloom. I talked to Carol down in Miami that winter at least tenor 12 times. And we set up the parameters of how a merger might take place. There was a lot of animosity between the leagues at that time.

We would pool all the television money, which of course would help the smaller markets, and I was in favor of that. We would have a common draft, so we weren't bidding against each other for players. My talks with Carol didn't finalize the merger, it merely set the parameters of how one would take place.

Each team would play in their own league for four years, and have a total realignment in 1970 under the guidance of the then commissioner Pete Rozelle. It was a great experience. We played games in the AFL, and at the end of the year we played the NFL for the championship of the world. Later known, and I credit the late Lamar Hunt for this, he later named it the Super Bowl.

The league grew tremendously. Through television, and interest in towns, very small towns in those days, San Diego, Denver, Oakland. But it spread pro football all over the country. People started to enjoy. Because way back in the 50s there was only 12 teams in the NFL.

We had a measure of success ourselves. In 1965 we played the San Diego Chargers for the championship of the AFL in San Diego. They had a great team. We did, too. Not as publicized as them, but we had Billy Shaw, a Hall of Famer.

It was the custom of the Chargers in those days to place a cannon in the end zone. And every time the Chargers would score a touchdown, there was an elderly man that would fire the cannon. We won the game 23-0. Everybody went off to the locker room, the players, the coaches. And I stood there in front of our bench in awe in amazement. And I turned around and I saw this elderly Man towing the cannon up the field, and he got right in front of our bench, turned it around, tilted it up to the sky and fired it. Which only goes to show you you can't see anyone in football that likes to get shutout.

It has been a grand ride for me. And tonight is the high point. Thank you to so many players, coaches, my family, the Bills family, passionate Bills fans, the Hall of Fame voters, and the Hall of Fame staff who have worked so hard to make this weekend a very pleasurable one.

And I also want to thank the host committee in Canton, Ohio, for putting this game on. I want to thank all -- I think there are 4,000 or more volunteers of this community that's helped out, and I haven't seen one person since I've been here that hasn't said hello with a smile on their face. And I want to thank you for that.

And a special thanks to my late daughter, Linda. Linda worked for the Bills. She was the only female scout in the league, and she was a good one. We went to games together for many, many years and sat next to each other. And I know she would want to be here tonight to share this honor with me.

I share this stage with some great football people. And the honor comes to one who never played the game. I play tennis. Because in tennis, folks, when you go back to serve, you don't have to worry about the rush of Bruce Smith. And you go home without any bruises and clean clothes.

In closing, I am so appreciative of this recognition. And I must say that I was amazed at the parade this morning. There must have been 200 thousand people lining both sides of the street. And the thing that impressed me most was one whole block of people sitting in wheelchairs breathing oxygen, and I just thought to myself, this is America when people like that turn out.

Luck prevails. And closing in on 91, I still feel that I have youth on my side. And I want to thank all of you very much for this honor. Thank you.