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Four years after his death, memories of Ralph Wilson loom large at NFL owners meeting

ORLANDO, Fla. – Four years and one day later, Russ Brandon stood Monday at the very same patch of carpet upon which his bucking knees somehow kept him upright.

Here, outside the Plaza Ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Orlando, is where he announced to the world Ralph Wilson had died.

"For us to be standing in the exact spot," Brandon said Monday, "is quite surreal."

Wilson died four years ago Sunday at his home in Gross Pointe Shores, Mich., while the annual NFL owners meeting took place here.

The meeting returned to the same location this week. With it, came a rush of bittersweet memories.

"I walked by this spot yesterday, and I tried not to even look over here," Brandon said. He was the Bills' president and CEO in 2014; he's now managing partner and president of the Bills and Sabres.

"Walking into that room today for the first time ... Ralph had an unbelievable impact on everyone. So many people here have made mention of it over the last 48 hours."

Brandon, surrounded by Wilson's colleagues, sat in for the infirm owner at the 2014 meeting. Brandon listened to a presentation about a fan-conduct survey. A call came from Wilson's wife.

Mary Wilson knew where Brandon was and wouldn't have bothered if the matter weren't urgent. Brandon's stomach twisted with dread as he excused himself from the ballroom.

"I'll never forget it," Brandon said, retracing the sequence of events.

Ralph Wilson, founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, dies at 95

Wilson's death long had been a specter for Bills fans. That another owner would swoop in and move the team – to Los Angeles or Toronto or London or anywhere other than small-market Buffalo – was the consensus assumption.

Eleven days earlier, Bills icon Jim Kelly announced his oral cancer had returned, that he would need radiation and chemotherapy to survive.

Flash forward to this week: Kelly is scheduled to have major surgery after learning four weeks ago his cancer has returned again. He believed he had been cancer-free since September 2014.

Wilson was 95, yet the news didn't seem real. Brandon's head spun.

Alone in the corridor for three minutes or so, Washington owner Dan Snyder left the session to find Brandon, shook from the news. Snyder gave Brandon a handkerchief and tried to calm him.

"It was shocking," Snyder said Monday. "You're never really ready for that type of stuff to be breaking news.

"More than anything, we were feeling for Russ, who really struggled. They were family. The relationship can't be replaced."

Snyder suggested Brandon inform Roger Goodell. Brandon from the corridor texted the commissioner, who cleared the ballroom of anyone who wasn't a principal owner. Goodell and Brandon walked back inside and stood at the front of the Plaza Ballroom, where Brandon delivered the news.

"I had a sense that most of the people knew something had occurred," Brandon said. "There were a lot of tears. It was quiet.

"Ralph meant a lot to many of the people in that room and had private conversations with owners over time and when new owners came in, the respect level was just immense."

Brandon especially remembered condolences from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.

The back corner of the ballroom is where Buffalo always is seated at the owners meeting with Washington, the Los Angeles Chargers and Chicago Bears. The arrangement is a vestige of when Wilson would sit with Jack Kent Cooke, Barron Hilton and Alex Spanos and Ed McCaskey.

"It's such a special club," Brandon said. "There's such a brotherhood amongst the ownership. To see the reaction of so many people, the respect Ralph had from the people in that room, it was an emotional time, obviously."

The Bills' contingent at the 2014 owners meetings included General Manager Doug Whaley, coach Doug Marrone and football operations senior VP Jim Overdorf.

They went through the remainder of the week in a fog, not knowing what was to come.

"He was great to me," said Marrone, now coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "He did so much for so many people. He was a good man.

"But I was thinking of all the people who had been with him for such a long time and Mary Wilson and all the people he's helped. I thought, 'Holy cow. This is all going to change. Right now.' "

A little more than five months later, Wilson's trust sold the club to Terry and Kim Pegula for an NFL-record $1.4 billion.

Bills fans rejoiced. The Pegulas outbid Donald Trump and a group fronted by rock star Jon Bon Jovi and backed by Toronto money. The expedited sale quashed what could've been a torturous wait.

"You almost didn't have time to grieve properly," Brandon said. "You have a full staff to worry about and being stewards of the franchise and the community and what Ralph meant to the region. Then to do five eulogies at different events and, in the meantime, understanding you have to sell a franchise.

"To know that you want to grieve someone that meant so much to you, but at the same time running a full sprint to sell a franchise that remarkably was sold not even six months later – basically, unheard of – was a whirlwind, but with a great conclusion."

Since the Bills have been sold, three franchises have gone through relocations: the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles; the Chargers from San Diego to Los Angeles; and the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas.

A substantial portion of the $1.4 billion sale endowed the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation to distribute funds in the Buffalo and Detroit areas.

"We knew it was going to be difficult, but we felt we were positioned properly," Brandon said of the presale anxiety.

"The outcome was the greatest outcome you could have, and when you have Mr. Wilson's foundation giving back to the community, it's really a special story."

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