MIAMI, March 26, 2014 — While the NFL owners were meeting in Orlando, one of their own was headed to gridiron in the sky. Western New York took twin punches to the gut on Tuesday. Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson passed away at the age of 95. Retired quarterback Jim Kelly is only 54, but the return of an aggressive mouth cancer he thought he had beaten a year ago has him fighting for survival.
Kelly was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Wilson entered Canton in 2009, the very same year Kelly was selected as part of the Bills all-time team. Kelly was born the same year the American Football League began play.
Wilson is one of the great owners of all time, and Kelly is the greatest player in team history.
The AFL was never expected to seriously challenge the NFL, but several owners turned their dream into a reality. Wilson was one of several original owners who stayed with their team for half a century or more. The passing of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis in 2011 and Houston Oilers/Tenessee Titans owner Bud Adams in 2013 left Wilson as the last AFL renegade standing. Wilson saved the AFL from folding by loaning money to the Raiders and New England Patriots to keep them solvent.
Wilson was a beloved figure in Buffalo because he loved Buffalo. With other owners constantly threatening to move their franchises and some of them following through, Wilson remained loyal to Western New York. He expanded the fan base by playing an annual home game in Toronto, Canada, a 90 minute drive from Buffalo.
While Wilson’s Bills won a pair of AFL championships in the 1960s with quarterback Jack Kemp at the helm, it was the 1990s Bills that caught the NFL by storm. Wilson hired Marv Levy as coach, and Jim Kelly’s arrival in 1986 led an offensive revolution.
Operating out of the “K-Gun” shotgun offense, Kelly led the no-huddle attack that dominated most opponents. With fellow Hall of Famers running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver Andre Reed, center Kent Hull, and defensive standout Bruce Smith, the Bills were unstoppable…until it mattered most.
In 1988, Kelly led the Bills to the AFC Title Game, where they lost a heartbreaker on the road. Starting in 1990, Kelly led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, a feat that remains unmatched. The 1990 Bills may be the best team to never win a Super Bowl. Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt as time expired was the miss heard and seen around the world. Four straight Lamar Hunt AFC Championship trophies were followed by four straight Super Bowl losses.
The Bills missed the playoffs in 1995, rebounded in 1996, and had a real chance in 1997 to do some damage. Yet more heartbreak came. In Buffalo, against the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, a 27-27 game with two minutes remaining saw Kelly get knocked out. The Bills lost a stunner 30-27, and Kelly never played again.
After Kelly retired, the Bills rapidly declined. Wilson desperately tried to turn it around, but the Bills have not been to the playoffs since the 1999 season, the longest current NFL drought.
Wilson and Kelly never gave up hope, and their imprint will be with the Bills forever. The team plays in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Kelly’s number twelve jersey is the only one ever retired in team history.
While Kelly endured many agonizing moments on the field, it paled in comparison to his heartbreak off of it. His son Hunter was born the year he retired from the NFL. Hunter was afflicted with Krabbe disease, which took the young boy’s life after only eight years.
In June of 2013, Kelly experienced cancer in the upper part of his jaw. He had surgery, but less than one year later his cancer has returned.
Kelly never wanted to play for the Bills because of his intense dislike for cold weather. Yet the snow and cold provided the home field advantage that helped make him a star. Kelly has stated that he wants to own a part of the Bills when Wilson no longer does. Wilson has now left us, and there is not a better football guy or a better person to own the Bills than Kelly. Like Wilson, Kelly is determined to keep the small-market franchise in the ice and snow of Buffalo.
The entire league and football fans everywhere are sending heartfelt love to the Bills Nation. Wilson made it to five years short of the century mark, and with lots of luck and plenty of medical miracles, Kelly will be with us until 2055. Perhaps, he will leave us as the second greatest Bills owner in team history.
Farewell, Mr. Wilson. Good luckm Mr. Kelly. Blessings to Bills everywhere.