Pro Football Hall of Fame Field at Fawcett Stadium
August 8, 2009
Presenter Chris Berman (video)
I think Ralph Wilson has gone through life not expecting anything. Trying to make good things happen but not about himself, necessarily. Charitable beyond belief, yet he doesn't really want you to know all about it. He served in both oceans in the Navy in World War II. Talk about doing good things for people? I would put that at the head of the list.
Ralph Wilson gambled on the City of Buffalo in 1959. And he has kept the Bills in Buffalo in 2009. He understands the passion of western New York, the blue collar, loyal, hard working, we don't ask for much. We ask for just a little loyalty, and we'll give it right back to you times ten. And it's been a two-way street. It's as if everyone in Buffalo is being inducted today into the Hall of Fame. And I think that's why you understand why there are so many blue jerseys standing in Buffalo.
Ralph is getting this honor because of everything he's done. Those teams that won in the 60's, the quarterback, and the big hit. The most famous hit in the ten-year history of the NFL made by Mike Stratton, in 1964. To O.J. Simpson getting 2,000 yards. To the resurgence of the Bills, with Joe Ferguson the quarterback, Joe's the quarterback of really nice teams in the '80s. And of course, a team that we'll never see again, a team that made four straight Super Bowls in the 90's. They had wonderful players.
A wonderful coach who is in the Hall of Fame, Marv Levy. They had a wonderful president and general manager in those days, Bill Polian. But all of this happened because they had an owner that let the general manager, the coach, and the players play. And the owner, provided them with the tools to be great. And without pointing to himself and saying look at me, I'm great. My team's great. It's my team. You've not heard that ever from Ralph Wilson.
Every time I talk to Ralph Wilson about the AFL, his eyes sparkle and he smiles. He says oh, we had a lot of fun in those days. Those were days without a road map. Without the growth of the AFL and the force of the manager, and then Super Bowl III. The NFL's growth would have been stunted. In 1970, the NFL was nationwide. Every part of the nation. Without the AFL, you don't see the explosion of the '70s of pro football.
The NFL is the greatest game going. It's not quite what we have today without the AFL, and Ralph Wilson was part of that bedrock. So, yes, it's about time.
This is one of the wisest selections the Hall of Fame has made in quite a while. There are very few that have had a mark for half of a century in the game of pro football. I think what it means is that if and when the day comes that we no longer have Ralph Wilson with us, and that will be a sad day, the people will remember that he stood for football. He stood for the fans ahead of himself. It's not that he didn’t. It's that they did.
Ladies and gentlemen, to present Ralph Wilson, Jr., for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, please welcome Chris Berman.
END OF VIDEO
Thank you very much. Mr. Wilson, Bruce. I think we have a Buffalo home game. I think we do. 1959, 50 years ago, the NFL was coming off its first big moment, the 58 championship game. The greatest game ever played. The league was on its way. Yet eight gentlemen decided there was room for more pro football in different places. A different sort of pro football. The American Football League.
These eight were dubbed “The Foolish Club.” One of these gentlemen set his sights on a small jewel. Buffalo, New York. It was at the time the nation's 14th largest metropolitan area. It's people hard working, they were loyal, they'd be really good fans. And so began the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League thanks to one man, Ralph Wilson, Jr.
The AFL began, and boy it was fun. Throw it more often than we run it. Use the whole field. Two-point conversions. It was great. Soon, the Bills would be the league's best. They thrilled the throng in the old rock pile, better known as War Memorial Stadium. With back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, their quarterback would become a major American statesman, Jack Kemp. Hall of Famer Billy Shaw stood guard. The running back was a Cookie. The wide receiver had golden wheels. Their defensive line had a dancing bear, a tough Tom, and a big Jim. Linebacker Mike Stratton leveled the biggest hit in the history of the AFL. George Saimes was a gem at safety. Paul Maguire, he was a classic in many ways as a punter.
Western New York was ecstatic. But it's the Bills were winning, there were bigger issues as in could the AFL survive? Some teams were almost out of money. If the league could not stay viable with eight clubs, it might go out of business. Ralph Wilson, Jr. lent the Oakland Raiders, his competitors, $400,000 so they could play football.
The first five-year TV deal with ABC was running out. Ralph traveled to the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, hardly a hot bed for football. Why? To meet with the NBC folks. He got a wire from a fellow owner, Billy Sullivan of the Patriots, with great news. We've gotten an offer from NBC for $600,000 a club. Mr. Wilson quickly wired back. Don't accept it, we can get more. And he got more. A five-year contract worth $900 thousand a team per season, a monstrous sum in those days.
