Caddying at the Greenville Country Club as a teenager, Willie Richardson had the good fortune to come under the tutelage of a DeWitt Walcott Jr., who offered valuable instruction.
Born in Hollandale, Miss., and raised in Greenville, Walcott attended the University of Mississippi for three years, before joining the United States Army in 1942. A
Caddying at the Greenville Country Club as a teenager, Willie Richardson had the good fortune to come under the tutelage of a DeWitt Walcott Jr., who offered valuable instruction.
Born in Hollandale, Miss., and raised in Greenville, Walcott attended the University of Mississippi for three years, before joining the United States Army in 1942. A sports enthusiast with an abiding love for the game, Walcott won several amateur events in Mississippi and mentored dozens of teens in the Greenville area for most of his life. He passed away in 2003.
“My dad would hit balls before work in the morning and then after work at night,” said his son DeWitt Walcott III, a graduate of Greenville High School in 1964, who lives in Austin, Tx. “You’d have a bag of 80-100 balls. Willie would shag balls for my dad and then my dad would shag balls for Willie.
“From the beginning, Willie showed a tremendous natural ability to play golf,” said Wolcott.
Those instructions shaped a game that was fundamentally sound in all phases.
“Whatever lessons Willie got from Walcott were definitely helpful,” said Judge Reuben Anderson, a close friend of Richardson. “He was always so fundamentally sound in everything he did.”
Despite the rigorous pounding during his football career, Richardson never underwent surgery. His good health and southern climate enabled him to get on the course almost daily.
Richardson’s quartet included Anderson, Paul Covington and A.D. Jones. Through their many travels to golfing tournaments, Anderson was able to see how many lives Richardson impacted, across the state.
“I didn’t know Willie until he came back to Jackson,” said Anderson, who was the first African American Supreme Court Justice in Mississippi [1985-90], the first black to graduate University of Mississippi Law School (1967) and first black President of the Mississippi Bar Association. “I guess facilitator would be a good word to describe Willie; he was a very unique individual. He had a special connection to coaches at all the colleges in the state. He was a big brother and mentor to so many in athletics and business. He helped a lot of people get started in city government. He was involved with many non-profit and fundraising projects. He always worked to make things better in Mississippi.
“He ran for Mississippi’s Department of Transportation Commissioner, in the early 1990s, and Johnny Unitas came down to campaign for him.
“Willie had an incredible memory, he never forgot a name or place. He always felt blessed and had a unique perspective on life.
“In my 30 years as friends, I never knew him to have an argument or falling out with anyone. He was very committed to Jackson State and helped the school as much as possible.”
His easy stroke and nimble touch on the course never faltered.
“It was a bad day if Willie didn’t shoot his age,” said Anderson. “He shot 74 the Friday before he passed away. He had a great swing and was always consistent with his chipping and putting. I don’t think his skills ever diminished a bit in 30 years!”
There were many avid black golfers in Mississippi, but most of the courses were restricted until the 1980s.
“We had a strong group of black golfers and caddies in Jackson, going back to the 1950s,” said Anderson. “There were guys here who caddied for Calvin Peete and Raymond Floyd.
“We played what we called the Chitlin Circuit. The better courses didn’t open up until the 1990s.
“For competition we’d go to Natchez, Miss. Vicksburg, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., Mobile, Ala. and Baton Rouge, La. The public courses there were much better. We’d play two days, Saturday and Sunday. There would be a full field with 90 guys, but only three-four guys could compete with Willie. I’d say he won 50 percent of the tournaments. We did that until almost 2010. He won a lot of the charity events as well.”
In 1992, Judge Anderson brought Richardson with him to The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, 12 miles south of Jacksonville, Fla. The Monday after the tournament concluded, Richardson played for Jim and Mark McCumber to assess his game.
“They were impressed with Willie and wanted him to give the PGA Senior Tour a shot, but with his work schedule it just wasn’t going to work out,” said Anderson.
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Chicago. He can be reached email@example.com
It seems only fitting that Willie Richardson passed away of natural causes February 8, 2016, at age 76. Natural is the appropriate description for the genial Richardson.
Moving adroitly on the gridiron, golf course and all walks of life, Richardson was one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League from 1967-69 as
It seems only fitting that Willie Richardson passed away of natural causes February 8, 2016, at age 76. Natural is the appropriate description for the genial Richardson.
Moving adroitly on the gridiron, golf course and all walks of life, Richardson was one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League from 1967-69 as a two-time pro-bowler during his tenure with the Baltimore Colts 1963-71 [and Miami Dolphins in 1970].
Former University of Mississippi Law School Dean, Bob Farley, once said, “Mississippi is not a state, it’s a family.”
On many levels, Richardson’s life parallels this theme. Family, friends and relatives from across Mississippi were intertwined throughout his life.
W.C. Gorden, a high school coach [1956-66], defensive coordinator for Jackson State coach Rod Paige [1967-77], head baseball coach [1966-76] and head football coach at Jackson State [1977-91], shared a friendship of nearly half century with Richardson.
“Willie was known throughout the state and that started with high school football,” said Gorden. “He was an outstanding community servant and a natural at connecting with people.
“When I got to the church, I saw white and black professionals and people from all walks of life. You had over 1,800 people; many had come from all over the state. It was the largest funeral I’d been to. That’s when I understood just how beautiful a person Willie was.”
Growing up in Greenville, Miss. Richardson and his five brothers: Gloster, Ernie, Thomas, Charles and Allan made a name in football, basketball and baseball.
The majority of the black students attended Coleman High School established in 1926 and named after Lizzie Coleman on the north side of the city [rival Weston High School was on the south side]. Taking pride in their students’ achievements was palpable throughout the community. A person who had a sizeable hand in developing Richardson, his brothers and hundreds of kids during his tenure was coach Davis Weathersby. A native of Liberty, Miss., he grew up with six brothers and three sisters helping farm the 65 acres his father owned, where they raised cotton, vegetables, sweet potatoes and also had their own sugar cane mill. Attending Alcorn State in 1951, Weathersby learned from a strong senior class that included running back Medgar Evers and 6-0, 230 pound fullback Jack Spinks, who became the first black from Mississippi to play in the NFL. Weathersby started three years as a 5-10, 185 pound offensive guard and defensive lineman.
Head coach at Coleman High School from 1956-70, Weathersby posted a 112-26-6 record, which included state championships in 1957 and ’67 and four Big Eight Conference titles. Richardson’s junior year, they went 9-0-2 and beat Laurel 19-14 for the conference championship. The following season they started 0-2, Weathersby moved Richardson from receiver to quarterback [he started at free safety] and they went 8-2-1 the rest of the way. In 1961, wide receiver Gloster Richardson paired with quarterback George Scott and they went to the conference final against Rowan in 1961. Scott went onto play major league baseball [1966-79] with the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers. A receiver in the NFL from 1967-74, Gloster was on Super Bowl championships with the Kansas City Chiefs  and the Dallas Cowboys . A South Side Chicago resident in the South Shore neighborhood after his career ended, Gloster returned to Mississippi for two years where he was the wide receiver coach at Mississippi Valley State in 1983-84 working with future NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
Teachers and administrators at Coleman High School made certain every opportunity was extended to the students.
“Coleman was a great school,” said the 83-year old Weathersby, who lives in Greenville. “We called it the school of champions. We had a great band and glee club; we excelled in everything. We had dedicated teachers and parents who were very supportive. We had people come in before and after school to teach advanced calculus and other subjects. We were strict and had complete control of our kids.”
In a state overflowing with football fever, Friday afternoons for home games brought the community out to celebrate. The 70 member award winning band, led by renowned director Roy P. Huddleston, festooned in stylish attire, stepping with drum majors and majorettes, led the march down Nelson St. before a crowd of a couple thousand.
“I grew up wanting to be a drum major,” said Wilbert Montgomery, who was part of the integration of Greenville High School in 1970 [the same year the high school ended up 90 percent African American]. He played with younger brother, Cleotha, for coach Gary Dempsey, winning a state championship in 1972 going 11-0 before attending Abilene Christian. A four year starter with the Wildcats, Montgomery set a record with 37 touchdowns as a freshman, teaming with quarterback Clint Longley to help win a NAIA National Championship. Montgomery gained over 6,700 yards playing with the Philadelphia Eagles [1977-84]. Younger brothers Cleotha, Tyrone and Fred Montgomery also played professional football; nine of the 10 brothers played college football. “You’d see them out in front of everyone with their stylish uniforms high-stepping in their routine.
“Later at night, I’d get out in the street and practice my own routine.
“As a child, we’d go to watch the games. It cost a quarter and we couldn’t afford it so we’d watch from outside the fence.
“Most kids grew up dreaming of playing for Coleman. My brother Alfred played there and my mom and aunt went there.
“Willie was a pioneer. He set and raised the bar for everyone. He showed you could go to college and play ball and even beyond that. You could see that life didn’t stop after high school.”
Yazoo City native Willie Brown went up against Richardson throughout high school in the Big 6 Conference and then in college.
“He did everything and we couldn’t stop him,” said Brown, who played cornerback for the Raiders [1967-78, Broncos 1963-66] and was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame. “Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson and the staff told me Willie was going to Grambling, but they took me there in the summer before my freshman year and Willie never came. I guess Jackson State did the same thing with him.
“Willie was dating a girl I went to school with. I had to give my approval before he could go out with her. We ended up going to the high school prom together.”
Following visits to Grambling, Tennessee State and Michigan State, he ended up at Jackson State after coach John Merritt came to his home.
“Coach Merritt told my mother [Alice] if Willie came to Jackson State, the rest of us could play there, too,” said Gloster. “He had the vision to see what was down the line.”
Younger brothers Charles, Allan and Tom, [with the New England Patriots 1969, 70] all played at Jackson State during the 1960s.
Born in Clarksdale, Richardson moved to Greenville at age five, but went back periodically to visit his aunt. During his time there, he became good friends with Higgins High School quarterback Roy Curry.
Teaming with Curry, the duo executed an offensive machine that was unstoppable in the SWAC [Southwestern Athletic Conference] with a 19-3 record from 1961-62.
In a rematch against Florida A&M, they were dominant with a 22-6 win at the 30th Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, Fla. before 47,791 breaking the Rattlers 21 game win streak.
The team was feted with a parade through the city of Jackson and a celebration on campus.
“We’re still celebrating!” Gloster insisted.
A four-year starter at receiver and free safety, and two-time All-American, Richardson tallied 171 receptions and 36 touchdowns for the Tigers.
