Members of the Buffalo Bills past and present expressed their grief Tuesday over the death of team owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
Then they expressed their admiration for Wilson’s ability to make them feel a part of the Bills’ family, a connection they said was the most special part of playing in Buffalo.
“He used to call me his favorite son, and we used to always laugh and joke about that,” said Bills Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas. “When you have that type of relationship, it hits home. I was very close to Mr. Wilson. It hurts.”
“I was like a son to him, and I felt that way,” said Bills Hall-of-Fame receiver Andre Reed. “I could always talk to him. If anything was on my mind, I could call him up. He was always the first guy to greet you after a win and the first guy to greet you after a loss. Your owner really sets the tone for your football team. ... Family, that’s what it was about.”
Steve Tasker, the special teams great on the Bills’ Super Bowl teams, said the players were able to joke with Wilson far more than one would expect in a player-owner relationship.
“On those home games Ralph would come down on the field every Thursday,” Tasker said. “It was kind of his habit. We made fun of him because he wore these brown corduroy pants. ‘These are my lucky pants!’ he’d say. And he would joke with us. It says a lot about him. It got to the point where we were so familiar with him, he would allow us to make fun of him and join in the joke.”
“I played in Minnesota,” said Bills great Darryl Talley. “You know what? I never met the owner. I was there for a year. ... When you sit down and think of some of things he’s done, it’s amazing.”
Tasker said the players did not doubt Wilson’s passion to win.
“When we’d win a big one, it was great to see what it meant to him,” Tasker said. “He didn’t fake his joy. He didn’t put on a front of how happy it made him. He didn’t make up any emotions to make it look good for any media or any fan. When the Bills won a big game, it was as if he was the only fan.”
“And sometimes, in the dark days, maybe he was,” Tasker laughed. “But this team mattered to him deeply. For all the criticism, for all the bad years and dark times and back to back 2-14 teams, let me tell you this, it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He cared deeply.”
Here are excerpts of interviews from Tuesday:
“A lot of Bills fans have been standing on this cliff for a long time, but for those of us who played for him and knew him we were hoping it would never come. I’m sad. I’m brokenhearted.”
“On those home games, Ralph would come down on the field every Thursday. It was kind of his habit. We made fun of him because he wore these brown corduroy pants. ‘These are my lucky pants!’ he’d say. And he would joke with us. It says a lot about him. It got to the point where we were so familiar with him, he would allow us to make fun of him and join in the joke.”
“Bill Polian had a short fuse. Ralph had a shorter one. Ralph had a bigger explosion. So it was fun to hear the fallout once in a while, and the things those guys would argue and bicker about. The players knew that once you were on this team, Bill Polian would fight for you. Literally, he would throw fists for you. Ralph was cut from the same cloth. It was easy to be motivated to play hard for Ralph and this organization.”
“It was my second game here, a road game at New England, and I didn’t know anything. I was a second-year player. I had been a Houston Oiler for a year and a half and I had met Bud Adams, the owner of the Oilers, once briefly in a reception line. And I thought, that’s kind of the way it was in the NFL. I got picked up off waivers midseason by Buffalo, right after Marv got the job. I’d been here eight days. I was sitting in the locker room in my game pants and T-shirt about two hours before the game. This gentleman walked up in a coat and tie, trench coat, and said, ‘Hey Steve, I’m Ralph Wilson, I just want to say welcome on board. I hope it goes really well for you. Good luck, today. I hope you play well. I just want to say welcome.’ I had to go over to Ed Abramoski and say, ‘Who’s this Ralph Wilson guy.’ He goes, ‘He owns the team.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me, he seems like a great guy.’ From that moment on I knew it was going to be different here in Buffalo.”
“I’ll tell you this, the NFL is the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports leagues, and it’s because of men like Ralph Wilson. He’s not the only one. But he’s certainly the template for the kind of man, the kind of leader that has made the NFL the institution on the American landscape that it is.”
Tasker recalled a game about seven years ago in which the power went out at the stadium.
“I’ll always remember this: when the Kevlar balloons hit the transformer out on the corner of the property and the lights went out in the stadium. Some vendor let the balloon get away, it arcs across and blows a fuse and the whole grid goes down. When it happened, they came on and went back off. It was pretty frustrating for everybody. Pretty soon the fans turn around and start looking at Ralph’s box, and Ralph shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I knew they’d blame me eventually.’ So he knew what he signed up for.”
