Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Buffalo Bills lose their greatest defender, Ralph Wilson

 Ralph Wilson was an easy target for Buffalo Bills fans.

They could pin most of the team's misfortune, freakishly somewhat more than any franchise should bear, on its one and only owner: Too cheap. Too controlling. Too old. Uninterested. Uncaring. Absentee.

Like children who often take their nurturing parents for granted, Bills fans were roused from their bleary innocence with the announcement Tuesday that Wilson passed away at the age of 95.

They came to the realization that they probably never knew what they had in Wilson.

The Bills' greatest defender was gone.

It was suddenly time to recognize and appreciate the man who afforded western New York a lifetime of professional football memories, who gave them a chance to watch Cookie Gilchrist, O.J. Simpson and the K-Gun offence, and follow the early success of two AFL championships and four soul-crushing Super Bowl defeats.

Is it better to have played in the Big Game and lost? Or not play at all. After missing the playoffs for more than a decade, that argument has been put to rest by Bills fans.

What was often unsaid was what a bittersweet experience it must have been for Wilson, one of the founding fathers of the American Football League, to see his NFL venture succeed so wildly elsewhere while the fortunes of the city where he staked his flag continued to flounder.

The man who founded his team with $25,000 and famously bailed out other owners to keep the AFL afloat watched as his team slowly became a small-market concern for a league that grew into a corporate colossus.

It would have been easy for the Michigan native to pull an Irsay or a Modell. To cash out or watch the Bills move to Jacksonville or Los Angeles, or heaven forbid, Toronto.

You can rarely blame a man for being too loyal. For Wilson, a World War II navy vet, it was a badge of honour. It's why, perhaps to the detriment of the team, management promotions were mostly handled internally. The one time in recent years when an outsider was brought in, Tom Donahoe from the Steelers, it didn't end well.

The hirings were also low cost, a fact rarely lost on the team's fans, who watched in recent years as other franchises spent lavishly on free agents while Bills players often left or were dealt away ahead of max contracts.

But the team wasn't operating on a level playing field.

It's safe to say that ancillary revenues for the Bills have been near the bottom of the league for the past 15 years, which is why the team signed a deal to play some home games in Toronto for extra cash, a poorly planned and poorly executed endeavour.

It did lead the team to flush out some signings, like Mario Williams, but further escalated fan discontent, which is why the Toronto venture was suspended for the upcoming season.

Now that Wilson's gone, the team will be run by a trust formed under his estate. Inheritance laws make it unwieldy for his heirs to pay taxes on the $870 million franchise so the team will be sold at some point in the future but a quick sale is not expected.

Bills fans have worried for years at what would happen next. Now that point is here and they realize what a magnificent provider they had in their Hall of Fame owner.