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WNED's 'Ralph,' premiering tonight, is a love letter to the former Bills owner

The WNED-TV program "Ralph," premiering at 8 p.m. Dec. 15, is a love letter to Ralph Wilson, the founder and late owner of the Buffalo Bills.

And after all the great deeds around Western New York and his native Detroit that the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is doing with the $1.4 billion from the sale of the team, you would be hard-pressed for anyone to deny he now deserves the loving, joyful treatment.

The worst thing said about Wilson in the 30-minute program is former Bills coach Marv Levy's crack that Wilson sang off-key when he joined in the fun with his players in the local room.

The uplifting tune that "Ralph" displays will be a joy to any longtime Bills fan who, since Wilson's death, has a new appreciation of the owner and his legacy.

The program is labeled a "biographical" documentary, but writer and executive producer John Grant concedes that the more proper description would be that of a "tribute." It plays like a love story between Wilson and the city he chose to place a team in and also includes a few minutes of the real love story between the owner and his widow, Mary.

Along the way, it also is a history of the Bills' existence before the sale to the Pegulas, replete with footage of the old American Football League days.

It begins with Wilson's own words in his speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame before former quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Buffalo News sports reporter Vic Carucci, Wilson's widow, Mary, football historian and Bills collector Greg Tranter, and team executives deliver testimonials to Wilson's influence on them, the National Football League and the Buffalo community.

The chief criticisms of Wilson while he alive – that he was a "cheap owner" who occasionally threatened to move the team – are either ignored or raised to be dismissed.

The tribute is narrated by ESPN's Chris Berman, best known for saying "Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills" during the team's glory years.

The film never uses the word "cheap," but it indirectly addresses the criticism of the owner by noting that Wilson "spent lavishly on players" and made Kelly, Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith the highest-paid players at their positions.

The moving threats that began as early as 1969 are viewed just as a negotiation strategy of a good businessman who never had any intention of actually leaving Buffalo. Maybe so. But it didn't feel that way when the community was going through the uncertainty.

One thing is certain: Wilson's charitable legacy certainly makes the "cheap" shots that he took as owner feel absurd today.

If this loving tribute has any revisionist history, Wilson earned it 100 fold.

He never got enough credit for keeping the team in the second smallest TV market in the National Football League (and the smallest, Green Bay, is ahead of Buffalo when Milwaukee is counted) and for trying to make sure the league protected small-market teams to make the Bills' stay in Buffalo possible.

"People don't understand the miracle of Buffalo having a professional football team," said Grant.

In a telephone interview, the executive producer explained his choices and conceded that it wasn't really a documentary in the traditional sense.

"I refer to it as a tribute to his life and his contributions and impact on Western New York," said Grant. "The goal was to give a positive portrait. We weren't setting out to do the dark side, if there was a dark side. The more we talked, it really was a good positive story more than an investigative piece."

Some people may be surprised that Wilson's incredible life could be captured in 30 minutes instead of an hour.

"As executive producer, I never feel that a good hour couldn't be a half hour," Grant said. "It always leads to a tighter story. It might have made for a perfect 45 minutes."

He said the issue of whether Wilson was considered a cheap owner was dismissed.

"We gave it a lot of thought," said Grant. "Nobody gave a good answer. Maybe people hesitated to talk about it or they didn't think it was true and felt it was unfair. It was more of a fan issue."

He conceded talking about the Bills' high-paid players was his way of addressing it.

He also decided against addressing the firing of Bill Polian, the architect of the Super Bowl years who is widely considered one of the greatest general managers in history.

"Not many people wanted to talk about," said Grant. "It seemed like inside baseball. Maybe firing one of the greatest general managers isn’t a good idea."

He understood why someone who lived through the threats of moving the team would wonder about the program's treatment of the issue.

"I am sensitive to what you are saying," said Grant. "It wasn't an investigative piece. The real threat of the move over time has been downplayed. The first time it might have been more serious than a lot of people around Ralph wanted to talk about. The thought he would never move the team. We don't know. Would he have moved? We don't know."

Grant also conceded the program relies heavily on interviews with players and the coach during the Super Bowl era.

"It would have been nice to have somebody from back in the day," said Grant. "We couldn't get to it."

If Grant had one more misgiving, it is one that many people watching this well-done, celebratory love letter to Wilson and Bills fans may have.

"It is hard to do a show about people you never met," said Grant. "I wish I had met Ralph. He would have been a good guy to know."

email: apergament@buffnews.com

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