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Buffalo loses a No. 1 fan

If ever there were a legend in Western New York, it was Ralph C. Wilson Jr. And in a sports-crazy town whose heroes include Jim Kelly, the French Connection and even B. Thomas Golisano, that’s saying something.

The only owner the Buffalo Bills ever had died on Tuesday at the happy age of 95. His life was long, productive and devoted in no small part to his team and the city it calls home. This community shares, in some significant way, the sorrow of the Wilson family and its friends. Even when the time has come, parting is a wrenching experience.

Fortunately for Western New York, Wilson has bequeathed it something of value, and something it hopes will be a lasting tribute to him: the team he founded in 1959 as one of the original members of the then-new American Football League. For 55 years, Wilson has been woven into the fabric of this area, and he honored his pledge to keep the Bills here while he was alive.

The worrisome question has been: What will happen after he dies? Buffalo wants to keep his memory and his team here. The fear is that others may want to take the Bills away, to another city where the team could be worth more, at least monetarily, than it is here.

For now, at least, the Bills seem to be safe. The terms of a new lease agreed upon in late 2012 include a $400 million penalty if the team leaves before the end of the seventh year of the 10-year lease. After that, the price of breaking the agreement drops to $29 million.

With Wilson’s death, though, these questions are bound to arise again. Will new owners have the same fierce commitment to Buffalo that Wilson did? He could have made more money had he moved the team, as investors in Seattle wanted in the 1970s.

Indeed, teams moved out of St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, Baltimore, Houston and Cleveland in the 1980s and early 1990s, lured by the prospect of larger profits. Wilson remained in Buffalo, where the market was shrinking and is today the second smallest in a league of 32 teams. Only devotion explains that.

To resist those kinds of pressures takes a person of steely strength, and Wilson was that. He took an enormous – and ultimately, enormously profitable – risk in helping to create the AFL as a competitor to the National Football League. With that, he became a member of what some called “The Foolish Club.” They might better have been called The Visionaries, for Wilson’s $25,000 investment in 1959 is today valued at $870 million.

That’s not the only time Wilson saw a glimpse of the future. Five years before the AFL and NFL merged in 1969, he was pushing the idea.

It’s fair to say that the fans in Buffalo helped make Wilson the success he became. Except for a couple of years in its AFL days and a spectacular run in the 1990s, the team has been lackluster, especially in recent years. You wouldn’t know it from the fans’ devotion. They grumble and complain and wish, but they also show up. Tickets might go for a higher cost in some other market, but they wouldn’t find a fan base any more committed.

That’s why it will be important to this community to find security beyond a $400 million penalty to keep the Bills in Buffalo. Wilson did this region a tremendous service by creating the team here and insisting, against all financial sense, on keeping it here. There is work to do, but for the moment, at least, it is enough to honor a man who helped to make modern-day Buffalo, and whose passing is mourned around the region.