Fifty years after he brought major-league sports to Buffalo, Ralph Wilson was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame.
Wilson played a huge role in shaping the modern NFL, as the most influential founding member of the AFL after Kansas City's Lamar Hunt. Wilson saved the Oakland franchise with a secret infusion of cash in the early 1960s. He helped secure the television deal that made the AFL competitive with its more senior competitor. He was a key behind-the-scenes figure in the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.
Recognition of Wilson’s work was a long time in the coming. In a tribute to Wilson published Aug. 9, 2009, the day of the induction ceremony, Larry Felser wrote:
There is something bittersweet about pro football realizing that Ralph Wilson deserved to be a member of its Hall of Fame in his ninth decade, his fifth as the owner of one of its storied franchises.
Yet it is understandable. Wilson has always operated quietly. He has never been a limousine person; his owner's box was never outfitted like a suite at the Ritz; he never felt to move in the company of a platoon of footmen.
Wilson was inducted in a ceremony in Canton, Ohio, on the same day as Bruce Smith, and Bills fans made up a significant part of the audience. As Jerry Sullivan reported:
About 90 minutes before the ceremony, the rains began to subside over central Ohio. The late-afternoon skies turned clear and bright, as if the football gods -- perhaps on notice from Tim Russert and Jack Kemp -- were smiling down on the Hall of Fame inductions at Fawcett Stadium.
Outside a Bills party tent, Mildred Jackson held an old color photograph in her hands. It was a shot of Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith, walking side by side at Rich Stadium in the early 1990s. The two Hall of Famers seemed so very young, bursting with life and possibility.
"I took it myself," Jackson said proudly. "I'm hoping to get it autographed. I'll give it my best shot. But we're just happy to be here at the Hall of Fame. Bruce Smith and Ralph Wilson? Oh, come on!"
Saturday's annual Hall of Fame inductions had a distinct Buffalo flavor. Hall officials estimated that 30 percent of the tickets were purchased in Buffalo, but that didn't include the innumerable Bills fans who came here from other locales.
“More than half the crowd was Bills fans. Once the night wore on, it was a running joke among the presenters. Those Bills jerseys were everywhere -- Smith, Thomas, Kelly, Smerlas, Flutie, Posluszny, Buffalo Soldiers, you name it.”
It was a sea of red, white and blue.
When the present Hall of Famers were introduced at the start of the night, the Bills got by far the largest cheers. Both sides of the stadium rose in unison, dominated by Buffalo fans.
It truly was a Buffalo night in Canton, a dual celebration of the Bills' 50-year history and the only team in NFL history to reach four straight Super Bowls. Wilson and Smith went into the Hall as a pair, which gave the festivities an added touch for Buffalo.
-- Sara Meehan