ORLANDO, Fla. — At 2:02 p.m. Tuesday, the NFL owners and their executive assistants were listening to a presentation about fan conduct.
Buffalo Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon’s cell phone buzzed. Ralph Wilson’s wife, Mary, was calling. It was a call Brandon had to pick up, and he knew what news might await on the other line.
Brandon excused himself from the Ritz Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes meeting room and heard the long-dreaded bulletin. Wilson, the Bills’ 95-year-old founder, had died.
Brandon texted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who still was in the meeting, and told Goodell to join him in the corridor. The information was delivered.
Goodell returned to the meeting and waited for a natural break. He then asked that everyone who wasn’t a principal owner to leave the room.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said.
Every owner who was in that room described the moment as poignant. Goodell announced to Wilson’s peers that he was gone.
“It was like he was in the room, letting us know,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “Even in his final moments, he was thinking about the NFL.
“We do have a pretty special club here. Because of men like him, I pinch myself every day, driving to the stadium.”
Even a couple hours after it happened, Lurie marveled at the reverential moment.
“There were tears,” Lurie said, “but it was just absolute quiet.”
When the owners had a chance to speak about Wilson a couple hours later, they had smiles on their faces. They heaped respect on Wilson, a charter member of the Foolish Club that founded the American Football League, and recalled his independent streak.
“He was never afraid to voice his opinion,” said Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, son of late Foolish Club fraternity brother Lamar Hunt. “We would always wait at the league meetings for Ralph to stand up and take the opposite view on a specific point that we might be discussing. And he would do it articulately and with tremendous passion.”
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson said: “He was a presence in the room. And he always spoke very fluently about the past, what football meant to him. And if we were going off course, he would let us know.”
Wilson’s most notable objection was to the 2006 collective bargaining agreement. Wilson and Bengals owner Mike Brown were the only two dissenters to approve the deal, and they proved to be wiser than the other 30.
From the archives:
“He was a great independent thinker,” Lurie said. “There was no issue where Ralph was a vote you could count on. He would speak his mind.
“I tried to model myself that way a little because this shouldn’t be groupthink. It’s independent think. He spoke with a gleam in his eye. There was always a radiating excitement with Ralph.”
Lurie’s laughter nearly turned to tears when he thought about Wilson’s niece, Bills executive vice president Mary Owen.
“He was so proud of his niece,” Lurie said, his eyes immediately welling. “It was fun to watch Ralph watch Mary.”
Within the past eight years the NFL has lost Hunt, Al Davis, Bud Adams, Art Modell, William Clay Ford and Wilson.
“When I came into the league there were three [AFL] founders with Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams and Ralph,” Kraft said. “This is the passing of a generation and a man who represented the smaller markets.
“Ralph was always the voice of the small markets, making sure. His loyalty to the fans of Buffalo was very special.”