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How the Passing of Al Davis Pertains to the Bills
As you may have heard, Al Davis is no longer with us having passed away this past (ugh) weekend. And you’ve probably read about how he was a legendary visionary, a legendary a hole, and everything in between. I’m not going to rehash those, but it’s definitely worth your time to read an article that doesn’t amount a fawning attempt to cash in the national attention being turned toward Mr. Davis.
The reason I bring Davis’ passing up is because as fans of a team owned by an older gentleman, we are likely going to experience something similar in the future. However, the similarities and consequential reasons for empathy do not end there.
Like Al, Ralph was an integral owner in the early days of the AFL, and the two developed a relationship of respect (if only in the name of crashing the NFL party) thereafter. Ralph, as one of the wealthier AFL owners, floated the Raiders a loan when Oakland hit hard times to keep them afloat and preserve the AFL. A few years later, after Davis had won the respect of other AFL owners enough to become commissioner, Ralph had football’s only soccer style kicker, Pete Gogolak, poached by the NFL’s NY Giants, despite an unwritten agreement between teams in both leagues to refrain from such practice. Davis used this as a casus belli and proceeded to begin recklessly bidding on NFL players, which hastened the AFL in achieving it’s raison d’etre, a merger with the NFL.
Post merger, Davis’ and Wilson’s path’s as professional football owners began to separate. Wilson’s Bills played through the 70s and 80s as a mediocre NFL franchise with spotty success, while Davis built iconic, Super Bowl winning teams that helped cement the NFL’s status as this country’s premier sports attraction. Davis did so by using his coaching background to remain heavily involved with the organization’s football operations; Wilson, by comparison, treated NFL ownership more akin to running a business. While Davis himself had morphed into a NFL icon by way of his emblematic tracksuits, heavy Brooklyn accent (thu Ray-duhs), and famous phrases like “Just win, baby,” few outside of Buffalo would recognize Ralph’s meat and potatoes demeanor or terms like “The Electric Company.”
In recent years, however, their respective narrative arcs began to converge once again. As they aged into the 2000s, their team’s successes began to diminish. Fans grew impatient with this, and began to build a sort of ill will towards their owners for holding Oakland and Buffalo back while Pittsburgh and New England racked up Super Bowls. Their football senses were viewed as arcane and their franchises a tool to continue to exert their will onto fan bases that had grown tired of them. This sense of unease slowly began to grow into outright contempt to the point where every failing of their respective franchises were blamed on their personas. While the sober argument version of these choruses may have varying degrees of merit, in each instance the rush to make Ralph a stereotypical Mr Scrooge and Davis the Emperor Palpatine have been vitriolic and embarrassing for their respective fanbases.
However, when Al passed away Saturday, the jokes about his health and appearance immediately were replaced by the aforementioned showering of praise with no trace of the former ill will. The only thing anyone was willing to discuss was Davis’ contributions to making the NFL what is today, and even the harshest Raiders fans had nothing ill to say of Davis. While most of the compliments for Davis were accurate, they seemed strange considering the man had been considered a national punchline days earlier.
This lead me to think, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for this tone to take hold while Davis had been living? As far as Davis ever knew most people thought he was a crazy power hungry dictator ruining a franchise. Yes, Davis was honored during his HOF induction ceremony, but that was only a weekend. For all the people who previously had nothing positive to say about Davis who are now writing obits, it seems a bit off putting and self serving, if not sad.
However, this strange situation provides an opportunity for Bills fans to prove they are a cut above. Ralph Wilson is very old, and could pass at any moment. Even though it wasn’t his original plan, by bringing the Bills to Western New York, Ralph has altered every Bills fans life in a meaningful way. What’s more, Ralph has generally run the team with class and dignity, and has been a tremendous asset to the entire region. I think the least we could do as Bills fans is not wait til Ralph isn’t with us to show our appreciation for all he’s done. Because for all the good things we will inevitably have to say about Ralph, my bet is he would appreciate to hear them.