The death of Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. is a story that, if you don't know about football history, is just another old-timer who had a lengthy life before he went to his final reward.
But Wilson's passing is yet another link to professional football's history books and, in this particular case, has an intrinsic link to the Vikings.
Wilson's indelible stamp on the history of both the AFL and NFL will never be forgotten. But, if not for the politics of pro football, Wilson's long-shadow legacy likely would never have happened.
When the renegade AFL merged wealthy businessmen smelling the success of baseball's eventual replacement as the National Pastime with a common bitterness of the NFL's ownership velvet rope, those owners went rogue and decided to give fans the option.
A rival league was ready to roll. Keep in mind, this is the late 1950s, when public supersonic airplane travel was on a "good luck with that" basis. For the most part, the AFL was a league that was based in cities the old-school NFL didn't view as feasible travel destinations.
But there was an NFL franchise up for sale. The Chicago Cardinals were the ugly cousin of the Bears and wanted out of Chi Town in a big way. An offer came in from Lamar Hunt, the fabled owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. But Hunt was a Texan and he wanted a team in Dallas. Bud Adams in Houston was also interested and was willing to team up with Hunt if it meant bringing the NFL to Texas. Denver big wig Bob Howsam made inquiries. So did Max Winter.
Max Winter is the founding father of the Vikings franchise. Just as Wilson is held in high regard for bringing pro football to a city that wasn't a prime locale, the idea of bringing football to Minnesota was a deal-breaker for the 12-team NFL.
It was clear that the interest in the failing Cardinals franchise was a red flag. In the late 1950s, if you were prospering, you wanted to monopolize your growing fortune, not share it.
The NFL said, "thanks, but no thanks" to Hunt and his crew for two reasons. One, the NFL wanted a fan base in Texas. Two, they didn't want anyone potentially stealing away the geographically massive fan base of the Bears and Packers.
After Hunt's request for expansion was rejected, he started recruiting rival franchises. Winter and less-acknowledged business partner Bill Boyer were locked in as one of the original six – joining the New York Jets, Dallas Colt 45s, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos as the core group.
AFL owners reluctantly accepted Wilson and the Bills in an attempt to get to eight teams for the league, but the war wasn't over.
The NFL's strategy was to reject Hunt's request for expansion and do the two things that would cripple the fledgling usurper to the curb. The NFL didn't want a rival to get a stronghold in Texas. Clint Murchison was offered an expansion franchise in Dallas – the thought being it will kill both the rival Dallas and Houston alternate-league efforts. Not wanting to have a rival league potentially fracturing its Upper Midwest stranglehold on fan loyalty, the Vikings got the promise of an expansion franchise in 1961.
The solution was to kill the AFL in its tracks. It didn't happen.
Wilson was critical to both the history of the AFL, the behind-the-scenes negotiations for a league merger between the AFL and NFL and, once a full-fledged member of the NFL, keeping a franchise in Buffalo – even when Los Angeles came calling with a sweet offer to sell.
If not for Wilson's dogged insistence on keeping the AFL alive despite financial difficulties, when the Vikings opted to bail out on the AFL and the NFL put a team in Texas, Ralph Wilson's passing might not have had the historical NFL significance it deserves.
Fortunately for football fans, Wilson's passing is significant.
In a current NFL world where money is central to success, Wilson's shadow gets even longer. He purchased the rights to franchise a team in Buffalo for $25,000. According to the last Forbes franchise estimates, the Bills are worth $870 million.
Wilson's contribution to the NFL as it currently stands won't be forgotten.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Wilson contributed to AFL, NFL
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