He and Florida A&M’s Robert Paremore were the first blacks to play for the Southern team in the 17th annual North-South Shrine game. Catching two touchdowns, Richardson was voted MVP.
He also played in the North-South All-Star game. A few days later, they had a parade for him in Jackson and a Willie Richardson day was held in Greenville.
“There were about 4,000 people lined up down Washington Ave. that ended at City Hall,” said Weathersby. “After that, we had a dinner with 200 people at Coleman High School with all the coaches from Jackson State.”
At the time of Civil Rights unrest, the fanfare for Richardson portrays the complexities of race in Mississippi.
A native of Moss Point and lifelong Mississippian, Dr. Robert Khayat holds a distinguished resume of service at the University of Mississippi. A member of the Rebels 1960 championship and an academic All-American and all SEC catcher, kicker for the Washington Redskins [1960, ’62 and ‘63], a 1966 law school graduate and professor at the school of law. Khayat was Chancellor of Ole Miss from 1995-2009 and had the law building named in his honor in April, 2011.
“Mississippi is much discussed. It produces a diverse group of incredibly successful people and Willie was one of those,” said Khayat, who lives in Oxford, Miss.
“Willie was widely respected across the state. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t admire him. He was involved in a many projects that always had to do with helping people. Wherever you saw him, he was always upbeat. He mixed well with everyone whether it was at Annandale Golf Course or any other venue.”
During the 17th annual North-South All-Star game in 1962 he became friends with Syracuse tight end John Mackey, who was a second round selection of the Colts. Richardson caught two touchdowns and was named MVP as the South won 15-14 a few days before the NFL draft.
A post-game interview impressed the viewers including Mackey’s wife, Sylvia, who was watching the game with her mother at home in Washington, D.C.
“Willie was so eloquent and at ease in the interview; we were spellbound,” said Sylvia. “John called me after the game, I told him how impressed we were with Willie and he said, ‘That’s my man Willie!’”
The 1962 draft was held Dec. 4 at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Chicago. A seventh round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts and third round selection of the New York Jets, Richardson’s relationship with Mackey was a significant factor in signing with the Colts.
The two roomed together in training camp for the 1963 College All-Star team that beat the Green Bay Packers, 20-17, before 65,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field in the 30th annual game.
“Coach [Vince] Lombardi told me, ‘If I had that all-star team, I’d win a championship in three years,’” said Dave Robinson, who was the last pick in the first round [No. 14] by the Packers after playing linebacker-tight end at Penn State. Among the guys who went on to exceptional careers were: Lee Roy Jordan, Kermit Alexander, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Lee Roy Caffey, Walt Sweeney, Ray Mansfield, Fred Miller, Jim Dunaway and Ed Budde.
He got a good look at Richardson during practice and when he lined up against the Colts.
“I really hadn’t seen a wide receiver like Willie [in college],” said Robinson. “Willie didn’t make breaks in his routes, he just went from one part of the route to another; he was that smooth. Guys who came from the black colleges were coming from wide open offenses; it was a different style of play. It was an untapped market, a lot of those guys went to the AFL. It wasn’t an easy time for any of us. For blacks players to make it [in the NFL] you had to be great. If you were borderline, you had no chance. We all had respect for each other’s ability; there were no prima donnas.
“When we played Baltimore we double covered Willie often. We brought the free safety over so we wouldn’t get beat deep. He was the guy we were worried about.”
How would Richardson’s career differed had he signed with the Jets?
“Oh my gosh! He would’ve broken all Don Maynard’s records,” said Larry Grantham, who played on the University of Mississippi’s national championship team in 1959 and was a starting linebacker for the Jets from 1960-72 at 6-1, 195 pounds. “It sure would’ve been interesting to see. I think it would’ve benefitted Joe Namath and Willie. [Namath’s rookie season was 1965].”
In the spring of 1963, Grantham received a call from a Jackson State coach who wanted to introduce him to Richardson. After a workout, the two went for coffee and felt a common ground. Richardson was invited to Grantham’s home in Crystal Springs [20 miles from Jackson] for dinner. Richardson reciprocated and the two became friends.
“We did a number of events together in the offseason in and around Jackson during the 1960s,” said Grantham. “Willie was always a gentleman; you enjoyed being around him.”
Stepping in with some of the best to ever play the game takes adjusting. A master of the craft and meticulously detailed, Raymond Berry gave Richardson a few pointers, but was also impressed with the rookie’s tools.
“Willie had a tremendous combination of size, speed, quickness and great hands,” said Berry. “He was a tough competitor; the complete package. That’s the reason he became a super wide receiver.
“Physically, Willie could match up with anyone. Once he learned the double and triple fake he became extremely effective.
“As a receiver, you had to communicate with Unitas. He would ask you, ‘What can you get open with?’ And you better be prepared to tell him! That was a key thing; John depended on that constant feedback.”
Behind Berry and Jimmy Orr his first four years, Richardson waited in reserve, grabbing 35 receptions. In 1967 with Orr injured and Berry in his last season, the league got a full view of Richardson’s talents as he caught 63 passes [eighth in the NFL] and made all-pro. Richardson followed that with 37 and eight touchdowns  and 43 grabs [in 1969], but only 17 his last two years. He led the Colts with eight receptions in their famous 16-7 Super Bowl III loss to the New York Jets.
The Colts multipurpose running back Tom Matte [1961-72] explained one of the reasons for the team’s success.
“Willie was a great competitor and phenomenal Jack of all trades guy,” he said. “He paid his dues and came up through the ranks. The guys always made sacrifices, putting in extra time and Willie fell right in line. He worked his butt off after practice. I worked with him on different patterns, reading defenses and man-to-man adjustments. He was unselfish and fell into the same crowd of Art Donovan, Johnny Unitas and others; we always hung out together.
“We had a basketball team in the offseason where we traveled around and played about 30 games. It was a way to stay in shape and raise some money for charity. It was Mackey, Unitas, Geno Marchetti and a few others. Willie was one of the best players.
“We had a group that would play golf frequently and Willie was the best. He was right at par, I was a three-four handicap. He was always 30-yards longer off the tee.
“We’d all go out for beers together, we had a lot of great times together. His wife [Earline] was a real sweetheart and was good friends with my wife.”
In 1965, Richardson made an instinctive interception which resulted in a joyful 50-year marriage and three kids [Sonji Nicole, Willie III and Shawn Elizabeth].
One of seven children, who spent her first five years on the famous Hopkins Plantation outside of Clarksdale, Earline Outlaw’s family roots go back before the Civil War in the same city. Earline’s father drove a tractor at the Hopkins Plantation, but he died of heart failure when she was five. She moved into town with her grandparents [her grandfather was a barber].
“My grandparents and everyone else emphasized education and the importance of going to college and bettering yourself,” said Earline.
During her freshman year at Jackson State, she met Willie. While never dating, the two kept in touch through letters and occasional phone calls. When Richardson found out Earline was getting engaged, he made a quick decision.
“He told me, ‘Don’t marry him…wait for me!’” said Earline, laughing at the memory.
Married June 6, 1965, by a Justice of the Peace in Clarksdale, their honeymoon was postponed as Richardson prepared for training camp. Earline finished her degree at Coppin State and began teaching elementary school in Baltimore.
“I never really knew all the things Willie did, but at the funeral so many people came up and said, ‘Willie helped me get my first job in city government or in other areas,’” said Earline. “That’s when it hit me how many people he reached.”
As one of the premier cornerbacks in the league [1963-69 with the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams 1970-71, free safety the Philadelphia Eagles 1972-73], Kermit Alexander lined up against Richardson many times, beginning with the College All-Star team.
“It didn’t matter if he was double-covered, whenever they needed a big catch, on third down, he’d get it,” said Alexander, who was All-Pro in 1968 and second in the NFL with nine interceptions [he had 43 in his career and ranks third in 49er history with 36]. “He would destroy a zone [defense] so we’d switch to man-to-man to cut down his opportunities. You had to pick and choose when to double cover him. You couldn’t intimidate him and you never saw him drop a pass.
“Willie ran terrific routes and had very deceptive speed. He would glide along and then change gears, separate from you and break a pattern so quickly. Unitas would throw the ball before he finished the route and the ball would be there right when he made his break. We’d have guys on our team cussing each other out because we couldn’t stop him.
“Unitas and his receivers worked for an hour after practice to perfect their timing.
“When I was with the Rams we double-teamed him, but he still owned the red zone. Even in double coverage, he could out-jump you for the ball. His hands were so strong. I thought Willie was like Berry in that they were masterful in running their routes; of course Willie had more speed.”
A common thread was woven through the Jackson State players. They were primarily from small towns across the state and grew up laboring long hours picking cotton and were the first of their family to attend college. Taking full advantage of opportunities on the field and in the classroom, relationships cemented 50 years ago are intact, as hair grew gray and gaits slowed. Raised in Clarksdale, John Outlaw watched his older cousin, Roy Curry, star as a quarterback at Higgins High School.
Outlaw, who battled receiver Harold Jackson in practice, was drafted in the 10th round in 1969 by the Boston Patriots. Before training camp, he moved in with Richardson in Baltimore and worked out with Berry, Unitas, Ray Perkins and a few others.
“What I learned in one month was invaluable,” said Outlaw, who played with the Patriots from 1969-73 and the Eagles from 1973-77. “There was a slew of talented receivers and you had Unitas at quarterback. I didn’t shy away.
“Willie’s hand-eye coordination was at another level. He knew how to set you up. He’d get you leaning one way and then cut the other way; he had incredible body control.
“Playing at Jackson State, Willie was a guy everyone looked up to and aspired to be. He was a straight shooter and a huge asset to the school.”
A case of deja vu occurred in 1971 when Outlaw found himself lined up against Richardson during the final game of the season. In the second quarter, he picked off a Unitas pass and sped 60-yards for a touchdown as the New England Patriots held off the Colts 21-17.
A year behind Richardson in college, Speedy Duncan enjoyed the opportunity to square off against the best.
“[Assistant coach] Joe Gilliam Sr. taught us to play bump-and-run,” said Duncan, who joined the San Diego Chargers as a free agent in 1964. Defensive coordinator Chuck Noll put Duncan in as a starter in 1965, at right cornerback, where he became a four-time All-Pro in addition to returning punts and kickoffs. He was a special teams ace with the Washington Redskins from 1971-74.
“Willie knew how to get you where he wanted in his route and then make his cut. He knew how to separate from you under any situation. He was a tremendous competitor and never made a dirty play [in practice].
