Remembering Ralph Wilson and the American Football League

Rick Stewart

On a day when the last original AFL owner passed, it is an appropriate time to remember the impact left by the men who took a massive gamble.

On Tuesday morning, the last member of the original American Football League owners passed away. Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, was lost at the age of 95.

"On behalf of my family and the entire Chiefs organization, we'd like to express our deepest sympathies to the Wilson family and the Buffalo Bills," Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said in a statement. "Ralph had a significant impact on the evolution of pro football. He took risks and made decisions that helped mold the NFL into what it is today."

To many younger fans of football, the passing of Wilson doesn't resonate the way it should. Wilson was one of the pillars of the current NFL structure, a man who without his contributions the AFL would have gone under.

Back in 1960, the late, great Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League and the Dallas Texans, who in 1963 would become the Kansas City Chiefs. Alongside Hunt were seven other men who came to be known as the "Foolish Club" for trying to compete with the NFL.

"As two of the original members of the AFL's Foolish Club," Hunt's statement continued, "my father and Ralph shared a unique bond and a special friendship. 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. He was a gentleman and a family man and will be missed dearly."

Wilson was on board with the Bills after being a part owner of the NFL's Detroit Lions. If you have ever looked at old archives, you realize Buffalo's colors were originally blue and silver, a nod to his past. Those uniforms only lasted for two seasons before being changed to the current colors and standing buffalo on the helmet.

Wilson's impact on the league went well beyond his own franchise. When the AFL was fledgling and trying to stay afloat, F. Wayne Valley, original owner of the Oakland Raiders, was going under. Valley wasn't getting the type of income he needed and it appeared the franchise would fold, leaving the AFL with seven teams. The best case scenario seemed to be a move, giving up a western foothold.

The Raiders are here today because of Wilson. The man from Columbus, Ohio loaned Valley and his partners $400,000 to keep them in business. Without Wilson, the league would have been in serious trouble. Perhaps, without Wilson, we wouldn't have the Chiefs to root for.

Now, 54 years after its first game, it is easy to forget the AFL and the roots of not only Kansas City, but many of the pro teams today. Hunt is given a boatload of credit for the league and deservedly so as the founder, but it is people like Wilson, Bud Adams and Sonny Werblin (Jets owner, nor original) who also helped make it into the powerhouse it became.

The Raiders are here today because of Wilson.

Wilson won two AFL titles as an owner in 1964 and 65, but never tasted elusive glory in the Super Bowl, losing four straight from 1990-93. He never came close to returning, only reaching the Divisional Round afterwards in 1995, the Bills most recent season with a playoff victory.

On Monday, the end of an era took place. The last remaining owner of the "Foolish Club" passed on, leaving behind a legacy that will be long celebrated throughout NFL circles and in the city of Buffalo.

It is a legacy well deserved. Thanks for your contributions Mr. Wilson, rest in peace.

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