When the American Football League was lacing up its cleats for the first time in 1960, the owners of the eight teams formed a group.
They called themselves The Foolish Club—foolish for investing in teams that had yet to prove themselves financially or competitively.
For Ralph Wilson Jr. (Col ’41), however, becoming involved in the league was a no-brainer.
“My dad and I had 3 percent of the [Detroit] Lions, but we knew we had no chance to ever buy the club,” Wilson said in a New York Times article. “And when I read about Lamar Hunt organizing the AFL, I called him.”
That call led to the founding of the Buffalo Bills and to Wilson’s now-legendary career in professional football. Not only has Wilson been the sole owner of the Bills, the only AFL team to go to the Super Bowl four consecutive years, but he also has been instrumental in shaping modern football.
“He had so much to do with the merger of the AFL and the NFL into what is now the most prosperous and popular pro sports league in the world,” says Buffalo sports commentator Ed Kilgore.
For his efforts over the years, Wilson has been elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with former Bills defensive end Bruce Smith. Wilson’s contributions ranged from lending the Oakland Raiders $400,000 in 1962 to being a key voice in negotiations to avoid a players’ strike in 1977.
“If anyone ever deserves [induction], it’s Ralph Wilson,” says longtime Bills coach and Hall of Famer Marv Levy. “He contributed so much to the game.”
Wilson’s contributions have extended well beyond the gridiron. At UVA, he established a Jefferson Scholarship for students from western New York.
“The scholarship has allowed me to be a part of the University of Virginia, and I have been inspired each and every day by the people I meet here,” says scholarship recipient Samantha Berger (Com ’10). “Mr. Wilson is both generous and charismatic.”
Now one of two surviving members of The Foolish Club, Wilson has lived to see that his foresight was 20/20.
“He’s a man in the game who came into it for the love of the game, not for the rewards financially,” Levy says.