The AFL was here to stay. And it had the money to bid on players and the NFL knew it. They instituted secret talks to set in motion the biggest move in pro football history, the merger, starting the ball rolling on the AFL side. With over a dozen meetings with the then owner of the Baltimore Colts Carol Rosenbloom was Ralph Wilson, Jr.
Two AFL leaders were already enshrined here in Canton, the late Lamar Hunt and Al Davis. They certainly had two different styles, and they drove the merger from the AFL side. But they would have been the first to tell you that the quiet force that never looked for headlines. The man that just wanted to get it done was Ralph Wilson, Jr., because as the established NFL quickly found out, if he gave you his word, that's all you needed. This became reality in 1970. Just ten years after the AFL began playing in the '70s, pro football exploded.
The game and the great league you see today are all as a result of the merger. The '70s saw no work stoppages. One of the key members of the owners’labor committee in those days was Ralph Wilson, Jr.
All the Bills had some teams back then. You just saw them a little bit. The juice ran through holes opened up by fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie. Quarterback Joe Ferguson went from youngster to veteran. He and Joe Cribbs and company had Buffalo back in the postseason in the early '80s. But this was nothing like the late '80s, and the early 90's when the Bills made it to four straight Super Bowls.
Nobody had done it before. Nobody has done it since, especially getting off each time after losing the year before with such steely determination to make it back to the Super Bowl. Oh, what a group they had. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy. The best president and GM in the business, Bill Polian. Followed by Hall of Fame person, John Butler, and the rest of their staffs. And the players. Jim Kelly is behind me tonight. So is Thurman Thomas. So is James Lofton. In about an hour, so will Bruce Smith. AndreReed will be here soon. Kent Hull, Steve Tasker, Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, Shane Conlan, we could go on and on and on. And the fans breaking attendance records, even with the NFL's second smallest market. The parking lot at Orchard Park was full of campers on Friday before all the Sunday games.
And standing in the background of all of this, the one constant through it all, Ralph Wilson, Jr. He is not an owner that you see pacing the sidelines, exerting his team or exerting the fans. All right, I guess he had to come down on the field once. He had to. They renamed the stadium after him, and someone had to give him the keys to the place. Now it's 2009. Buffalo is far from the 14th largest metropolis in America. These are certainly tough times in a lot of places, certainly in western New York. Yet 50 years later, the Bills still belonged to Buffalo because your owner has given you his word.
As he has given his word so many times in both the AFL and the NFL, do you know that every time a franchise move has come up for a vote, Ralph Wilson, Jr. has voted against it. Every time. Every time. Because you see the team, it's city and its fans, they have a deal. Here we are in Canton, Ohio. 20 seasons after the Bills played in their first Super Bowl, 40 seasons after the merger. 45 seasons after the Bills won their first championship, and 50 seasons after the AFL started play on what seemed like a wing and a prayer. Ready at last to honor a gentleman 90 years young. If it is true that no one -- help me out here Buffalo; okay? That no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills!
If that's true, you know this is true. No one has circled the wagons like the only owner the Buffalo Bills have ever had. A founding father of the AFL, a man who served his country in the Navy in World War II. The man I am honored and humbled to present to you for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Ralph Wilson, Jr.
Ralph Wilson, Jr.
Thank you for all those kind words, Chris. I really appreciate it. It's an honor for me to be here. I went to my first pro football game in 1935. The Lions were playing the Bears. Since that time, I have been an avid pro football fan. As Chris said, I went away to college and the Navy. When I came back, I went to work for my father, worked every Sunday at home we would go see a pro football game.
During that time, I almost wanted -- I always wanted to own a football team so I'd have a little something to say about it. And let me tell you how I got into professional football. In the fall of 1959, I read in the paper where a young champ named Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams were starting a new professional football league. Lamar lived in Dallas, and he couldn't get an expansion franchise from the NFL. So I decided to start my own league. I happened to have a winter home in Miami, which was one of the prospective sites that I read in the paper. So I called Lamar and told him of my interest. And he said, well, if you're interested, you better get down here right away, because there are other people that are likewise interested. So I flew down the next day, and he granted me the Miami franchise. And we both went down to talk to the city fathers, and see if we could lease the Orange Bowl. It was the only place to play football in those days. The city fathers would not let a new league lease the Orange Bowl, because they had a bad time with another new league that came before us. So I flew home and forgot about it.
