Ralph Wilson is dead and Jim Kelly has cancer. Even in March the losses keep coming for the Buffalo Bills.
A 95-year-old can’t die suddenly, yet there was an odd bit of shock that came with Wilson’s death on Tuesday. The updates on his heath were scarce in his final years, and a rich man fading in Detroit is far from the realities of everyday life in Western New York. It was expected, but the way it shook some wasn’t ordinary.
Rich people die the same way the rest of us do, but the things they leave behind do more to shape our lives than we can imagine. What Ralph Wilson left unsettled can forever change what we think about sports in Buffalo.
I don’t have to lay it out for you, but it needs to be said: Ralph Wilson died with some shit left on the to-do list. The long-term viability of the franchise is unclear without a succession plan or a new stadium. The team sucks the same as it has the entirety of my adult life. We don’t know if the Buffalo Bills can win next year and it’s even less clear if the franchise exists a decade from now.
The anger and variety of opinions about Wilson’s death all come from this central problem. If you care about the Bills, you care about what Wilson left on the table when he kicked. Corpses can’t protect a thing many of us love much more than we should, and we sure as hell can’t reanimate our problems away. Ralph Wilson is dead and that death has only started the clock on the endgame with this franchise.
Twenty-twenty. We’ve got six years left to sort this all out. Ralph Wilson’s final “gift” to Bills fans is that they’re safe for now. Until that magic window where the cost to rip the team away to greener ledgers is a mere $28.4 million. Every Death Star has a shitty exhaust vent, you just have to be patient, disable the targeting computer and dig through the couches in your vacation home for loose millions to get it right.
“Ironclad” is a great buzzword for the years to come, because we are tied helplessly to the framework of this deal until the out clause year. Instead of a sword dangling by a thread, we’re left with a ticking time bomb with a high-definition atomic countdown clock. The wires lead to chaos, there’s nowhere to cut and the countdown is on.
Our “gift” of a grace period will be haunted by shadowy billionaires and ownership groups with liquid assets and collateral. Bon Fucking Jovi and a gang of Torontonians ready to add another sports franchise to their menagerie of disappointment. Every white guy in a nice suit looks ready to play the villain because suits mean money and money isn’t made around here.
This isn’t the football game I grew up loving, but it’s the game I’ve grown to understand. It’s a business that turns attention into slave owner baseball cards (NSFW) because sports are a safe way to invest a few hundred million dollars. The revenues are practically guaranteed and it sure is fun to drink top shelf booze in your own suite on Sundays.
Football is safe for billionaires but it’s not safe in Buffalo anymore. I suppose it never really was. The Bills of my lifetime have been quick to break hearts and even quicker to ask for taxpayer dollars to stick around and do it again. They haven’t made the playoffs since I was in fifth grade. I shouldn’t expect a good time on Sunday or any other day.
A football team isn’t supposed to make your mother call you at work crying, but Jim Kelly is dying and she doesn’t know what to do. Not after those rumors that he was the answer to the question we are finally faced with. What happens to the Buffalo Bills now that Ralph Wilson is dead? I have no idea, and Kelly has bigger problems on his hands than keeping the Bills in Buffalo.
The anger and emotions that come with Wilson’s death and Kelly’s bad news are rooted in the uncertainty of this reality we’re trapped in. When it was all a hypothetical there was room for speculation. You could pretend it doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t mean much to you at this point in your life. You have a family. You have bills and taxes and better things to concern yourself with.
As we grow older we lose touch with the sports fans we once were. The inevitable combination of lost time and added responsibility reduce the role of football and hockey and all those other things that we loved when we were young. As adults we convince ourselves that we would just be fine with it if they up and left altogether.
Losing the Buffalo Bills will do more than impact the National Football League and current Bills fans. It will reach back in time and rip out the heart of the old you. The younger you that once loved football because it was a fun game. It can wipe it all away, invalidating everything you believed this stupid game could mean. Losing the Bills turns all that meaning into a pile of concrete and some vintage sports apparel. You get over it, but it’s never going to be the same.
I read somewhere that you should pick old heroes when you’re growing up so that they’re dead before you grow old and learn about their faults. It’s not bad advice, but dead heroes can’t do anything to save you from the shit they didn’t get done, either.