“My heart’s been heavy for the last 24 to 36 to 48 hours, but with Mr. Wilson passing today, it hurts. I was just truly blessed to be around Mr. Wilson during the glory days. To see his energy, to see the passion, to see the love for the game that he had throughout the years when we were a good, exciting football team. To have him in the locker room after the game ... to see the excitement but also to see the disappointment of never winning a championship ... Coming into the locker room after big games, after Super Bowls, and always hearing him remind players, every player, and saying we wouldn’t have got here without you. He felt that way about everybody on this football team.”
Thomas recalled a game against the Bills in 2000, the one year in which he played for the Miami Dolphins:
“The one thing I’ll always remember, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this story, was the week that I was in Miami and the Dolphins were getting ready to play the Bills. Mr. Wilson called me. I hadn’t talked to him since my release in February. The week of the game he called me that Friday and said, ‘I apologize for not letting you go out the way you should have went out.’ At that point in time, we made up. And that’s when I wanted to retire as a Bill. Mr. Wilson was very important in my life, very important.”
“It was just a really good fun relationship that I had with him.
Mr. Wilson said what he had to say, and he was going to say what needed to be said. Mr. Wilson had to ante up the money in order to keep Bruce Smith here when he got the offer from Denver. He did a great job keeping the core players together for a long, long time.”
“I remember when I signed my contract. He said to me, ‘Look, this will be the second time in my career that the highest paid running back in the league will be playing for the Buffalo Bills. The other was O.J. Simpson. ... He played a very vital role in not only keeping the players but keeping this team here over the years. We really appreciate him keeping the guys together as long as he possibly could.”
“The City of Buffalo lost a damn good man, one who was very loyal to the city, and could have left when he wanted. Even through lean years of the Bills, the city stuck by him and when we won, he stuck by the city. It was a very good marriage. There was never a more loyal person than him to a city.”
“I understand what the Bills mean to Western New York. That is the heartbeat of that city, the pulse. The way they perform on Sunday translates to the beginning of the week, how they go to work how they do their jobs, whether they feel miserable or decent.”
“The people of Western New York are very, very loyal people, loyal to their teams and support them no matter what. I don’t think that can be said for a lot of cities, or a lot of teams. There’s a relationship there that’s second to none. I don’t care what anybody says, I can go from Orlando to California and after being there an hour I’ll run into somebody from Buffalo, and they want to talk about the Bills. I played in Minnesota. You know what? I never met the owner. I was there for a year.”
“He was 95. I’d take 95 in a heartbeat. You give me 95, I’m signing up. He had 95 years on this Earth. The first 30 may have been hell. But I guarantee you, that last 60-some odd years, he had a hell of a time.”
“After the very first Super Bowl, he could have got up and left. They were arguing about the stadium back then. He could have said, ‘OK, I’m done, I’m going to do what Al Davis did.’”
“I truly enjoyed getting together with him, if we were at the league meetings, we went to dinner together or out to breakfast. He was fun to be with. We shared interest in many things, certainly in the game of football. He was a unique man to work for in that he would strongly express his opinions, and he would really listen if you have had a contrary opinion. I remember once he wanted to replace a coach on the staff, and I felt it was so wrong to do in that case, and I persisted, and I wondered if I was putting myself under the gun. And finally at the end, he said, ‘I still don’t agree with you, but you’re the coach.’ He never held any malice, and a few years later he really liked that other guy.
“Almost every time he would come to practice he’d exchanged jibes, usually with Thurman, but some of the others who weren’t reticent about doing that with the owner.”
About every month or so I’d call him and upon occasion he’d call me, just to say how you doing. I’d done this all the years since I retired, but about four to five months ago I began to detect that maybe he was struggling a little bit to communicate. I spoke a time or two more with Mary to see how he was doing. I’d say it used to be about once a month we’d have a telephone conversation about nothing, just to talk to each other.”
On getting to the Super Bowl: “I could sense the glow and how proud he was. Here’s a guy who had come into the beginning of the AFL so many years previously and really had never gotten there until the 1990 season. It wasn’t just Ralph Wilson that was going to the Super Bowl, he saw to it that everybody in the organization. He really set an example of total organization wins. Not just a great owner, not just a coach or a quarterback, it was total organization. We’d go to those Super Bowls and he took everybody, the security guards, everybody. The people that cleaned up at night, they were part of the Buffalo Bills at the Super Bowl.”
