March 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Ralph Wilson built Bills into powerhouse for blue-collar Buffalo

Ralph Wilson Jr. marks his Hall of Fame induction at a halftime ceremony during a game between the Bills and Texans in Orchard Park, N.Y., in 2009. (Don Heupel / Associated Press)

The members of The Foolish Club were gentlemen with seemingly boundless wealth and the common yearning to watch their fortunes burn away with frivolous investments. All of these charter members fantasized about being sportsmen. They wanted to own professional football franchises in what was not a particularly flourishing enterprise at the time.

Ralph Wilson was one of the founders of The Foolish Club, along with ultra-rich Lamar Hunt and oil-magnate Bud Adams. Wilson — who died Tuesday at age 95 — had been a small stockholder of his hometown Detroit Lions. He preferred more activity — such as the proprietorship of an NFL team.

Denied the opportunity to own the Lions by the cabal of owners before the franchise’s purchase by William Clay Ford, Wilson, Hunt and the others decided to form their own league. From scratch. It was 1959.

It would be named the American Football League and would establish franchises in such cities as Oakland, Boston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Denver and Buffalo. Locations where the citizens loved football but at that time lacked pro teams.

And the AFL would challenge The Establishment — the NFL.

Thus, Ralph Wilson was prominent in the opening shots of the great pro football war of the 1960s. The NFL would quickly counter-attack by placing franchises in Dallas and Minneapolis.

But the NFL had no interest whatsoever in Buffalo.

At home in Buffalo

Ralph Wilson considered it the perfect town for a pro football club.

Buffalo was so similar to his hometown of Detroit. The climates were similar, often icy and windy. The people were similar — lots of factory workers, shot-and-beer guys.

Ralph had been a Lions season-ticket holder during the championship dynasty seasons of the 1950s. But those tickets were gone — part of a divorce settlement.

He kept his involvement in football. And Ralph loved to tell stories.

Among the souvenirs Ralph inherited in Buffalo was an ancient, misshapen stadium full of cobwebs, broken bricks and rotting wood — plus a vagabond placekicker named Booth Lusteg.

Lusteg would become a legend in the history of the AFL.

“The story’s true,” Wilson told me 31 years after the startup of the AFL. “Lusteg, we had him in 1966. He had a cinch field goal against the Chargers. He missed it at the end of the game. He goes inside and gets dressed. And then he goes into downtown Buffalo, and three tough guys run over a curb and get out of their car and beat him up.”

A roughneck town, Buffalo.

The stadium the Bills played in reflected the gray, grimness of the city. It was called War Memorial Stadium, cockeyed in shape with several jerry-rigged additions.

They played there for a dozen or so years before Buffalo built a genuine pro football stadium.

Still with Jack Kemp throwing jump passes and scrambling, Ralph Wilson’s Bills won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965. The two leagues dueled over draft choices. Al Davis, an AFL original, became the league’s commissioner and started trying to heist the NFL’s starting quarterbacks. Lamar Hunt and the Dallas Cowboys’ Tex Schramm negotiated a merger between leagues.

The Foolish Club indeed!

Close but not quite

It was a shotgun wedding and the result was an event known as the Super Bowl.

The Bills played in the 1966 AFL championship game against Hunt’s Kansas City Chiefs — the relocated Dallas Texans — for the right play in Super Bowl I.

It took another 24 years before Ralph Wilson would get close to a Super Bowl with his franchise, now entrenched as an NFL team. Even the running ability of O.J. Simpson failed to advance the Bills onward.

The main reason the Bills finally made it to the Super Bowl in 1991 was Wilson’s change in ideologies. The Bills had been saddled with a 2-14 habit.

“They used to write that I was a cheapskate,” Wilson told me before that Super Bowl XXV in Tampa.

And Ralph laughed.

“Now look at us,” he said.

No longer as cheapskate team, Wilson added Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and then James Lofton and Andre Reed to Bills’ roster. He hired Marv Levy to be his coach.

A few years ago, Ralph was finally elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Overdue.

The Bills would play in four successive Super Bowls —much to the chagrin of lots of the media marvels who covered the games.

And each year after the Bills won their AFC championships, Kelly would lie on his back in the locker room and giggle,

“We’re back.”

The Bills would lose all four of their Super Bowls — the first against the Giants in Tampa on another missed field goal. Part of a team cursed, I suppose.

At that fourth Super Bowl, Levy addressed his team:

“When I talked to our team,” Levy told us at that Super Bowl, “I said, ‘You’re the most resilient, tough-minded bunch of SOBs that I’ve ever been associated with in athletics — or any other kind of endeavor.’”

That pretty much described Ralph Wilson, who kept active playing tennis a couple of times a week through his late 80s.

Now they are joined, William Clay Ford and Ralph Wilson, near neighbors in lakeside homes in Grosse Pointe Shores. Two of Detroit’s and the NFL’s most prominent sportsmen, dead 16 days apart.

A terrible irony.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at

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