As friends and fans alike learned of the passing of Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., an abundance of heartwarming stories were shared. Here are the memories of many Bills alumni, coaches, and key members of the organization who knew him well – some funny, some sad, but all heartwarming in remembrance of a man they loved and admired.
Thurman Thomas: The one thing that we stressed around here, period, whether it was Bill Polian, Mr. Wilson, Marv Levy, we stressed family. That’s all we ever stressed was family. Making sure that the family was doing well. When the family does well, it seemed like everybody was a little happier, and he was definitely a big part of that.
He used to call me his favorite son. We used to always laugh and joke about that, and when you had that type of relationship, it hits home. And like I said, I was very close to Mr. Wilson but the one thing that I will always remember – and I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this story – it was the week that I was in Miami, the Dolphins were getting ready to play the Bills, and Mr. Wilson called me. I hadn’t talked to Mr. Wilson since my release from the Bills in February and the week of the game he called me that Friday and said, “I apologize for not letting you go out the way that you should’ve went out.” At that point in time we had made up and at that time, that’s when I really wanted to retire as a Bill. So Mr. Wilson was very important in my life, very important.
Marv Levy: He wasn’t my boss. He was my friend. A magnificent guy to work with. I’m deeply saddened to learn about his passing. He meant so much to the game that both of us revered, and to the community of Buffalo and beyond. It’s quite a loss and he’s going to be remembered so fondly by everyone that knew him.
I truly enjoyed getting together with him. If we were at the League meetings, we would get dinner together or get breakfast together. He was fun to be with. We shared interest in many things, certainly in the game of football. He was a unique man to work for in that he would strongly express his opinions and he would really listen, maybe even if you had a contrary opinion. I remember once he wanted me to replace an assistant coach on the staff and I thought it was so wrong to do and I knew I’d put myself under the gun. Then at the end he said, ‘Ah, I still don’t agree with you but you’re the coach.’ He held no malice, and after a few years he really liked the guy, by the way.
Bill Polian: It was the most enjoyable time of my career. Unique. Special. Great. Fun. We were all young and out there on the front lines of the NFL for the first time. It’s nothing but happy memories. You can tell that by the bonds that still exist among us to this day. Unfortunately they’ve been tested by sadness over the last little while with Kent (Hull)’s passing and now Ralph and Jimmy’s illness, but we all stick together. It was the last complete football team. We still remain close. It was a special group and that special bond still exists.
A little less than two years ago, I was traveling and I got a message from (Bills VP of Media Relations) Scott (Berchtold) telling me to call Mr. Wilson, and I thought, ‘Oh my heavens. Something’s wrong here.’ Of course I called and he got on the line and he said, ‘I just wanted to be the first to tell you that you’ve been elected to the Bills Wall of Fame.’ That’s a cherished memory.
Booker Edgerson: One of the greater interactions I had with Mr. Wilson was in Kansas City. We played the Chiefs and he was having a meeting with the Chiefs owner and a couple of the businessmen in the community. A lot of folks didn’t know that on Saturday nights it became a dry town. He had brought them up to have some cocktails and there were no cocktails. I have relatives living in Kansas City, so I had went and bought a few bottles of alcohol because I was staying over to the next day and we were going to party that night. So I saw Mr. Wilson walking in the lobby and he had this strange look on his face. I asked him, I said, ‘Hey boss, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve lost your last friend.’ He said, ‘I might have lost my last friend if I don’t find some alcohol because I got the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs here and some other business people.’ I said, ‘Well what do you need?’ He said, ‘Well a bottle of vodka would be great’ and I said, ‘Hold on a minute.’ I went up to my room, got a bottle of vodka, brought it down and you should’ve seen the smile on his face. We always talked about it from that point on. He said, ‘You saved my hide’ and I said, ‘Yes. Yes.’ That was one of the memories that was a very good memory.