“We all know the history of the NFL and the AFL merging with the NFL. Ralph really innovated, and really took a chance to make the sport better. The original AFL owners wanted to be a part of it. You’ve got to thank those guys for why the TV revenue is the way it is and why the game became so dominant, because of those guys who challenged the NFL and said we want to merge with you. He bought the Bills for $25,000 and they’re worth almost $900 million now. You have to recognize not only what he did for the league but what he’s done for Buffalo, and how he’s kept the team there all these years. Owners can move. You show them money, they go. But Ralph was really loyal to the city.”
“I was like a son to him, and I felt that way. I could always talk to him. If anything was on my mind, I could call him up. He was always the first guy to greet you after a win and the first guy to greet you after a loss. Your owner really sets the tone for your football team.”
“Family, that’s what it was about. It wasn’t just on the field. It was how you were doing off the field. How are your kids doing? How’s your mom doing? How’s your dad doing? He set that tone.
“I’ve been in the locker room when he’d come through pre-game and give us speeches at training camp or minicamp. ... We’re all motivated, especially, with his passing, we want to continue to cement his legacy. I know that’s something a lot of guys here will focus on. We want to honor him, and a great way to honor him is going out and winning a lot of football games next year.
“I can remember every time he spoke to us as a team, there wasn’t an eye in the building that wasn’t focused on him, listening to what he had to say to us. He’ll be missed.”
“I remember him every time coming in to the locker room during pregame, and he’d stop at my locker and tell me, ‘You’re the guy that’s not supposed to be here, and you keep proving them wrong.’ Little things like that, he tried to touch everybody when he spoke to them at their locker, he tried to tell them what he was thinking and that he knew who they were. Any time you get a guy like that you want to go out and fight hard for him.”
It’s a sad day for all the former Buffalo Bills and the current ballplayers but most of all for the City of Buffalo and Erie County. It’s devastating because he meant so much.”
“I thought he did a great job of bringing the staff together, getting the coaches together. He was looking for a championship team right off the bat. ... We put together a great team and we ended up winning the AFL championship two years in a row.”
“He did so many things for the community. He did things for Canisius College, for UB, and he saved the Oakland Raiders from going under. At a later point, he contributed to the Miami Dolphins to keep them going. So Ralph Wilson not only did a lot for the city of Buffalo, but a lot for the league in general.”
“One of the greater interactions I had with Mr. Wilson was in Kansas City. We were playing the Chiefs, and he was having a meeting with the Chiefs’ owner and a couple other businessmen in the community. On Saturday nights it became a dry town. He had brought them up in the hotel to have some cocktails, and there was no cocktails. Previous to that, because I had relatives living in Kansas City, I had bought a few bottles of alcohol, because I was staying over to the next day. We were going to party that night. I saw Mr. Wilson walking in the lobby, and he had this strange look on his face. I asked him, I said, ‘Hey boss, what’s wrong? You look like you lost your last friend.’ He said, ‘I might have lost my last friend, if I don’t find some alcohol because I’ve got the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs here and some other business people.’ I said, ‘What do you need?’ He said, ‘A bottle of vodka would be great.’ I went up to my room, got a bottle of vodka and brought it down. You should have seen the smile on his face. We always talked about it from that point on. He said, ‘You saved my hide.’”
“He would tell the players, ‘What do you guys need in order to be better?’ ... I can remember sitting on the bench at practice in the old stadium, when Jim Kelly says to Ralph, ‘Hey, Ralph, you know what you need to do? You need to build an airplane hangar that you can just put everything in. We can practice inside.’ Boom, within a year we had it. That’s what Ralph did. I can remember plane trips. You know, we were going back and forth with different companies about who was flying us. I think there was an issue somewhere with the flights. The next thing you know, Ralph gets involved with it, and we show up to our away trip. And we got a red carpet. Red Buffalo Bills carpet leading to stepping in with a new plane and everything. I know the guy wanted a championship. I wanted it just as much as he wanted it. That’s where I think he had a bond, and I’m terribly sorry that we didn’t get it together. But he built something special.”
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