“I went against Lance Alworth [for six years] and there were similarities between the two. Both had a mindset when the ball was in the air it belonged to me! It didn’t matter what position you had, or how close you were, they would find a way to go up, position their body and come away with the ball. Both had incredible hand-eye coordination and were also great golfers.”
Gulfport, Miss. native Lem Barney, who was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame with John Mackey in 1992, has close ties to the Richardsons.
“I remember watching Willie when Jackson State played Grambling and then during the Blue-Gray All-Star game,” said Barney, who was a seven-time pro bowler with the Detroit Lions [1967-77]. “He was an inspiration for me signing with Jackson State.”
Barney’s roommate was Thomas and Gloster lived across the hall.
“I felt like I was part of the Richardson family, we had a great relationship,” said Barney, who was a three-time All SWAC selection. “We spent a lot of time talking about Willie and watching him when the Colts were on television. You talk about a loaded team, they had it all with Unitas, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry.
“When Willie came back to Jackson he was very encouraging with me. He said, ‘You have great footwork, you’re fundamentally sound, you’re going to get drafted high.’”
It wasn’t long before Barney was lining up against Richardson, who caught five passes against him in a 41-7 Colts win in 1967.
“When Willie went up in the air, he was impossible to stop. He had long arms, great body control and his hands were like nets. He was as good as any receiver I faced.”
Barney and Richardson went at it in the Pro Bowl held in Los Angeles in 1967 and ‘68. Afterwards, they joined their wives, Jacqui and Earline and enjoyed the sights in Los Angeles.
The day after the 1965 draft, Bill Curry woke up to a phone call from his brother-in-law telling him he was the second to last player drafted in the 20th round, by the Green Bay Packers. Curry hung up thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t. Making the squad in 1965, Curry became their starting center in 1966 and then started for the Colts from 1967-72. His memories are still vivid recalling Richardson’s artistry that helped the Colts beat the Packers.
“Willie was a dominant receiver in those three years [1967-69],” said Curry. “He made a number of big catches to win games for us. In 1967 [at Baltimore], Willie stepped in front of [Hall of Fame cornerback] Herb Adderly on a post route and caught a [23-yard] touchdown pass [from Johnny Unitas] in the fourth quarter to give us the win [13-10]. That snapped a four-game losing streak to the Packers.
“The next year at Green Bay, I desperately wanted to win that game. Willie went up and reached over the top of Adderly at the goal line to take away the ball and complete a 26-yard touchdown pass [from Earl Morrall]. I remember running down there picking him up to celebrate [a 16-3 win].
“The other thing that sticks out about Willie is he was always upbeat and ready for the next thing, like most of the guys on the team.
“The Packers had a passionate fan base, but Baltimore, there was nothing like it. They called Memorial Stadium the World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum and that’s what it was. We played on what we called the astro-dirt. We had pep rallies, we had the Colts’ Corral in the offseason. It was a special time and place.”
Making a seamless transition to television, he worked as a sports anchor for Fox 45, in Baltimore from 1972-82.
In 1982, Governor William Forest Winter called Richardson and offered him a job in the tax division, where he ended up working for 25 years.
“Willie was very close with his mother,” said Earline. “It was a little more of an adjustment for me. I taught at an elementary school in Rankin County for two years and then at Barr Elementary for nine years.”
Pastor Jerry Young of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson was an extended family member and eulogized Richardson.
“Willie’s mother [Alice] was my second grade teacher,” said Young, who has been pastor since 1980. “She convinced me I could be successful. I went to her class from second grade to high school. His father W.L. Richardson and my dad E.L. Young were preaching buddies. They went to a number of churches in the delta.
“I went to high school in Benoit at Nugent Center.”
A few years younger Willie, Pastor Young followed his career. Richardson was a member of his church for over 30 years.
“Willie Richardson represented all of us,” he said. “It wasn’t just pride, but hope and aspiration of what was possible. To come out of Jackson State and make it.
“The Richardson family were tremendous people. I can’t tell you how proud we were of Willie and his brothers.
“Sometimes, when a man has accomplished what Willie had, by the grace of God, he reads his own press clippings and becomes pompous or arrogant. I know Willie understood the power that came through him, not from him and was a gift of God.
“Willie was a great person who was always humble. I did the eulogy for his mother and brother Ernie. I was pleased and proud to be a friend. He was in church the Sunday before he passed, sitting in his usual spot. I looked out and said, ‘There’s Willie.’”
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Chicago. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
With 30 players drafted in the 1960s, scouts in the National Football League became well versed on the route to Grambling, La., home of the Grambling State University. In the fall of 1968, wide receiver Charlie Joiner [drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Oilers and voted into the NFL Hall of Fame
With 30 players drafted in the 1960s, scouts in the National Football League became well versed on the route to Grambling, La., home of the Grambling State University. In the fall of 1968, wide receiver Charlie Joiner [drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Oilers and voted into the NFL Hall of Fame after a 18-year career] and quarterback James Harris were putting on quite a show.
“We had seven or eight scouts at every game,” said Douglas Porter, who was the offensive coordinator from 1966-74. He was the head coach at Howard [1974-78 and Fort Valley State [1979-1996] before returning to live in Grambling. “With the players we had: running back Essex Johnson [1968, sixth round by Cincinnati], defensive back Delles Howell [1970, fourth round New Orleans] and receiver Frank Lewis [1971, first round Pittsburgh] there were always guys here. Jackie Graves [who became director of player personnel with the Eagles], Joe Perry [49ers], Emlen Tunnell [Giants], Bill Nunn [Steelers] and Elbert Dubenion [Bills] were some of the regulars. They’d come in on Wednesday and stay through Saturday.”
Still, there was no indication if Harris would be drafted.
Harris drops back to pass with the Buffalo Bills.
“The scouts were very discreet,” said Porter. “We thought there might be an opportunity with the Rams because of Tank Younger, but we really had no idea. He was planning on getting into coaching after college. In our mind, there was no doubt that Harris could be a starting quarterback in the NFL. With his arm, size and overall understanding of the game, we knew he’d be able to adapt to any offense. We had a great quarterback with Mike Howell , but he didn’t have the size and the Browns [1965-72] made him a defensive back.”
The Howell brothers [Lane, Mike and Delles] grew up across from Harris on Atkinson St. in the Bryant’s Addition neighborhood and attended Carroll High School in Monroe, La. All three went to Grambling and played in the NFL. “Coach Rob [Eddie Robinson] felt he would be our first quarterback to make it into the NFL when he brought him in,” said Porter. “I had a chance to see Harris against Coleman High School [of Greenville, Miss.] and you could tell he was a special player. They beat Coleman which was quarterbacked by George Scott [who played first base for the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers] and the top team in Mississippi. We always tried to get as much information on any techniques we could use from all the scouts who came through. Coach Rob was always adding new things on offense and defense. We learned a lot from Dub Jones.” Jones was quarterback Otto Graham’s primary receiver when the Browns won titles in 1950, ’54 and ’55 and their offensive coordinator from 1963-68. Jones lived in neighboring Ruston, La., his son Bert Jones was a quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in 1973-81.
Two scouts responsible for Harris getting drafted were Bill Groman and Elbert Dubenion. Growing up in Tiffin, Oh., Groman lived at home while attending Heidelberg University, riding his bike one mile to campus. Setting a number of records in football and track, Groman was signed as a free agent by the Houston Oilers . Catching 72 passes and 12 touchdowns from George Blanda as a rookie [he was tied for second in the AFL with Don Maynard], he followed up his second year with 50 and 17 touchdowns. The Oilers beat the Los Angeles Chargers 24-16 for the title in 1960. They beat the Chargers 10-3 for the championship in 1961 [the Chargers moved to San Diego in ‘61]. The Oilers lost in 1962 to the Dallas Texans 20-17 in double overtime. Groman’s last two years were with the Bills 1964 and ‘65 championships; they beat San Diego 20-7 and 23-0. His roommate was quarterback Jack Kemp.
Dubenion, who grew up in Griffin, Ga., attended Bluffton University in Bluffton, Oh. Drafted in 1959 in the 14th round by the Browns, a leg injury prevented him from attending training camp. Picked up by the Bills as a free agent, Dubenion [1960-68] is ninth on their all-time receiving list with 294 receptions, and 35 touchdowns. Nicknamed ‘Golden Wheels’, in 1964 he was All-Pro catching 42 passes for 10 touchdowns and a 27-yard average. Dubenion became an area scout in 1969.
Groman, who spent 36 years scouting for the Bills, Blesto, Oilers and Falcons, was absolutely certain about Harris’ NFL makeup. “There was no question about James Harris,” said Groman, who was the Oilers director of player personal in 1977 and ’78. “We both gave him high grades and said he should be drafted in the top three rounds. If he was white and from a big school that’s where he would’ve been drafted. He was like a black Joe Namath, but bigger [at 6-4]. Harris had size, was strong, threw the ball very well, was able to take a hit and get away from the grasp of the defender. He was a leader and you could see what he was doing would translate well at the pro level. Harris and Charlie Joiner had a special chemistry, they complimented each other; they understood the offense and knew how to play the game. I traveled to games working [only] on the weekends then. I had the Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma area. I’d watch tape with coach Robinson; he offered me a job coaching the wide receivers. Going to Grambling or Jackson State [In 1968 Jackson State had 11 players drafted and five signed as free agents under coach Rod Paige, who later became the United States Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush] back then was like going to Alabama or USC today. You’d have eight- ten-twelve guys to watch who had the ability to play in the NFL.
“When we gave our report to the general manager Harvey Johnson a couple weeks before the draft, he asked, ‘Can he play tight end?’ I said, ‘He’s not a tight end, he’s a quarterback!’ We kept pushing for him and it’s a good thing [area scout] Elbert Dobinion was there to back me up. I think he just got tired of us talking about Harris and finally pulled the trigger.”
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com
"Around The Five Leagues in 15 Years" could be the title of a book about Johnnie Walton’s rollercoaster journey in professional football.
In 1969, a starting black quarterback in the National Football League was less common than a man on the moon. While James Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round
“Around The Five Leagues in 15 Years” could be the title of a book about Johnnie Walton’s rollercoaster journey in professional football.
In 1969, a starting black quarterback in the National Football League was less common than a man on the moon. While James Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round in 1969, Walton was signed as a free agent with the Rams. Growing up in Elizabeth City, N.C., a small port town on the Atlantic Ocean, football and farming were staples for the Waltons. Family roots were planted firmly when his great grandfather, John Walton, settled on that land in the 1890s. A dirt patch in the midst of a cornfield and other spots on their 19 acres served as playing fields. Engaging in scrimmages were brothers William, Nathan, Lonnie Walton and a few others in the neighborhood. Torn clothes, tattered in blood were how games concluded.
