The Detroit News
TAMPA, Fla. -- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who grew up in Detroit and still lives in Grosse Pointe Shores, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
"Well, it's gonna take me a couple minutes to get over the shock," said Wilson, who at age 90 is the oldest owner in the NFL.
"It's such a tremendous honor. A friend of mine, Judge (Paul) Borman, said to me on the way over, 'Wilson, if you live long enough, and are lucky and fortunate, all good things happen.' And I have to say, I have made so many friends in football over the last half-century -- coaches, players, fans, sportswriters. You know, it's just part of my life. And to get this great honor, I don't know what to say."
He paused, then added with a chuckle, "I've got to say something, I know. You're waiting for me to say something!"
At that, the room erupted in laughter, with one of his former players, fellow Class of 2009 inductee Bruce Smith, the former Bills defensive end, among them.
Truth is, Wilson didn't need to say a thing. His quiet, resolute, leadership since 1959, when he bought the Bills franchise -- originally destined for Miami -- for the princely sum of $25,000, has earned him a reputation as one of pro football's most-respected owners.
Wilson, who was up for Hall of Fame election for the third time, is one of only two original AFL owners -- Tennessee's Bud Adams is the other -- still running their franchises. And it was Wilson who helped pave the way for the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that created what today is a $7 billion enterprise and the most successful pro sports league in the world.
Fortitude and foresight
But Wilson's lasting legacy will be his willingness not to pass the buck nor to chase it like so many others in a league full of new stadiums and fading traditions. Wilson was heavily criticized as one of two owners to vote against the NFL's current collective-bargaining agreement. But his fellow owners recently voted to opt out of that labor deal in 2010, effectively proving his prudent point of contention.
And while other small-market owners have bolted for greener pastures -- most notably Art Modell's move from Cleveland to Baltimore -- Wilson has firmly objected, all the while keeping the Bills planted in western New York despite a shrinking population and lagging revenue stream.
"It would be crushing to the fans if they didn't have that team, win or lose," Wilson said Saturday.
"You have to have consistency in a franchise," he continued. "Because people become attached to a franchise. They take their children to the game, and so many people across the country I've met who said, 'My father used to take me to the games in old War Memorial Stadium in downtown Buffalo and stood in the end zones.' And the people in a community, they become attached to a team. ... I came into the game because I enjoyed the game, I wanted to be a part of ownership, and pro football to me is not about making money. Now, that might sound a little off the track. But it's not."
His has been a refreshing voice of reason in a league that's full of far too much bluster these days. And Saturday, it was Wilson's turn to apologize to his own fans.
"The people there, the fans, have been great," he said of Buffalo, where the Bills went to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-93 but haven't been to the playoffs since '99. "We haven't given 'em much of a product lately."
He turned to Smith and added, "Since this fellow left us, we haven't done so good."
But he's done plenty of good for the NFL, and Saturday was proof the league -- and a 44-member board of selectors -- officially had taken note. On Aug. 8, Wilson will be part of a class of six inductees that will bring the total to 253 Hall of Famers in Canton, Ohio.
"I must say, as you all can see, that I have seen over the years, either on television or in person, all of the enshrinees that have preceded me," Wilson said. "And to be in the same Hall of Fame as them is a tremendous, tremendous honor. I never expected it."
Wilson was asked if he'd given any thought to who will introduce him at the Canton ceremony.
"Actually, to be very honest, I have not," he said, eliciting more laughter from the crowd. "But I'm gonna give it serious thought. There's so many people that have helped me along the way, that I think the ceremony would be too long."
Maybe so. But like Saturday's announcement, it would be worth the wait.