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WNED documentary 'Ralph' captures the man, the teammaker, the legacy

For more than a half century, Ralph Wilson was a towering figure in the Western New York community as founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills, through good seasons and bad. His legacy is now captured in a WNED-TV documentary.

Credit Eileen Elibol

"Ralph" is the story of a World War II veteran, businessman, member of "The Foolish Club" of AFL owners, husband, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and philanthropist. The new 30-minute documentary narrated by ESPN's Chris Berman looks at all of that, mixing in his relationships with former players and with the game.

He remained a football fan and a fan of many Bills players. The Bills owner was very close with star running back Thurman Thomas, who was in the room with several hundred others for Monday night's screening in the WNED-TV studios.

During Thomas' playing days, Wilson referred to him as his stepson. Thomas played his last season in Miami, before tearing up his knee and deciding to retire from the Dolphins - until Wilson called.

"He said, 'Thurman, I would love for you to come back to Buffalo and sign a one-day contract and retire as a Buffalo Bill.' And ever since that day, my whole life has been nothing but Buffalo Bills and being here in the City of Buffalo," Thomas said.

Thomas said he is still upset the team never won the Super Bowl, despite four consecutive chances. He said the four conference championship rings do not make up for those losses - losses to him, his teammates, all of the team fans and the wider community.

Credit Eileen Elibol

As the documentary makes clear through archival material and interviews, Wilson was a supportive individual. Buffalo News reporter Vic Carucci remembered Wilson calling when he was diagnosed with cancer.

"We talked for a good 20 minutes or so," Carucci said. "It was just him being him, just caring and wanting to know, 'What can I do?' And he did this with any number of people who sadly aren't with us: Allen Wilson, who covered the team, and when Milt Northrop had a double bypass. That's special."

The documentary also looks at Wilson's private life and his marriage to Mary Wilson, who now heads the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. Money from the $1.4 billion sale of the Bills funds the foundation, which makes grants to his hometown of Detroit and his team hometown of Buffalo.

Mary Wilson wrapped up the program by telling the crowd she derives great pleasure from hearing recollections about her late husband from others. She also shared a story.

One day Ralph was shopping at Wegmans, but couldn’t find his car. He was wandering around the parking lot as he pushed his cart. A couple approached him, asked him if he was Ralph Wilson and then proceeded to help him find his vehicle. He was appreciative and offered them some apples. That was Ralph.

'Ralph' airs December 15 on WNED-TV.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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