Joe Ferguson: My rookie year, we were out on a Saturday, and I always stayed out there and threw the ball around a little bit, and Mr. Wilson was out there one day. He came out to where I was and he said, ‘Throw me the ball. I want to see what I’m getting for my money.’ He was about 15 yards away. I threw him an early little pass that hit his hands and he dropped it. He got it back to me and said, ‘Now throw it a little harder. I want to see what I’m getting.’ So I put a little heat on it and put it right through his hands and it hit him in right square in the chest. Now I didn’t throw it real hard. He bent over and coughed a little bit and the trainer grabbed him and took him in. I’m going, ‘Oh geez. I think I killed the owner of the Buffalo Bills in my first year.’ So I go in there and look around the locker room and he’s nowhere to be found. I found him in the trainer’s room laying on one of those tables with an ice pack on his chest. His tie was hanging up around his neck. I went home thinking, ‘Oh gosh.’ The next day I walk into the locker room and there he was standing bring and chipper.
He came in one time and everybody used to kid him about the tie he wore. I hate to say this but everybody was really making fun of it because it was kind of an ugly tie. He wore it to every game for a long time. Some guys were kidding around, and he went out and bought everyone on the team one of those ties because he thought we liked it. We never did tell him any different.
Steve Tasker: The one I’ll always remember was during my second game here, a road game at New England. I didn’t know anything. I was a second-year player, had played for the Oilers for a year and a half and I met Bud Adams briefly in a reception line, and I thought that’s the way it was in the NFL. I get picked up off waivers by the Bills in the middle of the season right after Marv Levy was hired and it was the first road game for Marv Levy and my second game as a player. I had been here about eight days. I was sitting in the locker room at my locker in my game pants and a t-shirt getting ready to play about two hours before the game and this gentleman walks up in a coat and tie and a trench coat – a nice older guy. and he came up and said, ‘Hey Steve I just want to tell you I’m Ralph Wilson I want to tell you welcome on board. I hope it goes really well for you here. Good luck today. I hope you play well and I just want to say welcome.’ I said thanks, then I went over to Ed Abramoski and asked him, ‘Who is this Ralph Wilson guy?’ He said, ‘He owns the team.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me. He seems like a great guy. Is that true? That’s him?’ From that moment on I knew it was going to be different in Buffalo for me than it had been. And that certainly proved to be the case. For all the things that have happened to me personally, my family in Western New York, to say goodbye to a guy who had so much to do with how good it has been for my family, that’s pretty difficult today.
Ruben Brown: He would come in and ask the player, ‘What do you guys need in order to be better?’ For example, I can remember sitting on the bench at practice in the old stadium when Jim Kelly said to Ralph, ‘Hey Ralph, you know what you need to do? You need to build an airplane hangar that you can put everything in and we can practice inside.’ Boom. Within a year, we have it.
I can remember plane trips. We were going back and forth with different companies about who was flying us and all of this stuff. I think there was an issue with the flights. The next thing you know, Ralph gets involved with it and we show up to our away trip and we get the red carpet – red Buffalo Bills carpet leading to the plane.
Ed Rutkowski/Bills Alumni Chapter:
Ed Rutkowski, with a message from the Buffalo Bills Alumni Chapter: It’s a sad day for the Buffalo Bills family with the passing of Mr. Wilson and Jim’s cancer surgery on Thursday.
We weren’t just a team to Ralph, we were like a family. He was like a father figure to all of us. He loved us and we loved him. He was a very generous and compassionate man. I can’t even begin to tell you how many former players he helped when they had problems and nobody knew because he wanted to keep it private.
He never sold his soul even though he had opportunities to move this team out of Buffalo. However, he refused to do it because of his deep commitment to the City and the Buffalo fans that he loved.
Mr. Wilson was one of a kind and I don’t think that we will see another quite like him. He will be sorely missed and may God rest his soul. Our prayers are with his wife Mary, his daughters Christy and Dee Dee, his niece Mary and all of his family.