Diehard Buffalo Bills fan and retired Niagara Falls firefighter Chris Kudela learned about the passing of team owner Ralph Wilson in a text message sent to his phone by the organization on Tuesday afternoon.
It was a message he received a little while later from a fellow fan and friend from Florida that summed up his feelings about the loss of the man who put Bills football on the map as part of the original American Football League back in 1960.
The message read: “It’s a sad day for Western New York.”
“I wish him God speed wherever he is,” Kudela said. “Who knows if the franchise can stick it out here without him. I think the people here can support the team if it can stick it out here, but we’ll see.”
Kudela - who has held season tickets at Ralph Wilson Stadium for many years - met the man fplayers and colleagues fondly knew as “Mr. Wilson” only once. Kudela said he saw him inside the stadium before a game a few years ago and took the opportunity to walk over and thank him for keeping his beloved Bills in Buffalo.
“I just said ‘hi ralph, how are you, thank you for everything,’” Kudela recalled. “He was very cordial back. It was a brief encounter with him.”
Wilson’s passing at age 95 prompted a flood of condolences and memories from fans, Bills players past and present, league owners and local elected officials, several of whom dealt with the team owner over the years. It also renewed longstanding concerns about the future of the team in Western New York.
Mayor Paul Dyster, an avid Bills fan, said that while Wilson’s death was not surprising given his age and health issues in recent years, the loss stings nonetheless.
“I think we all knew this was going to happen some day,” Dyster said. “That doesn’t mean it’s any less shocking.”