Watching brother Nathan, four years older, excel on the field, Walton observed his moves and the position. When Nathan earned a scholarship to Shaw University, Johnnie considered that was a route to pursue.
Sharing in chores was part of the daily diet. Uncle Bertrand Barclift owned 250 acres, outside the city limits, since the late 1940s, where he grew corn, cotton, peas and other produce along with two dozen pigs. Throughout the year, the Walton brothers and extended families members all assisted Barclift in a variety of tasks. The farm is still owned and run by his heirs. When chicken was on the menu, Walton or a sibling would go out in the back yard, grab one from the dozen, chop the head off, pluck feathers then boil or bake it for dinner.
During recess as a freshman at PW Moore High School, coach Walter Hunter observed Walton throwing the ball. Seeing a potential prospect, Hunter pulled him aside and issued an order, ‘Next year, you’re coming out for football!’ An enrollment of 400 students and a varsity team with 45 kids, PW Moore held their own against schools often double or triple their size in Winston-Salem, Raleigh and southern Virginia.
Hunter’s strategy opened Walton’s mind and generated a potent aerial attack. “We used a lot of trapping and play-action,” he said. “There weren’t many teams doing what we did. We were a very disciplined team. Coach could always adjust the offense to give us an advantage; everything he did made sense. Learning his offensive philosophy, at that age, gave me a great foundation as I progressed in the game.”
Junior year, they lost in the state semifinal. Leading a long drive for the go-ahead touchdown in the closing moments, Walton made an impression in Fayetteville, N.C. against E.E. Smith High School and star quarterback Jimmy Raye II, who went to Michigan State. A backup quarterback on their 1966 Rose Bowl team, Raye II started for the Spartans in 1967. Drafted in the 16th round by the Rams in 1968, he was moved to defensive back, traded to the Eagles in 1969 and ended up as an assistant in the NFL for 36 years.
“When we got the lead I was sure we were going to win,” said Raye. “I remember how poised Walton was in the last drive. There weren’t too many teams that beat me. Walton operated a two-minute offense you just didn’t see at that time. I remember watching him throw a deep out and outside breaking ball. He had a classic delivery; you could see there was a lot of talent there.”
After an impressive prep career, Walton committed to Norfolk State, but when his sister, Phyllis, passed away he opted to stay home and attend Elizabeth City State University. Starting midway through his freshman season, the Vikings finished 3-5. Coach Thomas Caldwell’s affection for the forward pass suited the angular 6-2, 160 pounder. Utilizing a pro-style offense, the Vikings were putting it in the air over 30 times a game. As Walton developed, he elevated the Vikings, who improved to 5-3, 8-2 and 9-1 in the Central Intercollegiate Association Conference.
Starting linebacker Willie Stewart knew Walton tipped the balance. “We had a couple of good running backs, Grover Armstead and Grady Sessome, and Eugene Snipes at wide receiver,” he said. “Johnnie always had a great arm. With the other guys coming in, they all complemented each other and our passing took off the last two years. I don’t remember us being behind in too many games. I think the guys on the team thought Johnnie had a shot at the NFL.”
Throwing for 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, the Vikings came up a few percentage points short of qualifying for the playoffs Walton’s senior year. After the season, Caldwell received a call from a scout in Canada expressing an interest in Walton, but nothing materialized. Invited to an all star game for the best players in North Carolina, Walton pitched two touchdowns including a 50-yarder to Pete Davis. The next day, newspaper headlines called him the man with the million dollar arm.
While Southwestern Athletic Conference powers like Grambling State University, Jackson State and Texas Southern had been sending players to the NFL since the late 1950s, the Central Intercollegiate Association Conference consisted of lower level Division II schools and barely registered for professional scouts.
Opening the door to the NFL was made possible because of Caldwell’s friendship with Rams’ renowned scout Tank Younger. No other team expressed any interest.
Attending an award dinner for black colleges in Washington, D.C., Walton met Younger and signed a free agent contract for $200 in January, 1969. “He [Younger] talked about how tough the situation was and what I’d have to go through to make it,” said Walton. “I thought it’s funny, I am the guy with the million dollar arm, who’s signing for $200. But I welcomed the challenge and was grateful for the opportunity. My mindset was I wanted to see what I could do against the best. The Rams community accepted me; I felt I was in a great position.”
Coming out of Grambling in 1949, Younger was signed as a free agent and became the first player from a historically black college to join the NFL. A 6-3, 225, bruising fullback, he was a four-time pro bowler, who helped the Rams to a 24-17 win over Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns in 1951. The Rams were runner up in 1949, 1950 and 1955. After a ten-year career [1958 with the Steelers] he became a scout working for general manager Elroy Hirsch [the Rams Hall of Fame receiver from 1949-57]. Younger’s astute eye kept the roster well stocked with talented finds from traditional black and white college powers and remote outposts. He became the first black assistant general manager in league history with the San Diego Chargers in 1975.
Innate confidence in his powerful right arm, Walton wasn’t awed taking the field against Deacon Jones and the Rams vaunted Fearsome Foursome. “I always had the mentality of, ‘Why not me,’” he said.
Getting acclimated to the speed and hitting, he received a welcome to the NFL. “Deacon Jones came in and put me in the ground real good,” said Walton. “[Hall of Fame lineman] Bob Brown told me, ‘I got you Rook.’”
Brown punched Jones in the sternum knocking the wind out of him. Jones responded with, ‘I am going to save it for Sunday.’
Since stepping on the gridiron as a teenager, Walton had the fortune of learning from innovative, offensive minds. This time, he was paired with a master of the craft in offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, whose meticulous instruction was instrumental in Walton’s digesting the nuances of defensive formations.
“I was a raw talent,” said Walton, who was behind pro bowler Roman Gabriel and veteran Carl Sweeten. “I was accurate and knew where to go with the ball, but I wasn’t familiar with the defensive schemes. Coach Marchibroda was one of the best. He taught me what to do with pre-snap reads and decision making. He wanted you to identify what the defense was doing at the line; was it press coverage or man-to-man. Recognize where you were going with the ball in your third step, then confirm and get rid of it in your fifth step.
“You could tell by the way the cornerbacks left or right foot was positioned. After you got the concepts down it takes care of itself. I was very fortunate Marchibroda was teaching then, it turned out to be a very positive experience.” Finding a comfort zone with the right coaching staff is often the difference in a successful career. At quarterback, it’s imperative.
Drafted with the second pick overall out of N.C. State in 1962 [he was the first pick of the Raiders in the AFL], Roman Gabriel spent time at linebacker, wide receiver and tight end during his first four years with the Rams. Getting his start in professional football with the Los Angeles Rams in 1957 under Sid Gillman, George Allen moved to the Chicago Bears joining head coach George Halas the next season. Architect of the Bears stifling 1963 championship defense, Allen became head coach of Rams in 1966 with Marchibroda as the offensive coordinator. Signing with the Raiders , Allen made a visit to his house and persuaded him to stay with the Rams. [Gabriel’s option year required him to play for the Rams].
Taking Gabriel under his wing, he and Marchibroda put in long hours in the film room which translated to pro bowls in 1967, 68, 69 [with the Rams] and 1973 for the Eagles. Prepping at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, N.C., he was four years behind Sonny Jurgensen. The field is named Gabriel-Jurgensen in their honor. As a native North Carolinian, Gabriel felt a connection with Walton. “I thought John was ahead of the game [when he came to the Rams],” said Gabriel, who was the league MVP in 1969. “I was impressed with his arm and he had a good feeling of where to go with the ball. Ted taught him how to throw when his back foot hit the fifth step. John’s smart; he picked things up quickly. I think it was a case where coach Allen liked experience. I felt John had talent and you could see him progress. He was able to see the field better his second and third year.”
Farmed out to the Continental Football League with the Indianapolis Capitals that fall, Walton took over midway through the season and was named offensive MVP of the league throwing for 1,700 yards, which included 15 touchdowns in his last six games. They beat the defending champion Orlando Panthers 27-7 in the semifinal.
In the championship game, the Capitals were ahead 38-28 with a minute left, but the San Antonio Toros scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick and converted a field to force overtime. The Capitals came back and got a rushing touchdown in overtime for a 44-38 decision, with Walton adding two touchdowns during the game. At that time, he was the only black to quarterback a team to a professional football title.
“The Continental League was a great experience,” said Walton, who made $4,900 for the season. “There wasn’t an opening in Los Angeles and no one was going to trade for me. We had some good wide receivers [at Indianapolis] and I was able to put up some numbers. I applied what I learned with coach Marchibroda and it gave me confidence.”
“You learn a lot of the [NFL] business is about who you know, and who knows you,” said Walton.
A proper diet and ample use of the weight room added a well needed 30 pounds to his frame. 1970 he was on the taxi squad impersonating the opposing team’s quarterback while gaining valuable experience.
Under new coach Tommy Prothro , Walton was having a strong preseason going into the last exhibition game. Dropping back to pass, Raiders 6-8, 275 pound defensive end Ben Davidson wheeled around from the blindside and tackle Tom Keating barreled through the middle making a sandwich out of Walton. The full force of 500 pounds-plus landed on top, cracking his sternum and separating his clavicle.
“I woke up on the sideline counting fingers,” said Walton. “They sedated me, took me to the hospital and put me in a body cast [for eight weeks].” Coming off injured reserve, Walton played on the taxi squad the rest of the season.
Growing up in Watts, Kermit Alexander spent Sunday afternoons watching the Rams offense slice through NFL defenses. Attending Mount Carmel High School and earning a scholarship to UCLA, he became an All-American running back. Alexander was San Francisco 49ers eighth pick in the first round of the 1963 draft. A six-year starter and kick-punt returner with the 49ers, he was traded to the Rams and became a starter at right corner back  and free and strong safety [‘71]. Traded to the Eagles, Alexander was relegated to special teams [’72, 73] because of his involvement as a union representative. The next two seasons he was placed on the taxi squad. In 1976, he was released before the season started. “Johnnie had a tremendous arm, but was just short on experience, he was a great talent and teammate,” said Alexander.
