NFL

ESPN commentators reflect on the passing of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr.

Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Wilson Jr. (l) with anchor Chris Berman.
Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Wilson Jr. (l) with Chris Berman, who introduced him.
(Don Juan Moore/ESPN Images)

Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., who helped found the American Football League in 1960, passed away today at the age of 95.

Chris Berman, who covered the Bills’ run to four consecutive Super Bowls and coined the phrase “No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills,” had the distinguished honor of presenting Wilson during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in 2009 (pictured above).

Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Wilson Jr. (l) with anchor Chris Berman.
Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Wilson Jr. (l) with anchor Chris Berman. (Don Juan Moore/ESPN Images)

On the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, Berman discussed the passing of Mr. Wilson and what he will remember most about him with anchor John Anderson. Berman’s comments:

“It’s obviously a very sad day for anybody that follows pro football and was fortunate enough to have known Ralph Wilson. The thing that we must remember about Ralph is from a young man – and what were they 39 or 40, “The Foolish Club,” late 30s, just about 40 when they said this AFL thing with eight teams might work.

“They were about loving the sport of football and loving those who played it and were in it, and loving those who followed it, and I think there was a twinkle in his eye and a laughter in his voice from a guy in his 30s to a guy in his 50s to a guy in his 70s, and I’ve got to tell you, as we stayed close in his 90s, he would write letters and be funny. Even if the Bills weren’t winning, he would take the bright, glass half-full part of it.

“I think the word loyalty we ought to use. Because forget just loyalty to Buffalo, where others might have said ‘boy, there’s certainly a pot of gold somewhere other than Buffalo, N.Y.’ He would have none of it. This man served in the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic and Pacific fronts. So, before we even get in the football, we should honor him as a World War II veteran on both fronts.

“His vision, his laughter, his love of the game, his joie de vivre in his 90s, will be with us for a long, long, long time. It’s a sad day, but he wouldn’t want us to be grieving very much. . . . The one-time owner of one team for half a century, say no more.”

A number of other ESPN commentators knew Wilson well and share their memories below.

NFL Front Office Insider Bill Polian, the Buffalo Bills general manager from 1986-93, spoke about the man who hired him today on NFL Insiders:
“It’s a sad day for everyone in the Bills family, myself included. He gave me my start in this business as a general manager when no one even knew my name. So I have a great regard and great affection for him. I think that what most people don’t know is the great sense of humor he had. He was really always available with a joke and a quip. He was passionate about his team – very demanding about his team, but he had a great sense of humor and [he was] a very kind person. People that are close to the Bills know about the many kindnesses that he shared with people through the years with absolutely no public notice. . . . A really good man. A decent man. Very important for the NFL – kept the Bills in Buffalo when he could have had very much better deals in many other places. But always said the Bills in his lifetime will never leave Buffalo and he kept that word. He was a man of his word; you could take his word to the bank. You didn’t need a contract with Ralph Wilson.”

SportsNation co-host Marcellus Wiley, who was drafted by the Bills in 1997 and spent the first four years of his NFL career in Buffalo:
“My deepest gratitude and respect goes out to Ralph Wilson and his family. He lived a full and tremendously successful life and allowed myself and countless other Buffalo Bills the opportunity to do the same. His contributions gave an entire community a sense of pride that will continue to carry on as his legacy. He will be greatly missed.”

ESPN play-by-play voice Dave Pasch:
“In 2001, Ralph Wilson gave a kid in his late 20’s a big break. Mr. Wilson, Russ Brandon, and the late John Butler hired me to call Buffalo Bills preseason TV games. That NFL experience was incredibly valuable for me. One year later the Arizona Cardinals hired me as their radio play-by-play announcer. Plus, the TV experience I gained with the Bills helped me get an opportunity with ESPN. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a broadcaster without Mr. Wilson taking a chance on me.”

ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski, who grew up in Lackawanna, N.Y. outside Buffalo and had Bills season tickets as a kid:
“I first met Ralph Wilson at the Senior Bowl in 1973. As I kid from Buffalo and a Bills season ticket holder, I could not have been more impressed! Mr. Wilson was such a class act. We have maintained a friendship since that moment. It deeply saddens me to think of his passing, but I have a big smile on my face when I think of all the good he has done for the game of football, particularly in western New York.”

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