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The Graves of William Clay Ford and Ralph Wilson, Jr.

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Monday, September 21, 2020

This is the latest installment in a series of articles detailing my never-ending quest to visit the graves of important figures in football history. Previous graves visited include, but are not limited to, Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, Clemson and Georgia Tech head coach John Heisman, Notre Dame halfback George Gipp, Canton Bulldogs halfback Jim Thorpe, Green Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, Kansas City Chiefs owner and AFL Founder Lamar Hunt, Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry, the “Father of American Football” Walter Camp, Green Bay Packers founder Curly Lambeau, Chicago Bears halfback Bronko Nagurski, University of Michigan head coaches Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals head coach Paul Brown, Illinois head coach Bob Zuppke and Carlisle Indian School head coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.

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In neighboring cemeteries in Detroit, just a few miles away from one another, you will find the final resting places of two former NFL owners. William Clay Ford was the owner of the Detroit Lions, so it is no surprise that he is buried in Detroit. Ralph Wilson, on the other hand, was the owner of the Buffalo Bills. Both men passed away in 2014.

Ford was born on March 24, 1925 in Detroit. He was the son of Edsel Ford and the grandson of Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company. William Clay Ford attended his first Lions game during their first season in Detroit. His father took him to the very first Lions game played on Thanksgiving Day in 1934. Prior to moving to Detroit, the team was in Ohio and known as the Portsmouth Spartans.

Ford was a minority owner of the Lions since 1961. In 1963, he decided he wanted to become the sole owner of the team. He paid $4.5 million for a controlling interest in the team. The deal was completed on November 22, 1963, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Ford owned the team for over 50 years, until his death on March 4, 2014 at the age of 88. But in all those years, the Lions have only won a single payoff game. That was on January 5, 1992 at home against the Dallas Cowboys.

After his death, his wife, Martha Firestone Ford, took over as the team’s principle owner. Earlier this year, at the age of 94, she turned the team over to her daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp, keeping the Lions within the Ford Family. 

Ralph Wilson, Jr. was born in Columbus, OH in 1918. He grew up in Detroit and went to work in his father’s insurance company, eventually taking it over. Wilson also invested in factories and mines around the state of Michigan and amassed a considerable fortune. Like William Clay Ford, he became a part owner of the Detroit Lions in the 1950s, but on October 28, 1959, he became a member of The Foolish Club, the nickname for the group of eight original owners of the American Football League. He paid $25,000 and was awarded the seventh franchise in the AFL. His team became the Buffalo Bills.  

The Bills won the 1964 and 1965 AFL championships and played in four consecutive Super Bowl games between 1990 to 1993, losing all four. While he may have owned the Bills since 1959, he never actually lived in Buffalo and remained in Detroit his entire life.

Wilson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2011, he and his wife, Mary, donated $2.5 million for the construction of a football research and preservation center at the Hall of Fame. Today, it is named in his honor.

On March 25, 2014, Ralph Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan at the age of 95. Wilson had attended the funeral of his friend, William Clay Ford, just 10 days before his own death.

After Wilson’s death, the team was sold to Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the NHL Buffalo Sabres for $1.4 billion.   

Finding the Two Graves

William Clay Ford is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit. The address is 19975 Woodlawn Avenue in Detroit. If you are heading south on Woodlawn Avenue, the cemetery will be on the right. When you enter the cemetery gates, keep to the right and follow the road along the fence to Section 10. Ford’s grave will be on the left, across from the Mausoleum Chapel. You will see three above-ground graves containing several members of the Ford Family including William Clay Ford. Drive around to the other side of the graves and park along the road. You can walk over to the graves and see the names of those buried there. A short fence surrounds the graves so you cannot get too close, but close enough to get a picture with them.

Just a few miles away, Ralph Wilson, Jr. is buried in the Historic Elmwood Cemetery. The address is 1200 Elmwood Street, but don’t put that address in your GPS. It will take you someplace else. Instead, use the address for the Mt. Elliott Cemetery, which is located right next door. The Mt. Elliott Cemetery address is 1701 Mount Elliott Street in Detroit. The two cemeteries are not connected and have separate entrances. Go past the Mt. Elliott entrance and at the south end of the cemetery, take East Lafayette Street west for a block or so and then turn north on Robert Bradby Drive. You will see the entrance to the Elmwood Cemetery on the right.  Once in the cemetery, follow the road to the right. When the road curves to the left for the second time, you will see the grave on your left. There is a large monument with the name Ralph C. Wilson on it. Ralph Wilson, Jr. has his own marker on the ground in front of the monument.


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