Near flawless execution by Walton elevated a premier defense. Frequently staying after practice, he’d throw balls helping Alexander cover the post corner route. “He became an all pro taxi squad player, who made our defense better,” said Alexander. “Once he learned to read defenses and hit the alternate receiver, he performed at a high level. He was going against an all pro defense. The veterans loved him because he made us work our asses off. He was better than half the quarterbacks in the league; we told him to persevere until he got a chance. Johnnie had a great attitude; his perseverance is a tribute to his character. He was always upbeat and guys pulled for him. We called him Johnnie Cool, because he’d stand tall in the pocket and never get rattled. He kept our moral up which is another reason [coach] Allen kept him. Allen recognized the defense needed guys prepared to play; he wanted to win and didn’t have to teach. Johnnie was very adaptable; he had to be to imitate all the opposing quarterbacks. I think his [over-the-top] delivery-motion was a lot like [Johnny] Unitas. He had a very strong arm with tremendous touch, long and short. He could make every throw.”
Released after the preseason in 1972, a team from the Canadian League called and asked Walton to come up and tryout. “My mindset was, if I can’t play against the best, I don’t want to play,” he said. It was a long three day drive back to Elizabeth City in his new Toronado. He spent the season working as a volunteer with his former high school and college team. Oddly enough, Harris, who sat out the 1972 season after being let go from the Buffalo Bills, was signed by Younger and ended up playing an integral role bringing the Rams close to a Super Bowl  as they lost 14-10 to the host Minnesota Vikings, in the championship game. Named All-Pro, Harris posted a 21-6 record as a starter; he was with Rams four of his 10 years in the league.
“I first heard about John Walton when I visited Michigan State [in 1965] and Jimmy Raye was my host,” said Harris. “He told me there was a great quarterback at Elizabeth City. I saw John in an exhibition game. He had a good delivery, was accurate, poised in the pocket with a big-time NFL arm, all the things you look for in a quarterback. I thought he was a cut above the rest.”
During the fall of 1973, Walton moved to Columbus, Ohio and got a job with the Ohio Youth Commission. In the afternoons he practiced with the Columbus Barrons of the Midwest Football League and coach Perry Moss. Starting with 45 guys, the number quickly dropped under 30. Games were played in high school stadiums with less than a couple thousand fans. One player was cut after getting lost and ending up at the wrong school.
While much of the action surrounding the team was dysfunctional, Walton took over the offense, putting up quality numbers and gaining valuable reps. Trying out for the Chicago Fire [of the World Football League] in the spring of 1974, he was released and out of football as former Bear Virgil Carter was named the starter. When the Florida Blazers moved from Orlando, Fla. and became the San Antonio Wings [spring 1975], they hired Moss as their coach. Bringing in Walton, he issued a message that was music to his ears. “The position belongs to you. It’s yours until someone takes it away,” he said. “That was a great feeling, it was encouraging; I’d never been told that before.”
“Moss was an offensive genius,” said Walton. “He had a great temperament and was real easy to work with.”
Implementing three-four wide receiver sets, Walton lifted the Wings’ aerial attack with 2,405 yards, 19 touchdowns and a 96.3 passer rating, leading the league in passing, he received All-Pro nomination. At 7-6 and undefeated at home, the Wings were anxiously awaiting a trip to Hawaii when the league folded [Oct. 22, 1975].
As starting middle linebacker for the Vikings [1965-70, including the Super Bowl IV loss to the Chiefs], Lonnie Warwick had seen his share of great quarterbacks. Taking the field, the hard-nosed, grizzled veteran was in for a surprise. “The first day of practice coach Moss said to me, ‘Lonnie, we got a guy who can really throw the ball.’ Man was he right,” said Warwick. “I was so amazed how good Johnnie was. I didn’t think anybody could throw like him; he was the best quarterback in the league by far. I said, ‘We got us a QB; we’re going to win some games! I played against [Johnny] Unitas many a time; he was so accurate it was unreal. Johnnie Walton reminded me of Unitas with his high, overhand release that was hard for defensive linemen to block. He could throw the deep ball with such a tight spiral and was very accurate. Coach Moss was an offensive genius. He said, ‘I like your attitude,’ and let me take over and call the defense. ‘All you have to do is hold them to a fewer points than we score.’ Johnnie and I would eat lunch together and he’d pick my brain about what teams were doing defensively. When the ball was snapped, he knew what to do and how to beat them. Our offense was almost impossible to stop. We had a good core of linebackers, if we had a few more linemen, we wouldn’t have lost a game. Our first 22 players were very good. I thought we could’ve beaten some of the bottom teams in the NFL.”
Emphatic about Walton’s ability, Warwick laments a career that could’ve been. “I would’ve loved to see Moss get an NFL job and bring Walton with; that would’ve been ideal,” he said. “He had an offensive mind like [49ers coach Bill] Walsh; he loved scoring points.” The margin for entry into the NFL was minute in the 1960s and’70s; becoming a starter hinged on an odd set of variables.
Tired of being broke in college, Warwick departed Tennessee Tech during winter break of his junior year and went to Douglas, Az. Laying track with a crew for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he was making $9.10 an hour on the night shift. Vikings director of player personnel Joe Thomas had stopped at Cookeville, Tn. and the film on Warwick caught his eye. The coach told him where to look. One day, a man rode over 30 miles down a dirt road on a scooter carrying a telegram from Western Union. “I thought someone had died,” said Warwick, who has lived in Mount Hope, West Virginia where he was born and raised since the early 1980s. The contract said, if you’re interested in playing for the Vikings, call back by 5 p.m. I hopped on the back of the scooter with this little Mexican guy, went back and called Thomas. I asked for a $10,000 signing bonus. He said no, so I signed for $9,500. I took a cut in pay and went straight to training camp.”
After a year on the taxi squad, Warwick started and called the defensive signals, while leading the team in tackles four of the next five years. Epitomizing the Black-and-Blue Division middle linebacker, Warwick was a key component as the Vikings defense took shape and became dominant in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Starting nine games while battling injuries in 1971 and ’72, he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons and played two years behind Tommy Nobis. Warwick assisted Washington Redskins coach George Allen in 1976 and 77. Calling friends after the WFL folded, Warwick made a point of detailing Walton’s abilities. “I talked with Jim Finks [general manager for the Vikings 1964-73, Chicago Bears ’74-82, Saints ’86-92], the Rams and Redskins,” he said. “They all said to send film. I really don’t know if they followed up or not. Could Johnnie have started in the NFL and been successful? Oh gosh yes! It was hard to break into the NFL, especially if a coach didn’t know you. You had to really know the system and teams usually went with the guy they had. I saw a lot of guys that I thought could play in the league come and go. With the roster limit [of 40 and five on the taxi squad] they just didn’t get picked up. If Johnnie was coming out [of college] today, he’d have a 15-year career in the league. I played against Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath; Johnnie could do the same thing. He was a rhythm passer who could absolutely thread the needle. He threw a beautiful spiral that was easy to catch. If we’d had Johnnie on those Vikings teams in the late 1960s and early 70s, I don’t know how many Super Bowls we’d have won. After seeing what he did in the WFL, I could never understand why someone did not take him right from there. He was already a polished player. How come he didn’t catch on and become a star in the NFL I don’t know? Maybe it’s me and that I liked him too much.”
Wings defensive coordinator Larry Grantham, who was a five-time pro bowler and signal caller as a linebacker for the New York Jets [1963-72, New York Titans 1960-62], was equally impressed with Walton.
“[Perry] Moss was a master with play-action passing, he spread people all over the field and Johnnie did a great job executing the offense,” said Grantham. “He was very accurate and could put the ball wherever it needed to be thrown.”
Extenuating circumstances that resembled a Three Stoogies episode came into play, following the 1975 season.
“I really thought Johnnie could go to an NFL team and start; I thought he had a great future,” said Grantham. “He’d gone through the learning process and was ready to play.
“The NFL looked down on the WFL. We tried to help a number of our players get placed with NFL teams. Everyone said, ‘Send film.’ We couldn’t get film from opposing teams and nobody could find the film from our own games. I called the Jets, but they were set at quarterback [Joe Namath was in his last year and Richard Todd was their first round pick].
“In pro football, when you’re on the outside looking in as a quarterback, it’s hard to get in unless you have a great college history behind you.
“I think the stigma of a black quarterback in the NFL was gone then, but for some of the southern teams it was still a no-no. We had a contact with our line coach Del Williams [Saints offensive lineman 1967-73]. Williams tried to get Walton there [with New Orleans], but couldn’t do it. We gave the Saints information on Walton, but when they found out he was black the conversation got real cold. They didn’t say it, but they whispered it.”
The Saints starting quarterbacks in the 1976 season were Bobby Douglas [six games] and Bobby Scott [eight games]. Archie Manning was sidelined after corrective surgery on his right shoulder.
Dick Vermeil, who was the special teams coach with the Rams in 1969 and offensive assistant in 1971-73, was making a national name as an offensive mind. In his second year at UCLA, he took the Bruins to the Rose Bowl [1976, for the first time in a decade] where they beat top-rated and undefeated Ohio State 23-10.
Moving into the NFL, he understood Walton’s professional makeup.
“Coach Vermeil called and said, ‘I am the head coach and he’d love for me to come to camp and tryout as a backup,” said Walton.
A strong showing in training camp  put him behind Gabriel [traded to the Eagles in 1973 and retired after 77] and Mike Boryla when the season started.
“I understood the terminology, knew what defenses to look for and became good at it,” he said. “I developed a good relationship with the coaches.”
Alexander said the difference in Walton’s game was considerable.
“Johnnie read defenses well, was able to adjust and make the right calls,” he said. “He was capable of leading a team. He could’ve started for a few teams [at that point].
On the field, Walton’s mettle was palpable.
“Johnnie’s big change was his confidence in himself,” said Vermeil. “When you are confident, the spin off is you are also more accurate. I think it took awhile for him to really believe he belonged in the NFL. He gradually developed an attitude, ‘I can play’ and demonstrated it every day he came to practice.”
Placed on the inactive list after four games in 1977, Walton had a strong camp in ‘78, but the Eagles had traded for Ron Jaworski in 1977 [the Rams drafted Jaworski in 1973 in the second round] and considered him the future.
“I competed well in seven-on-seven drills and felt I was right with Jaworski [in 1978 and ‘79],” he said.
Since 1966, the Cowboys had been the dominant team in the NFC East winning the conference 11 times. The Eagles were 2-19 against Dallas and hadn’t won there since 1965. By 1979, the Eagles were anxious to prove they belonged at the top of the ladder. Coming in with a three-game losing streak, they prepared for a mid-November Monday night tilt. Vermeil was 0-6 versus the Cowboys and there wasn’t much money bet on his squad. Meeting with the team Sunday night, he woke the 6-4 Eagles up stating they’d beat the Cowboys in another 24 hours.
