(Reuters) - Ralph Wilson, the founder and owner of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, has died at the age of 95, the team said on Tuesday.
Bills president Russ Brandon announced his passing at the NFL Annual Meeting in Florida, saying Wilson died peacefully at his Michigan home his family by his side.
His health had been failing for years and he had not been to a Bills game since 2010.
“I speak for everyone within the Bills organization when I say that we are all suffering a deep and profound sadness with the passing of our Hall of Fame owner Mr. Wilson,” Brandon said in a statement released by the Bills.
“We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Mary, his daughters Christy and Dee Dee (Edith), his niece Mary and his entire family.”
Wilson owned the Bills for 54 years and was the last of the original American Football League owners. The AFL and NFL merged in 1970.
Under his ownership, the Bills won two AFL Championships in the 1960s and reached the Super Bowl four years in a row in the early 1990s, but lost each time.
Wilson was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
News of Wilson’s death was met by an outpouring of grief from across the NFL, with other owners, players and officials paying tribute to his contribution to the game.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
“He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League. He brought his beloved Bills to Western New York and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL.”
Wilson’s death is sure to add to scrutiny about the team’s future in Buffalo, one of the smallest markets for an NFL franchise.
There has speculation in recent years that the team could be sold and moved to another city, with Los Angeles and Toronto often cited as possible destinations.
“Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss. We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would,” Brandon said.
“We understand our fans’ curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization and that will be addressed in the near future.
“But at this time, we are committed to honoring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the man who delivered NFL football to Buffalo.”
Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue