Sometimes you need to break the mold. Not everything is going to be fun and games. The events of the last few days for Bills Nation deserve a more serious approach, and it would not be right if I addressed it differently. Buffalo has lost the heart of its franchise. Its soul is fighting to survive.
Ralph Wilson wasn’t just big for Buffalo but was instrumental in evolving the NFL into what it is today. Born in October of 1918 in Michigan, Wilson grew up a Detroit Lions fan. His father owned an insurance company that he would one day take over. After he studied at the University of Virginia and Michigan Law, Wilson enlisted in the Navy and served in WWII. Upon his return, he ran the family insurance company until 1959 when he decided to buy a football franchise.
Originally, Wilson wanted the team to be in Miami, however he couldn’t reach an agreement with The Orange Bowl to play their home games in the stadium. He settled for War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo and chose to name the franchise the Bills in honor of the All-America Conference team that played there in the ’40s. His initial investment in the franchise was $25,000. Today, the team’s worth stands at over $870 million, which surprisingly ranks them 30th of the 32 teams.
It wasn’t just the Bills that was born, however. He was a founder and driving force of the American Football League that would eventually rival the NFL. Wilson, along with the legendary Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, and five other founding members struggled mightily the first few seasons, so much so that Wilson had to lend $400,000 to his AFL foe Oakland Raiders in 1962 to keep them afloat. (Ok, maybe this isn’t so much a credit to Wilson’s legacy. After all, if he didn’t give them the money, we would never have been exposed to Al Davis, but it still shows that Wilson was a hell of a guy. Could you see the Yankees giving money to the Royals to keep them alive? Puh-lease). He also lent money to the New England Patriots to keep their franchise from going extinct as well, so you’re welcome Brady fans. Wilson’s generosity made the AFL the only sports league to never have a team fold while it existed. By the mid-1960s, they were posing a legitimate threat to the popularity of the NFL. While the Buffalo Bills were winning back-to-back AFL Championships in 1964 and 1965, Wilson was acting as the AFL representative in early merger talks with the NFL. Though these early talks fell through, Wilson’s next move was one of the biggest in NFL history. He served an active role on the committee that brought us this little game that would pit the best team in the AFL versus the best team in the NFL. They thought this game would be so extraordinary, so epic in its magnitude that they named it the Super Bowl. By 1967, the two leagues were officially going at each other for football supremacy.
The AFL would come to an end in 1969. The NFL had seen enough, and with Wilson at the helm, the AFL and NFL came to an agreement to merge both leagues together. It’s been nothing but success since then as the NFL is tightening its grasp on being the most popular sport worldwide. If it weren’t for Wilson and his revolutionaries, where would the NFL be? Would there be 32 teams spanning the entire nation?
He was outspoken, but it was because he was a visionary. He turned heads when he voted against the Cleveland Browns abandoning their city and moving to Baltimore. He also made enemies when he and Cincinnati Bengals’ owner Mike Brown were the only two owners who spoke up against the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement that eventually led to the 2011 lockout. (The two were later heralded for their foresight on the issue.) He also was in charge of the negotiations and ensuing agreement to have the Bills play multiple games in Canada. Since then the NFL has been aggressively discussing international expansion with London and Mexico City on the radar. Coincidence?
After the OJ Simpson years, the Bills fell into obscurity. That led to change and in the mid-1980’s Wilson brought on Bill Polian as GM and Marv Levy as Head Coach and drafted Jim Kelly to be their franchise quarterback. The four together would change the face of the franchise forever.
Jim Kelly was part of the infamous quarterback class of 1983, drafted with the likes of John Elway, Tony Eason, Dan Marino, Ken O’Brien, and Todd Blackledge. After an illustrious career at The U, Kelly did not want to go to play in the cold weather of Buffalo and elected to join the Houston Gamblers of the USFL (I was a huge USFL and New Jersey Generals fan. I remember watching Kelly set records and win the MVP for Houston and then signing with my Generals right before they folded). The USFL folded in 1986 and Kelly returned to the team that drafted him. He would turn around a perennial loser and do something no other QB has ever done or most likely will never do again. Kelly, with their patented no huddle offense, shredded the AFC for 4 consecutive years and represented the AFC in the Super Bowl from 1990-1993. Today, the hard-nosed quarterback who fought to turn the Bills into a powerhouse is fighting for his life.
Kelly was originally diagnosed with oral cancer in June of last year. He had surgery that would cost him part of his jaw and some of his teeth. Much like the warrior he was on the field for the Bills in the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Kelly beat the cancer and seemed to be fine. Ten days ago, however, the cancer returned and is much more aggressive. Today, the New York Daily News reports that it is highly likely that the cancer is curable, however surgery is not an option. The process will be long. He is weak and “in bad shape” according to reports, and the cancer is quickly spreading.
Personally, I was never a huge Jim Kelly fan, but I never disliked him. I think he had two factors against him when I was a young kid that made me under appreciate his greatness. First and foremost, he played against Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino. Those three were in bigger markets and had more notoriety, but they also had bigger stats. As a kid, what determines greatness are the numbers on the back of a player’s football card, not their worth on the field. Secondly, despite those four consecutive Super Bowls, he lost them all. Now that I am almost 40, I realize what Kelly did at the helm of the high-powered Bills’ offense was remarkable. Simply put, with the parity in the NFL (which is unmatched by any other sport), it is astounding to go to four straight championships. The reason that people have loved the NFL for the past several decades is summed up by the old phrase any given Sunday. Did anyone give the Giants a chance against the undefeated Patriots? No, but we all know who won. From 1990-1993, Kelly and Wilson’s Buffalo Bills eliminated that concept and totally dominated the NFL… except for one Sunday each season.
The city of Buffalo is a little emptier this week. They will play with heavy hearts but lifted spirits this coming season. The 2013 Red Sox put Boston on their shoulders and went from last place to World Champions. It will be interesting to see how Buffalo responds when they walk into Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first time without its namesake up in the box watching. There is no predicting the future, but until then we can all #PrayForJimKelly.