With 1:35 left in the half, Jaworski received a hard hit by Cowboys defensive end Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones. Walton was summoned from the bench. A fumbled punt gave the Eagles great field position and Walton followed up connecting with Charlie Smith in the corner of the end zone, for a 29-yard touchdown. After an Eagles interception, Tony Franklin converted a 59-yard field goal as they went on to a 31-21 victory.
Vermeil didn’t hesitate with Walton.
“I was the offensive coordinator and called the plays,” said Vermeil. “I was asked after
the game about having Walton go in and putting the ball in the air.
“I believed he’d be successful; I knew he’d perform well because he’d done it in practice all season. I stayed with the game-plan to throw this specific pattern when he
went in. He fired a difficult corner pattern for a touchdown that was right on the money.”
As the Eagles sideline erupted, the shift in energy was evident as the teams filed into
the locker room.
“The stadium was quiet as a city morgue,” said Vermeil. “That was the first time we’d beaten them and it gave us momentum for the rest of the season.”
Going 5-1 the rest of the way, the Eagles had a 24-17 loss to the Cowboys. Tying for the NFC East title, they beat the Chicago Bears 27-17 in the wild card game, but lost to Tampa Bay 24-17 the next week. The following season, they lost to the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
Walton’s steadfast approach made an impression on Herman Edwards.
“Johnnie taught me about professionalism,” said Edwards, who was the Eagles’ starting right cornerback from 1977-85 and head coach with the New York Jets [2001-05] and Kansas City Chiefs [2006-08]. “As the scout team quarterback, he was always prepared and didn’t make mental mistakes. If anything happened he was able to enter the game cold and show up big for us. I think everyone knew we were in good hands [against Dallas] and it was fun watching him play. The game was never too big for him.
“Practice for him was like a game. He’d come out and try and wheel-and-deal; he was constantly pressuring our defense and we had a very good defense. He challenged us all the time and it helped me become a pro football player.
“Johnnie threw one of the prettiest balls I’ve seen. We called him Smooth because he was never in a panic and always kept his composure. He was a classic pocket quarterback; he read the defense and got rid of it.
“At that time, some teams had reservations about a black quarterback and some didn’t. There was a mindset and perception about the position. There were other positions that were tough [for blacks] to play in the league. There was still an Old Guard in the league. The NFL has evolved and it’s a different league now. It’s a level playing field as well as college football. The best players are put on the field to have it play out. We’ve come a long way.”
When the year ended, Walton was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater. He accepted, opting to retire.
“Coach Vermeil tried to talk me out of it and said the door was open if I changed my mind, but it was a decision I made,” said Walton, who taught at ElizabethCity Middle School through most of the 1970s in the offseason. In 1978 and ’79, he assisted with his alma mater’s football team in the spring semester. “It’s nice to have options. It was a great opportunity to go back home and I never was a money person.
“I knew the Eagles were headed to the Super Bowl, I was not sure how long it would take. Looking back, it’s a decision I regret, but that’s what decisions are about.”
Walton’s second year, the Vikings qualified for the DII playoffs. Flying into Marquette, Mich., at the end of November, the snow, cold and opposition were overwhelming as they lost 55-6.
“When we landed, all you could see was snow,” he said. “We had the wrong shoes, the wrong everything; it didn’t go well.”
Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, current president of Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. was chancellor at Elizabeth City State University [1977-95] and responsible for hiring Walton.
“Johnnie was a great role model and example for our players,” said Dr. Jenkins. “He proved what determination, tenacity and hard work can do and what happens when you take advantage of your opportunities and never giving up. That resonated with our athletes. They knew Johnnie was someone who did it on a big stage.
“He has a great name in Elizabeth City. He’s the boy who made good, but didn’t forget his roots. He came back and passed it forward.
“Johnnie and his siblings were overachievers. They were dedicated and ambitious. We hit if off well. The thing I stressed and he understood was that we wanted to have student-athletes, not people training for the NFL. My views about the classroom were consistent with his.”
Stewart, who went on to become a coaching icon at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. retiring in 2009, kept up their friendship. Coming down periodically in the offseason, he soaked up all Walton’s offensive acumen.
“Our coaches drilled and drilled John to make the right reads and understand where the primary and secondary receivers were,” said Stewart. “The defenses weren’t that sophisticated. Johnnie had all the tools he just didn’t have the fine points until he got to the pros. You could see how he developed [in professional football] after he refined his game.
“When I saw him play in the USFL [against Federals in Washington, D.C.], I said, ‘That’s the guy I remember from college.
“Johnnie’s a real country boy. I always went down there [to Elizabeth City] in the offseason to pick his brain. He was very helpful showing me what they did [offensively] with the Rams and Eagles’ passing game. I was able to use the three and five step drops and avoid the blitzes. It was beautiful. It worked perfect for us because we had a smaller line.
“I think the reason John made it was he loved to play that much. I don’t think it mattered that he was out of the NFL. His knowledge of the game always grew from his experiences.”
When the USFL got going in the spring of 1983, former Eagles receivers coach Dick Coury was hired by the Boston Breakers as head coach and general manager.
A three-sport athlete at Athens High School in Ohio, Coury, at 5-9, 150 pounds, had dreams of playing for Notre Dame. A week into preseason practice, coach Frank Leahy sent a message through Coury’s roommate, running back Jack Landry.
“Leahy said he was afraid I’d get hurt; it was the nicest thing I’d heard,” said Coury, who graduated with a physical education degree  and went into coaching. Earning his way through the ranks, he first served as head coach of Mater Dei High School [in Santa Ana, Calif., going 85-9-5] where he tutored John Huarte, who went on to win the Heisman trophy at Notre Dame  and a eight-year career in the NFL.
There was no question who he wanted as his starting quarterback.
“Johnnie was the first guy I called. I knew he was the guy we needed to lead the team; I
had no interest in anybody else,” said Coury. “As soon as you watched him work out you could see how talented he was. At the time, you couldn’t find many guys that threw like him. Johnnie was phenomenal with the go route, he could hit a receiver in full stride as good as anyone. Once you met Johnnie, you knew right away he’s the guy you want to build a team around. His attitude, the way he worked in practice and understanding of the offense, were what you wanted in your quarterback. We gave him the option to audible because we trusted him that much.”
It was a special time for Coury who had his sons, Steve and Tim, on the staff. Steve coached the wide receivers and Tim, who handled public relations, was on the field for the games.
Someone who knows quite a bit about quarterback play was Breakers co-owner Randy Vataha. Grabbing 89 passes and 12 touchdowns from Heisman trophy winner, Jim Plunkett, at Stanford over two years, the duo were instrumental in leading the Cardinals (9-3) to a 27-17 Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State. His 10-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter helped seal the win, which denied the Buckeyes (9-1) a national title.
A 17th round pick by the Rams, he was released after preseason. An encouraging word from Plunkett got Vataha a tryout with the New England Patriots. Making an immediate impact, he was fifth in receptions with 51 catches and 17 yard average. [The Raiders Fred Bilentnikoff was the NFL leader with 61. Bilentnikoff and Vataha tied for second with nine touchdowns. Miami’s Paul Warfield led the league with 11]. From 1971-76, Vataha caught 178 passes, he also led the team with 46 receptions in ‘75.
Oddly enough, in the 1971 Hall of Fame game, Walton threw two touchdowns passes against the Houston Oilers. The first one was to Vataha on a post pattern.
“When Dick [Coury] told me who they were bringing in at quarterback, I liked the idea of a guy who spent time at the pro level,” said Vataha, who is president of Game Plan LLC in Boston, Ma. “Being away from the game that long, you wonder if his instincts and reaction time were up to speed.
“Once I saw him throw the ball and how he reacted in the offense, it quickly dispelled any concerns I had. The adjustments Walton made were immediate. You have to give Dick a lot of credit for taking the steps to get him here. We were very fortunate to have Johnnie, he was a great leader.
“We had some great quarterbacks in our league [Jim Kelly, Steve Young], Walton showed he could compete with any of them.
“Could he have that type of success at the NFL level? From my observation, I think Walton had all the pieces to succeed as a NFL starter. But if I had the answer I’d be making a lot of money as a personnel director. It’s a strange animal at the highest level; you really need the right opportunity.”
Throwing the ball in practice at Elizabeth City State kept Walton’s arm well tuned. He didn’t miss a beat. Passing for 3,772 yards with 20 touchdowns and completing 56 percent Walton was second in the USFL in yards and touchdowns. The Breakers went 11-7 finishing second in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia, who lost in the championship to the Michigan Panthers, 24-22.
A midseason classic at Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston University against the Panthers, the Breakers drove 76-yards to the two-yard line before time expired in a 28-24 loss. Providing plenty of excitement, Walton was 37-of-48 for 423 yards and three touchdowns [a record at the time].
Picked to finish last, the Breakers dropped three games by a total of 14 points, but rallied going 6-2 missing the playoffs by one game. They had the third best offense in the league.
One of the highlights was beating Jim Mora’s Philadelphia Stars 19-17 in Boston snapping their eight-game win streak. Driving the field, they were in position on the 14-yard line. Dropping back, Walton uncoiled a fastball that ricocheted off Charlie Smith’s left hand and into the arms of Frank Lockett for the game-winner. A month earlier at Philadelphia, they lost 23-16 with Walton just missing a potential game-tying pass, also on the final play.
Carl Peterson, tight end and special teams coach with the Eagles [1976-82], general manager of the Philadelphia Stars and general manager for the Kansas City Chiefs [1989-2008], was well versed with Walton and how the USFL opened the field for dozens of players to showcase their talents.
“John had one of the strongest arms and was a person of great character,” said Peterson. “He threw a beautiful tight spiral, the same type of ball Warren Moon threw. He had a stronger arm than Gabriel [at that time] and Boryla. His arm was similar to Jaworski’s, but with a tighter spiral.
“Dick [Coury] wanted veteran guys he was comfortable with and John ended up doing a great job; I was happy for John.
“I remember the loss distinctly [at Boston]; it was very disappointing. We thought we won, but John brought them back and throws a great pass and they win. He was the difference in the last drive.
While fans poured onto the field and the Breakers celebrated in the end zone, “We ran for the locker rooms,” said Peterson.
Guys were taking their pads off and there was a knock on the door. It was the referees insisting the team come back out for the extra point. “I said listen, I am not going to take the team back out I don’t care what the league does,” said Peterson, who was fined $10,000 for his comments. “Jim Mora felt the same way.
