Buffalo Bills longtime owner Ralph Wilson, who helped found the American Football League in 1960, died at his home on Tuesday afternoon. He was 95.
Bills president Russ Brandon made the announcement at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
"It's tough. It's very tough," Brandon said. "I worked for him for 18 years and talked to him every day for 18 years -- sometimes multiple times a day."
Wilson was the founder and sole owner of the Bills after establishing the team with the upstart AFL in 1960. He played a key role in the league's merger with the NFL, and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., around 1:40 p.m., said Mary Mazur, spokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner's office. He had been receiving in-home hospice care.
"No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson," Brandon said in a statement. "It's very tough. What he's meant to the entire organization. He's our leader, our mentor, our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don't make them like Ralph Wilson."
Wilson had been in failing health for several years after having hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit, he was well enough to attend the Hall of Fame induction weekends over the past few years.
After regularly attending Bills home games since founding the franchise, Wilson had not been to a game since 2010.
"More than anything, he wanted to bring a Super Bowl championship to western New York," Brandon said. "He wanted it for the players, the coaches and the franchise. But mostly he wanted it for the fans.
"No owner has wanted a title more for these reasons than Mr. Wilson. In the end, he was extremely proud that his Bills are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls."
Wilson purchased the Bills for $25,000 in 1959. The franchise's estimated value was $870 million as of August 2013, according to Forbes.
"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.
"As a trusted advisor to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues. His lifelong loyalty to the game was instrumental in his richly deserved induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We are grateful for his many contributions to the NFL and offer our heartfelt sympathy to the Wilson family."
Upon learning that Wilson had died Tuesday, Goodell interrupted a meeting in progress and asked all but the principle owners of each team to leave. Once the room was cleared, Goodell informed the owners, as Wilson had apparently requested. A moment of silence was then observed.
Brandon said in the statement that the Bills' plans for future ownership would be "addressed in the near future."
"Right now all of us are absorbing this tremendous personal loss," Brandon said. "We are performing our day-to-day functions as we normally would. We understand our fans' curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization."
Wilson established a reputation as being the "conscience" of the NFL for his loyalty to fans and the several stands he took against franchise relocation.
"He didn't let anyone pull anything off in him. He was very forceful," New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said.
"Mr. Wilson was a visionary and pioneer of professional football," added Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. "We have lost a founding member of the NFL family, but Ralph's lasting impact on the NFL will forever be felt."
Some current members of the Bills, including wide receiver Stevie Johnson, took to Twitter to express their sympathy.
Sad hearing of the passing of the great Mr. Ralph Wilson Jr. Forever indebted to him for all he has done for my family. A legendary man.- HiMom. (@StevieJohnson13) March 25, 2014
Bills running back C.J. Spiller released a lengthy statement about Wilson, referring to him as a "great leader."
"He will forever be remembered and loved by myself and the rest of the Bills fans across the world," Spiller said in the statement. "I personally want to thank Mr. Wilson for drafting me and showing me what a great organization he has built. ... I will not let you down, Mr. Wilson. May God be with you and your family always. This world has lost a great leader, but his legacy will surely live on forever."
Patriots owner Robert Kraft released a statement saying how grateful he was for how Wilson welcomed him to the NFL, adding: "I will miss him."
So will Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, whom Wilson lured out of retirement to serve as the team's general manager from 2005-06.
"He wasn't my boss, he was my friend," Levy said. "Deeply saddened to hear about his passing. He meant so much to the game that both of us revered, and to the community of Buffalo and beyond. It's quite a loss, and he's going to be remembered so fondly by everyone who knew him."
Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas struggled with his emotions when discussing Wilson.
"With Mr. Wilson's passing today, it hurts," Thomas said. "So I'm going to miss him, without a doubt. He used to call me his favorite son."
Running back Fred Jackson said Wilson's death provides the team new focus to end that drought.
"We want to continue to cement his legacy," Jackson said. "We want to honor him, and a great way to honor him is going out and winning a lot of football games."
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak, ESPN.com's Darren Rovell, ESPN's Ed Werder and The Associated Press contributed to this report.