ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — They came by the thousands Saturday afternoon, past and current players, Bills employees, friends, family, and oh so many fans, to pay their respects to the man who, in some way, was a part of all their lives.
Whether you played for him, worked for him, were related to him, or spent your Sunday afternoons rooting for the team that he created for you, everyone who attended the Celebration & Remembrance of Ralph C. Wilson Jr. at the practice facility on One Bills Drive had a connection with the 95-year-old patriarch who died on March 25.
"You see today the pomp and circumstance, and you understand some of that, but the unique thing about Mr. Wilson is that none of that was important to him," said Frank Reich, the quarterback who delivered to Wilson the most remarkable victory in the five-plus decades Wilson owned the Bills, the famous Houston comeback game. "It wasn't about the image, the pomp, the circumstance, it was about the team, the players, western New York. We just had a very special relationship with him."
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The floor of the fieldhouse was turned into a memorabilia shrine that included dozens of historic photos of Wilson, various mementos, awards, and trophies, and a replication of his old stadium office with the original desk, chairs, and sofas arranged as they always were.
Wilson's wife, Mary, was in attendance Saturday and took time to talk with fans.
"Ralph loved his life and he had a great full life that touched so many people in a variety of ways," Mary Wilson said in a statement issued by the Bills. "He loved his family and his many friends. He loved his Buffalo Bills and he loved the fans.
"Before he passed, he told me that he wanted people to celebrate his life after he was gone. He wasn't big on tears. And so that's why we are referring to events such as the one today as 'celebrating' the life of Ralph Wilson."
Fans entered the front door and walked counter-clockwise around the exhibit, surely recalling some of the great moments in team history.
"I brought the kids up to give them a little history about the Bills," said Steve Soto of Webster, who was accompanied by his three boys, Kyle, Eladio, and Stephen. "He did a lot of good things for us. I'm a season ticket holder for 20 years and I wanted to pay my respects. There's a lot of history here, all the photos, things I didn't really know like the military stuff that you didn't really think about."
It was not a day for mourning, but longtime Bills fan Debbie Dimick of Scottsville couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy.
"I felt terrible when I heard he died, I felt like I lost my dad," she said. "It's somebody that you feel close to because he did so much for the area as far as keeping the football team here. I love the Bills, I would die if the Bills weren't here. It's hard to lose a special man like that."
The funeral service for Wilson was held near his hometown of Detroit last week, and several players and employees were in attendance. While Saturday's event was geared more for the fans, that didn't prevent players from stopping by.
It just so happened that Bruce Smith, Don Beebe, and Kevin Everett, among others, were in town to attend Reich's 13th annual Call to Courage Award Breakfast sponsored by Athletes in Action in downtown Buffalo. Other players past and present who stopped by included Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Joe Ferguson, Ray Bentley, Charley Ferguson, Jeff Nixon, Billy Brooks, Booker Edgerson, Eric Wood, and Kraig Urbik, as well as former general manager Bill Polian.
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Smith, one of the greatest players in Bills history and the NFL's all-time career sack leader, shared a story about a photo that he recently found at his late mother's home.
"My mother passed away four weeks ago so I've been going through a tough time, but I was looking through some pictures and came across this one," said Smith, who showed the picture to reporters.
It was a shot of the press conference where Smith signed his first professional contract in 1985 after the Bills made him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
"Ralph was at the end of the table and it looked like he had this worried look on his face like, 'I hope I'm not wasting this draft pick on this chubby kid from Norfolk,'" Smith recalled with a smile. "We looked at him as a father figure, a man of great integrity. When he gave you his word, that was his bond."
Everett nearly died in the stadium that bears Wilson's name on opening day 2005. He was injured on a kickoff return, but not only survived the scariest incident in team history, he overcame paralysis and now walks with nary a limp. He recalled the heartfelt care and concern Wilson had for his well-being.
"I had to come by and pay my respects to the Wilson family," he said. "Mr. Wilson was a great man and he changed my life forever. It was great how he had such a big hand in everything, taking care of a lot of things that he didn't have to do. Anything my family needed, he took care of it."
These are the kinds of acts that newer players like Wood haven't been able to see first-hand because in his final years, Wilson's declining health prevented him from being around the team.
"I've read so many articles this last week about stuff that he did, and it amazes me how much of it went unnoticed and that speaks testaments to the kind of guy he was," Wood said. "This is a celebration of a long and impactful life that he had, not exactly grieving. Living 95 years day in and day out the way he did, there's nothing to feel sorrow about."
Reich was asked if he could remember Wilson saying anything to him following the comeback game when Reich rallied the Bills from a 35-3 deficit to defeat Houston 41-38 in overtime in a wild-card playoff game in January 1993.
He couldn't recall anything specific, but, "Months after the game, he was still so moved by the game, he came up to me and basically wanted to give me a gift for the game. He wrote a pretty large check to the charity of my choice, and it was just something in his heart to do. He was a very special man."
Sal Maiorana writes for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle