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Here's a toast to Toronto and Wilson's longevity

Fans of the Buffalo Bills will watch today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals as well as future games with butterflies performing aerial maneuvers in their stomachs.

It's not because Carson Palmer and his own aerial show is on display at The Ralph with Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots following in two weeks. What has the Bills' faithful reaching for the antacids is the Toronto factor.

Buffalo fans have suffered through periods of despair about losing their football team since the late '60s, when War Memorial Stadium had outlived its usefulness and the Erie County authorities were balking at building a domed stadium or any outdoor arena for the team's future. Owner Ralph Wilson made a trip to the vibrant boom city of Seattle a.) to consider his options for a franchise move, or b.) put some pressure on our local pols to get something done about a new stadium somewhere in Western New York.

Since Wilson founded the Bills in Buffalo 48 years ago, the Baltimore Colts relocated to Indianapolis, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, the Houston Oilers to Tennessee, the Chiefs from Dallas to Kansas City, the Chargers from Los Angeles to San Diego, the Rams from Los Angeles to St. Louis, the Cardinals from Chicago to St. Louis and then to Phoenix, and the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles and back to Oakland.

Meanwhile Wilson has stayed put and will stay put until his personal overtime has expired.

The Bills' coming experiment with playing one regular-season game per season plus one preseason game in Toronto is an entirely different story despite the skepticism of the Buffalo fans. I agree with those who think that further regionalizing the team by tapping into that financial colossus two hours up the Queen Elizabeth Way is the best way -- maybe the only way -- to stabilize the Bills' post-Ralph Wilson future in Buffalo.

Many of the fans don't see it that way, but consider this: From 1960 through 1977 the Bills played 14 regular-season games a year, which meant a seven-game season ticket package for home games. In 1978 the schedule went to 16 games, which meant an eight-game season ticket package. Why couldn't the fans, for whom money is tight, be happy with seven games again, especially if one of the despised preseason games is lopped off?

Even if more Toronto fans are lured down here, especially those affluent enough to buy luxury boxes, etc., eventually a financial white knight, preferably one with the description "billionaire" preceding his name and a desire to own a team on the Niagara Frontier, has to surface in order to give this story a happy ending.

Fans regularly fantasize about the Bills becoming a community-owned team like the Green Bay Packers. However, that happened to the Pack in 1950, when gas was 27 cents a gallon, Bethlehem Steel employed 18,000 workers on Fuhrmann Boulevard and National Gypsum and a number of other companies had their corporate headquarters here.

That was then, this is now, when wealthy Canadians are already making plans to bid for the Bills once they are put up for sale. A new stadium would be necessary to acquire an NFL franchise, but Toronto has been the financial capital of Canada going into its third century and the city got much wealthier when there was a drive in Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada. Many rich Anglos relocated to Toronto. The idea of ticket licenses would meet little opposition there and it would be a relatively short time before the debt on the stadium could be repaid.

Meanwhile, take a look up at Wilson in his owner's box today. I think you'll agree he looks pretty good for a man of 89. He might get a little cranky now and then but who wouldn't when the public has been discussing your impending demise for 20 years and your team hasn't appeared in the playoffs during the 21st century?

Bitter fans claim the Bills could stay in Buffalo if Wilson left them to his family. But he thinks of what happened in 1990 when Joe Robbie, owner of the Miami Dolphins, died, leaving the football team as well as a soccer team and Joe Robbie Stadium to his wife and children. In a matter of months, fighting over control tore the Robbie family apart.

"I'm never going to allow that to happen to my family," Wilson told me.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I think of my aunt Ann whenever Wilson's age is discussed. She lived to be 103, mowed her own lawn until she was 99 and trimmed the dead branches off her trees until she was 101. On her last day she called the family into her hospital room and told us "I'm going to sing you a little song." She sang clearly: "In heaven there is no beer -- so let's drink it all here."

I wish Aunt Ann's longevity for Ralph.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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