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Timeline: A look back at the life of Ralph Wilson Jr.

Some key developments in the life of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and the Buffalo Bills:

Oct. 17, 1918: Wilson was born in Columbus, Ohio.

1934: Attends first pro football game with his father and watches Detroit Lions in their inaugural NFL season.

1940: Graduates from the University of Virginia; enrolls at University of Michigan law school.

1941-46: Serves in U.S. Navy during World War II; is promoted to lieutenant on a mine sweeper that sees action throughout Mediterranean and off shores of Japan.

February 1946: Ends military career to work for his father’s insurance agency.

Oct. 17, 1959: Two months after making commitment to join Texas oilman Lamar Hunt in new football league, Wilson becomes a founding member of “The Foolish Club” by announcing he will place an AFL franchise in Buffalo.

Nov. 30, 1959: The franchise officially is named the Bills.

Dec. 16, 1959: Wilson hires Detroit defensive assistant Buster Ramsey as Buffalo’s first head coach.


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July 30, 1960: A crowd of 16,474 at War Memorial Stadium watches the Bills play their first game, an exhibition against Boston.

Jan. 18, 1962: Wilson hires former Boston coach Lou Saban as new Bills head coach.

Sept. 25, 1962: Bills claim quarterback Jack Kemp off waivers from San Diego for fee of $100.

Fall 1962: Wilson loans Oakland Raiders $400,000 to keep the franchise from folding.

Jan. 18, 1964: Wilson says Bills are worth $4 million, eight times his original investment. “It’s the best thing we’ve ever stumbled over,” he says.

Jan. 29, 1964: Wilson is instrumental in the AFL’s signing a five-year, $36 million contract with NBC to televise games, putting it on close-to-equal footing with the NFL.

Dec. 26, 1964: Bills win first AFL Championship, beating San Diego, 20-7.

Dec. 26, 1965: Bills win second AFL Championship, beating San Diego, 23-0.

Spring 1966: Wilson serves on the committee that negotiates the AFL’s merger with the NFL, to go into full effect in 1970.

March 14, 1967: Bills send QB Daryle Lamonica to Oakland in what turns out to be the worst trade in team history.

Jan. 28, 1969: Bills select O.J. Simpson first overall in NFL Draft.


From the archives:

Mark Gaughan’s profile of Ralph C. Wilson Jr. before his Hall of Fame induction

Jerry Sullivan’s column on Wilson’s having the heart of a fan

Mark Gaughan’s article about the inductions of Wilson and Bruce Smith

Larry Felser’s column about Wilson’s getting his due


June 1, 1970: Ralph Wilson Sr., the father of the Bills owner, dies.

Feb. 2, 1971: Wilson reaches $2.5 million divorce settlement with his first wife, Janet, in what is reported at time to be largest divorce agreement ever in Michigan.

Sept. 23, 1971: After more than three years of debate, the Erie County Legislature approves a $23 million bond to build a stadium in Orchard Park and signs a lease agreement with the Bills. Erie County Executive B. John Tutuska, left, signs the lease.

Aug. 7, 1973: Rich Stadium opens to sellout crowd of 80,020 for the preseason game vs. Washington.

Dec. 16, 1973: O.J. Simpson finishes the season with an NFL record 2,003 rushing yards.

May 4, 1974: Wilson’s involvement in the horse-breeding business reaches a pinnacle when his horse, named Patrick McGroder, competes in the Kentucky Derby, finishing ninth out of 23.

Sept. 12, 1976: A day before the season-opener, Wilson gets Simpson to end his contract holdout by giving him a three-year, $2.5 million deal. It makes Simpson the highest-paid player in football.

Jan. 11, 1978: After two miserable losing seasons, Wilson hires L.A. Rams coach Chuck Knox to a six-year contract worth $200,000 a year.

Sept. 7, 1980: Bills snap 20-game losing streak to Miami with 17-7 win. Bills fans tear down goal posts and carry one of them up to Wilson’s box. “This is the biggest win in the history of the team, 20 years,” Wilson says.

Jan. 25, 1983: Despite two playoff seasons in the previous three years, Knox resigns as Bills coach in the wake of growing personal differences with Wilson. Kay Stephenson is named to replace Knox.

Dec. 30, 1985: A week after firing Terry Bledsoe, Wilson promotes little-known pro personnel chief Bill Polian to the job of general manager.

Aug. 18, 1986: Polian closes deal to bring QB Jim Kelly to Buffalo with a five-year, $8 million contract.

Nov. 3, 1986: Wilson fires Hank Bullough and, with Polian’s recommendation, hires Marv Levy as head coach.

Oct. 31, 1987: Bills complete blockbuster trade to acquire rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett from Indianapolis in a deal involving six draft choices, four players and three teams.

April 24, 1988: Wilson gives final OK to take a gamble on the drafting of RB Thurman Thomas, despite a serious knee injury Thomas suffered in college.

Jan. 27, 1991: A week after 51-3 victory in AFC title game, Bills lose Super Bowl XXV to New York Giants, 20-19, as Scott Norwood misses 47-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.

Oct. 14, 1992: Wilson is inducted into Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Feb. 4, 1993: Wilson fires Polian, promotes John Butler to job as Bills’ general manager.

Jan. 30, 1994: Bills lose fourth straight Super Bowl, 30-13, to Dallas Cowboys.

Feb. 9, 1996: Wilson is one of only two owners to vote against the move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

July 31, 1997: Wilson signs a 15-year lease with Erie County and New York State that ties team to Buffalo through 2012 in exchange for an initial outlay of $63 million in public money for stadium improvements.

Oct. 18, 1997: Russ Brandon is hired from the Florida Marlins as director of marketing and business development.

Dec. 19, 1998: Rich Stadium is renamed Ralph Wilson Stadium. The team took over the naming rights to the stadium under the terms of the new lease agreement.

Spring 1999: Wilson establishes Ralph Wilson Medical Research Foundation, which contributes more than $11 million to research facilities, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

October 1999: Wilson marries for a third time, to the former Mary McLean, whom he met while playing tennis in 1990.

July 21, 2000: Bills open first training camp at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, marking the start of their regionalization effort.

Dec. 20, 2000: In what was an unpleasant divorce for both parties, Wilson announces the firing of John Butler, who served eight seasons as general manager.

Jan. 10, 2001: Tom Donahoe is hired as president and general manager of Bills.

Jan. 5, 2006: In wake of the firing of Donahoe, Wilson names himself president and brings back Levy as general manager.

March 8, 2006: Wilson stands in the minority as NFL owners pass a controversial labor deal with players by a 30-2 vote. “I don’t understand it,” Wilson said, criticizing the terms.

Feb. 6, 2008: Wilson announces five-year deal to play games in Toronto, a windfall deal that is worth $78 million to the team.

October 2008: In what probably was the most ill-timed contract extension in team history, Bills extend deal of coach Dick Jauron, who went on to win just five of next 19 games before being fired.

April 29, 2009: Linda Bogdan, Wilson’s youngest daughter and a long-time scout for the Bills, dies at age 61 after a battle with cancer.

Aug. 8, 2009: Wilson is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Dec. 30, 2009: Wilson turns to another familiar face, former team scout Buddy Nix, to become general manager.

Dec. 21, 2012: Bills announce agreement on 10-year extension of lease with New York State and Erie County, which virtually guarantees the team stays in place for seven years then offers a one-time buyout in 2020 for a minimal cost.

Jan. 1, 2013: Wilson steps away from day-to-day oversight of the team, passing the torch of team president title to Brandon, giving him full authority to run the franchise.

March 25, 2014: Wilson’s death is announced.