CANTON, Ohio – One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Ralph Wilson in the 26 years I’ve known him is his sense of humor. The Bills owner has never been afraid to poke fun at himself, and he’s never demanded the spotlight the way current egomaniacs like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder have. Ralph has always been content to hang in the background and allow his players and coaches to receive the accolades.
His trademark humor and humility were on display during his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech Saturday night when about 10,000 Bills fans in the crowd of roughly 15,000 turned Fawcett Stadium into Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Ralph talked about how friends convinced him to go down to the locker room after his team had fallen behind 21-7 to the New York Titans (now the Jets) in an exhibition game before the 1960 season.
“So at their urging, I went down and walked into our locker room, and there was our head coach, Buster Ramsey, with that ‘What are you doing in here?’ expression on his face, ’’ Wilson recalled.
“I said, ‘I want to talk to the team.’ Buster said: “Go ahead, talk to them.’ And I gave the team one of the most inspiring fight talks. It was reminiscent of Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi. And we lost the game, 51-7.
“Shortly, thereafter, Buster said to me, “Hey, Ralph, next time talk to the other team.’’
Ralph also spoke about how it was simultaneously special and strange to be inducted because, unlike the other enshrines, he never played the game.
“I play tennis,’’ he quipped, “because, in tennis, folks, when you go back to serve, you don’t have to worry about the rush of Bruce Smith. And you go home without any bruises and clean clothes.’’
He may not have played football, but, as these past 50 years have proved, he loved the game with his heart and soul.
For me, one of the nicest parts of his speech was when he paid homage to Bills fans. He talked about how, back in 1959, he wound up choosing Buffalo for his new AFL franchise from a list of five prospective cities.
“It was a lucky pick,’’ he said, “because over the years, they have supported the team in Buffalo beyond our fondest dreams. And without the support, I wouldn’t be on this platform tonight.’’
Nicely said, Ralph. Nicely said.
For a soon-to-be 91-year-old, Ralph gave a solid speech. He told some funny stories, thanked a ton of people and didn’t ramble much.
The same couldn’t be said for former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson, whose 40-plus minute sermon threatened to put many of us to sleep.
I feel badly for the Hall of Fame organizers and the television producers who had told each of the six inductees well in advance that they shouldn’t go longer than 12 minutes. Woodson showed total disregard for the audience and the other inductees by being such a wind bag.
My wife, Beth, suggested that the Pro Football and Baseball halls of fame adopt the Academy Awards approach to keeping the length of speeches under control.
At the Oscars, they begin playing music after a minute or two to let the winner know that his or her time is up, and that the show must go on.
Perhaps, if they had blasted a college fight song over the Fawcett Stadium loud speakers at about the 20-minute mark, Woodson would have taken the hint.
I thought it was bush league when some Bills fans began chanting “Free Marshawn!’’ when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was introduced. They should be happy that the Commish hit Marshawn Lynch with just a three-game suspension for his gun possession arrest this spring on top of his hit-and-run incident last year. Come on, folks, I know you love your team, but your loyalty can’t be blind.
On a personal note: It was great spending time in Cleveland with friends Leigh and Larry Brattain, their dog, Pip, and their cats, Charley and Leo. Rochesterians will remember Leigh as Leigh Ann Carlson, the long-time news anchor at the old R-News.