About four or five days later I got a call from Lamar, and he said, Ralph, we need an eighth franchise to balance out this new league. One from the east and one from the west. And I'll give you your choice of five different cities where you can place your franchise. And I picked Buffalo. It was a lucky pick, because over the years, they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams. And without the support, I wouldn't be on this platform tonight.
In the early days, an owner was considered brilliant if he could break even. And I remember the story of George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears. They played at Wrigley Field. And he always placed two of his big linemen in each end zone to retrieve footballs kicked through the uprights after a touchdown or a field goal.
It goes without saying that sometimes it was a little tussle to get the ball away from the fan that had retrieved it: The AFL started the new season in 1960. We played our first game in old War Memorial Stadium downtown which seated about 35,000, which was enough. And the first season in the exhibition we were playing terrible. Now towards the end of the exhibition season, we were playing the New York Titans. Now it's the New York Jets. And my friends in the stands said, Wilson, why don't you go down and talk to the team. You're behind 21-7. You can't do any worse. You've had a lousy start in your games up to date. And I said what am I gonna tell them? Well, tell them something.
So at their urging, I went down and walked into our locker room, and there was our head coach, Buster Ramsey. With that expression on his face -- what are you doing in here?
I said I want to talk to the team, Buster said. “Go ahead, talk to them.” And I gave that team one of the most inspiring fight talks. It was reminiscent of maybe Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi. And we lost the game 51-7. Shortly there after, Buster said to me, hey, Ralph, next time talk to the other team.
In the early 1960's, there was a battle going on for college players. And we heard a rumor that the National Football League might want to merge. So Barron Hilton appointed Sonny Werblin of the New York, well, Jets, and myself. To talk to the representative of the National Football League. We happen to meet Carol Rosenbloom. I talked to Carol down in Miami that winter at least tenor 12 times. And we set up the parameters of how a merger might take place. There was a lot of animosity between the leagues at that time.
We would pool all the television money, which of course would help the smaller markets, and I was in favor of that. We would have a common draft, so we weren't bidding against each other for players. My talks with Carol didn't finalize the merger, it merely set the parameters of how one would take place.
Each team would play in their own league for four years, and have a total realignment in 1970 under the guidance of the then commissioner Pete Rozelle. It was a great experience. We played games in the AFL, and at the end of the year we played the NFL for the championship of the world. Later known, and I credit the late Lamar Hunt for this, he later named it the Super Bowl.
The league grew tremendously. Through television, and interest in towns, very small towns in those days, San Diego, Denver, Oakland. But it spread pro football all over the country. People started to enjoy. Because way back in the 50s there was only 12 teams in the NFL.
We had a measure of success ourselves. In 1965 we played the San Diego Chargers for the championship of the AFL in San Diego. They had a great team. We did, too. Not as publicized as them, but we had Billy Shaw, a Hall of Famer.
It was the custom of the Chargers in those days to place a cannon in the end zone. And every time the Chargers would score a touchdown, there was an elderly man that would fire the cannon. We won the game 23-0. Everybody went off to the locker room, the players, the coaches. And I stood there in front of our bench in awe in amazement. And I turned around and I saw this elderly Man towing the cannon up the field, and he got right in front of our bench, turned it around, tilted it up to the sky and fired it. Which only goes to show you you can't see anyone in football that likes to get shutout.
It has been a grand ride for me. And tonight is the high point. Thank you to so many players, coaches, my family, the Bills family, passionate Bills fans, the Hall of Fame voters, and the Hall of Fame staff who have worked so hard to make this weekend a very pleasurable one.
And I also want to thank the host committee in Canton, Ohio, for putting this game on. I want to thank all -- I think there are 4,000 or more volunteers of this community that's helped out, and I haven't seen one person since I've been here that hasn't said hello with a smile on their face. And I want to thank you for that.
And a special thanks to my late daughter, Linda. Linda worked for the Bills. She was the only female scout in the league, and she was a good one. We went to games together for many, many years and sat next to each other. And I know she would want to be here tonight to share this honor with me.
I share this stage with some great football people. And the honor comes to one who never played the game. I play tennis. Because in tennis, folks, when you go back to serve, you don't have to worry about the rush of Bruce Smith. And you go home without any bruises and clean clothes.
In closing, I am so appreciative of this recognition. And I must say that I was amazed at the parade this morning. There must have been 200 thousand people lining both sides of the street. And the thing that impressed me most was one whole block of people sitting in wheelchairs breathing oxygen, and I just thought to myself, this is America when people like that turn out.
Luck prevails. And closing in on 91, I still feel that I have youth on my side. And I want to thank all of you very much for this honor. Thank you.