“The USFL was a great league that accomplished a great deal. It allowed guys to resurrect or continue careers for a lot of young aspiring players. There were many guys who went onto the NFL to have great and even Hall of Fame careers.”
Moving to New Orleans for their second season, Walton put up 3,500 yards [second most total yards in the league] and 17 touchdowns. He posted 93.3 and 95.4 passer ratings for his two years in the USFL. Walton’s numbers from the WFL, Eagles and USFL were 10,069 yards, 59 touchdowns and 62 interceptions.
“Our offense was similar to the one we had with the Eagles,” said Coury, who was named Coach of the Year in 1983. Now 84, he’s retired and living in San Diego, Ca. “We used a lot of spread formation, pack rolls, drop back and play action. John’s leadership was outstanding. He had a strong arm, was very accurate with the short passing game and read defenses well. We had tremendous faith in him. He dominated the league and was great from day one for two years.
“John played very well with the Eagles, but Jaws [Jaworski] was a hell of a quarterback. He should’ve played in the NFL longer than he did.”
Making it a habit to drive the length of the field when the game was on the line, Walton earned the respect of everyone in the league. Breakers’ offensive coordinator Gabriel was effusive about Walton’s command of the position.
“John was a great leader,” he said. “Our offensive line wasn’t the greatest, but he stood in the pocket like a pro; he had no fear.
“Nobody expected us to be in the playoff hunt. John was amazing, without him we never would have been close. I trusted his judgment as much as mine. We put the game plan in together.”
Raised in the Baptist church and a man of faith, Walton never complained about his musical chairs positions across the country and felt God always had an assignment. “You never know how life takes its course,” said Walton. “It was in the back of my mind to prove I could play at that level. This was the last opportunity, against great competition and I decided to give it a shot. I felt I was at my peak and I had a chance to be a starter.” The Breakers’ offense was an ideal fit.
“We used the run-and-shoot which I was familiar with,” said Walton. “It was passer friendly which was perfect for me. We had Smith and Lockett as receivers and [former Cincinnati Bengal] Dan Ross at tight end. Not everybody gets a chance to do something they love. The only thing you can ask is a chance to prove what you can do.”
Never short on last second heroics during his two-years, Walton came up big against the Chicago Blitz in the Superdome in 1984 before 43,692 fans. Engineering the Blitz was former Bears quarterback Vince Evans, who played eight years with the Oakland Raiders [1987-95 after seven with the Chicago Bears, 1978-83]. Tied at 35 in overtime, wide receiver coach Steve Coury called a pump-and-go route. Dropping back to the 50-yard line, Walton rifled a rope over Lockett’s right shoulder, just inside the 10-yard line for the game-winner, 41-35. He finished 29-of-43 for 440 yards and four touchdowns.
Packing the proper punch, Walton’s easy touch carried weight.
Buford Jordan, who led the team in rushing [1,276 yards] and was third in receiving , knew his instruction was invaluable.
“I caught 12 passes my entire career in college [at McNeese State],” said Jordan. “Johnnie knew where everybody on the offense was supposed to be. He took me aside and threw the ball with me after practice every day, running routes and drills until I was comfortable. If anyone had a question, Johnnie would have the answer. The way he explained each situation made it real easy to understand.
“A lot of times during the games there were really tight spots, on a seam route or swing pass, but Johnnie would put it in where you didn’t lose stride. When he got hurt, everything went down hill. [A knee injury against the Birmingham Stallions knocked Walton out for a couple games]. The Breakers, who were 5-0 at that time, finished the year 8-10.
“He was a very humble person. I patterned myself after him. There were a lot of guys in the NFL who were better than me, but didn’t have it mentally and didn’t want to study the mental side. That was the difference in my career.”
Switching to fullback with the Saints [1986-92], Jordan carved out a nice career paving the way for Rueben Mays, Dalton Hilliard and a few others. A native of Iota, La., he now lives in Kenner, La., and owns Rock Hard Performance Training. In 2011, Jordan was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Rehabbing an injured knee, Coury asked Walton to assist the Breakers as quarterback coach, when the team moved to Portland for their third season.
Walton got back into coaching for one year when the World League of American Football put together the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks . Gabriel was hired as the head coach and brought Walton in as offensive coordinator.
Unlike most of his former teammates, Walton says he’s in great shape and never had a major surgery over the course of his career.
“I’ve been quite fortunate,” he said. “When you walk behind Roman Gabriel [seven knee surgeries and one reconstruction], you hear a constant clickety-clack.”
Retiring last January after teaching health and physical education at an alternative school, Walton is enjoying the gentle southern pace with his lovely wife, Earline, who was a year behind him in high school. His father, Booker Walton, celebrated his 95th birthday Jan. 28.
Walton served on the Elizabeth City council the last 10 years. He ran for mayor in 2013 the last election and lost by 300 votes [1,600-1,300]. His five children are in Tampa, Atlanta, Charlotte and Baltimore and visit frequently.
“I don’t want to spend time in traffic,” said Walton, who always returned to Elizabeth City in the offseason. “I never liked the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
Family ties have always carried weight. The annual summer family reunion has over 250 relatives, who come in for the festival the third week in July.
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fall afternoons are still reserved for football practice. Following his second hip surgery in six months, Roy Curry, 71, assists at Robeson High School on Chicago’s South Side. A master of his craft, he’s at home detailing and dispensing nuances of the game to impressionable teens.
Known among his peers as an exceptional
Fall afternoons are still reserved for football practice. Following his second hip surgery in six months, Roy Curry, 71, assists at Robeson High School on Chicago’s South Side. A master of his craft, he’s at home detailing and dispensing nuances of the game to impressionable teens.
Known among his peers as an exceptional coach and one of the best college quarterbacks of his day, there’s a chapter in his story that’s left incomplete.
Could Curry have been the National Football League’s first black quarterback?
Today, he lives with his wife of 45 years, Carolyn, in the Calumet Heights neighborhood. An easy gait, unarming smile and amiable southern demeanor radiate warmth to friends and strangers. Well dressed and a solid 195 pounds, Curry looks like he could get behind center or model men’s clothes.
Navigating his way from the wrong side of a dirt road was a testament to a relentless will and mental makeup.
“It was very rough growing up then,” said Curry. “There were a lot of places you couldn’t go unless you were cooking or cleaning or cutting the yard at their home. There was a curfew at 11 p.m. It was difficult to see the way people were treated; you had to act a certain way and you knew your place.”
A loving home, strict work ethic and positive perspective propelled him to succeed. “I had fantastic parents,” he said. “I was always a good kid and stayed involved in sports.”
Just before Curry started kindergarten, the family left Lula, Miss. in the middle of the night, piling their belongings into a truck and moved 21 miles to Clarksdale. His dad, Lawrence, was a sharecropper and mother, River Lee, taught grades first-eighth in a one room school. From age five-fifteen, mid-May through mid-October, Curry working the fields in the area, which included the 4,000 acre Hopson Plantation, Stovall and the 17,000 acre King & Anderson spread.
Arriving on the corner of Fourth St. at 6 a.m., Curry and scores of other African Americans hopped on to one of the 10 trucks that drove out to plantations via highway 61, 49 and unpaved roads surrounding Clarksdale. Stifling humidity and heat often caused people to pass out periodically from a workday that ended at 5 p.m.
Chopping cotton paid 30 cents an hour and began in mid-May when school got out. Picking was four dollars for 100 pounds and began in August and concluded mid-October when school started.
Cotton was the economic engine of the Mississippi Delta and in Clarksdale everything revolved around crop production. “I was smaller and the cotton came up to my chest,” said Curry. “It was hot and it was hard to get any air. When I was 10-15 years old, we didn’t start school until mid-October. My dad had 10 acres he worked on his own, but the landowner was a terrible guy who always kept him in debt. When I started football, we’d work from 6 a.m.-3 p.m. and then hitch a ride to practice. Most guys on the team had the same schedule.”
Serving as the team’s water boy for a few years, Curry’s career began one game into his sophomore season when the starter was injured. Higgins High School coach Isaac Watts came into gym class on Tuesday, fitted Curry with his gear and brought him to practice. The team traveled 19 miles to West Helena, Ark., taking a ferry [a 10 minute trip] across the Mississippi River and ended up winning the game. Higgins, a school with 150 boys and 30-plus kids on the squad won three conference titles and lost two games over three years. Friday nights the entire town mobilized with roughly 2,000 people to view the action. Curry had free-reign of the offense, which put the ball in the air 20-plus times a game against Tupelo, Corinth, Avery, Oxford, Columbus, Starkville and Aberdeen, in the Little Six Conference.
“The games were competitive,” said Curry, who lettered in basketball and track. “You had teams with guys who had served in Korea and then came back and were playing at age 18 and 19. There were a lot of very talented and tough kids; every game was a battle.”
While Clarksdale was lacking in amenities, the music scene was thriving. “We’d have Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Tina Turner, Bobby Bland and a number of great acts play at the high school,” said Curry. “There’d be 500-600 people; there were always great shows.”
The youngest of four sisters and one brother, who all moved to Chicago before him, Curry, at 15, began spending summers working as a bus boy in downtown Chicago and then in Rogers Park, on the North Side. Going from $15 to over $100 dollars a week and taking in what Chicago offered opened up a new world that he was anxious to see.
“That was fantastic,” said Curry. “We’d work from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m. and then I’d catch the El home to my sister’s place.
“The first time I came to Chicago I was 10,” he said. “I stayed with my sister [Earline] on 26th and State St. I went to the 31st Beach, I went to the movies and had buttered popcorn. There was a place to get Polish sausage on 47th St., next to the El tracks. I spent every summer there beginning in 1954. On the weekends I’d go to the Regal Theatre and sit there all day [from 1p.m.-8 p.m.]. There’d be four-five acts and then a movie or stage show. It was a great experience, there was nothing like that in Clarksdale.”
Following his senior year, Jackson State coach John Merritt came to the school and recruited Curry and two tackles, James Carson [who later became the head coach] and Ed Holmes. From 1961-62, Jackson State assembled a team on par with any in the country. They went 9-2 and lost to Florida A&M 14-8 in 1961 for the championship. In a rematch the following season [going 10-1], they beat the Rattlers 22-6 before 47,791 at the 30th Annual Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, Fla., with Curry voted MVP. The victory had national implications on a number of levels. Florida A&M was riding a 21 game winning streak and had a backfield that featured Hewritt Dixon, Robert Paremore and Bob Hayes, who ended up in the National Football League Hall of Fame. Hayes set a world record with a 10.6 in the 100 meters and ran a leg of the 4×1 relay in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo which also earned a gold medal.
When the team returned to Jackson, they were given a police escort down Capital St and stopped at Mayor Allen Thompson’s office. “We brought national recognition to the city and everyone wanted to be apart of it,” said Curry.
How long did the festivities last? “We’re still celebrating,” said Gloster Richardson, who earned Super Bowl rings with the Chiefs (1969) and Dallas Cowboys (1971). “When we get together, guys always talk about beating Florida A&M.”
At 6-0, 195, Curry operated a lethal aerial attack calling the signals as they put up over 30 points a game. With the Tigers throwing 60 percent of the time, Curry had 2,053 of total offense with 15 touchdowns passes. Several members from the squad had careers in the NFL: receivers Willie Richardson (1963-71), Gloster Richardson (1967-74), Thomas Richardson (1969-70), tight end Al Greer (1963), cornerback-return specialist Speedy Duncan (1964-74) and offensive tackle Pappa Hayes (1965-66).
A stifling defense was anchored by ends Verlon Biggs (1965-74) and Coy Bacon (1968-83). Tackle Ben McGee (1964-72), linebacker Roy Hilton (1965-75), tackle Frank Molden (1965, 68, 69) and defensive back Taft Reed (1967). The University of Mississippi and USC both went undefeated and were voted national champions in 1962. It’s hard to figure how Jackson State would stack up against them.
“I think it would’ve been a great game,” said Willie Richardson. “We were really deep on both lines that year and had the speed to match up. Win or lose it would’ve been close.”
Duncan saw it differently. “I don’t think there was a team out there that could’ve beat us,” said Duncan, who was a four-time pro bowler as a corner back and punt-kick returner with San Diego (1964-70 and Washington Redskins (’71-74). “Those three yards and a cloud of dust teams wouldn’t have been able to stay on the field with our offense. What [offensive coordinator] Joe Gilliam Sr. taught was so far ahead of what everyone was doing; other teams couldn’t match up with us. We had the whole package. Other teams didn’t have the type of people we had at the skill positions. “Everyone has their opinion, but that’s something I’ll take to my grave. I would’ve loved to play any of the SEC schools, but it wasn’t meant to happen [at that time].”
Coming in to assist head coach Merritt in 1961, Gilliam Sr. was instrumental in Curry’s development. Installing a series of plays that were a precursor to the west coast offense, opposing defenses found themselves outmatched mentally and physically. “I really enjoyed coaching at Jackson State,” said Gilliam Sr., who passed away in January, 2013 at 89. Moving with Merritt to Tennessee State from 1963-82, Gilliam orchestrated undefeated teams in 1965, ’66, ’70, ’71, ’73 and ’82 and national champions in ’79 and ’81 [he was head coach from 1989-92]. “The kids had a thirst for knowledge and were a joy to work with.”
“We used the option, drop back, play-action and rollout. Our plays looked the same when they started, but ended up having a number of options. Our offense was all over the field. Richardson was as good an athlete as you’ll find and could go up and get it. Speedy Duncan was a great player; we moved him around as a flanker in passing situations. We used him at running back as well.”
“Curry was a great runner and very tough; he was never hurt. We used him with naked bootlegs, power sweeps and a series of rollouts. He was very accurate and knew where to go with the ball. Curry had the leadership qualities you wanted in a quarterback.”
“At that time, the NFL was not ready for a black quarterback, period! He should’ve been given the opportunity to fail or succeed. Coaches wanted a pocket quarterback. If he had gone to Canada he would’ve had a long career.”
Gilliam was quite familiar with pro football’s position regarding black signal callers. A star quarterback from Big Red High School in Steubenville, Ohio, Gilliam started as a freshman at free safety and punt returner while George Taliaferro [the first black to be drafted in the NFL by the Chicago Bears in 1949] powered the offense at running back for Indiana University. It was the Hoosiers only undefeated season [9-0-1] in 1945 and their highest finish at No. 4. Army, behind Heisman trophy winner Doc Blanchard, was the national champion.
Married, with a child on the way, as a college freshman, Gilliam received a monthly stipend from a Steubenville businessman-bookie, who America came to know as Jimmy The Greek.
“Jimmy looked out for me,” he said. “He bought me the first suit I ever owned [before I left for college]. It was a white cashmere suit with a top hat and shoes. He worked at the Rex Cigar Store on Market St. in the back [where they had gambling]; Dean Martin worked there too.”
After a year in the army, Gilliam finished his career as a two-time All-American quarterback-free safety [1948-49] at West Virginia State College in Institute, West Virginia. In 1950, he received a contract to the tune of $7,000 from Green Bay Packers owner Curly Lambeau. Convinced he could lead the troops, Gilliam called Lambeau.
“I said, ‘I’d like a chance to play quarterback,” said Gilliam. “He said, ‘There are no colored quarterbacks in the NFL!’
“I was sure I could play. We threw the ball a lot in college and I said I’d like an opportunity to play quarterback. He said the contract is for free safety and then added, “I’ll tell you again, there are no colored boys playing quarterback in the league.”
“I talked it over with my wife and decided if I can’t play quarterback, I didn’t want to play.”
By the early 1970s, the possibility of a black signal caller in the NFL wasn’t a complete misnomer.
For years, star college quarterbacks were forced to change positions for an opportunity at professional football. The Buffalo Bills’ James Harris broke the barrier becoming the first black quarterback to start a game in 1969. Harris’ greatest success came when he led the Rams to the NFC championship and a MVP in the pro bowl  and into the playoffs in ’75. Joe Gilliam Jr. [1972-75] had a brief run with the Steelers and Doug Williams had a nine-year tenure beginning in 1978 which included a Super Bowl MVP in 1987 with the Washington Redskins. Warren Moon was not drafted out of the University of Washington and played with the Edmonton Eskimos in Canada for five years before embarking on a 17-year career [commencing in 1984] which included nine pro bowls and induction as the only black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
New York Times writer, William Rhoden and researcher, Lloyd Vance, chronicled the definitive book on the subject, Third and a Mile, (2007) which was made into a documentary and shown on ESPN in 2008. Curry, however, was not mentioned. Several notable quarterbacks preceded Harris. A strong case can be made that Curry was the best of the group.
A nine-year career in the NFL, which included pro bowls in 1967 and ’68, with Baltimore Colts’ legend Johnny Unitas [the 1970 season with Bob Griese in Miami], Willie Richardson is aware of what it took to excel.
A quarterback at Coleman High School in Greenville, Miss., he made an easy transition to receiver and became a starter in his second game. A two-time All-American, Richardson caught 171 passes and 36 touchdowns in his career at JSU and was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The first black player selected to the Blue-Gray College All-Star game on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Ala., Richardson quickly proved he was among the best catching two touchdown passes including the game-winner and was voted MVP of the game.
“Roy was better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league,” said Richardson, who was one of six starters who went both ways started at free safety. “He could throw, throw on the run and had a great feel for the game. He was an accurate passer up to 50 yards, who had great touch. When the pocket broke down, he was dangerous as a runner.”
Oakland Raiders Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown was a linebacker at Grambling and clearly remembers their difficulty matching up against Jackson State to whom they lost twice.
“Curry had everything you’d want in a quarterback,” said Brown, who had a 16-year career in the NFL and spent 17 seasons in player development for the Raiders. “He had exceptional athletic skills: a great arm, size, speed and the intelligence to run a team. Coach [Eddie] Robinson told us the key to the game is to contain number 19. They used a number of different options with their offense that kept you off balance.
“We double-teamed Richardson and we still couldn’t stop them; their timing and feel for each other was at another level. I think we had more talent than they did, but they beat us and those two were the main reason. Of all the guys [black quarterbacks in the latter 1950s and early ‘60s] I saw before Harris, Curry was the best.
“Do I think Curry could’ve started in the NFL and performed well? Absolutely!”
Among those who attended the Jackson State home games was former United States Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, Dr. Rod Paige, who played football at JSU [1951-55], was the head coach there from 1964-68 and at Texas Southern [1971-75].
“Roy Curry was the total package,” said Paige. “I’d say he was similar to Steve McNair, but much more mobile and accurate as a passer. I think Gilliam brought an academic approach to the game that not many had seen. There’s no question in my mind that Curry could have been a superstar player in the NFL. Because of his arm strength, speed and intelligence I think he could have revolutionized the position. There really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
“Unfortunately, it’s a matter of timing. Like the great players from the Negro Leagues who were before Jackie Robinson. Curry was ahead of his time, there was a stereotypical view that blacks didn’t have the cerebral dexterity to handle the position.”
James Harris was in high school in Monroe, La., when he saw the aerial show Jackson State put on against Grambling in Ruston. “You could see they were running NFL routes and that Richardson was a pro prosect,” said Harris, a senior personal executive with the Detroit Lions. “The kind of throws Curry made, you knew he was a special talent and student of the game. From what I saw he had everything you needed to play in the league. “You felt bad that you couldn’t find out how good he could be, but Curry was one of many. There was a guy from my hometown, [Grambling quarterback] Mike Howell, who had to play defensive back for the Cleveland Browns [1965-72]. I think there were several guys where were denied an opportunity by the time and the system. I think there was a progression before me and a progression after me. Things really had to be perfect. There was an expression that you needed to have an ooh-wee arm to make it.”
“You had Matthew Reed [of Grambling drafted by the Bills in 1973, played a year in the WFL and three years in Canada], Jim Kearney [Prairie View, who played 12 seasons at safety], David Mays [Texas Southern, made the Cleveland Browns as a free agent and played 1976, 77 and a season with the Bills], Jimmy Jones [1973 USC graduate who played seven years in Canada] that might not have been stars, but could’ve backed up.”
Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney has clear memories of Curry’s tools. Coming out of Gulport, Miss., Barney was recruited by Gilliam and saw the Tigers play twice. “Their offense was way ahead of its time and Curry was a phenomenal player,” said Barney. “Watching him work with Richardson was a thing of beauty. It’s a shame; Curry definitely should’ve been the first black quarterback to play in the NFL.”
Originally recruited as a quarterback, Barney found the Tigers were set with Bennie Crenshaw. The new offensive coordinator, Bob Hill, who came from Hattiesburg, brought in Bobby Thompson, who started as Barney moved to defensive back and return specialist.
Before heading to training camp with the Lions in 1966, he stopped in Chicago and worked out with Gloster Richardson and Curry for four days.
“Curry had a great football mind and love for the game,” said Barney. “He told me what I was doing right and gave me some pointers on my footwork and other technical tips which were helpful. I covered Gloster and Curry quarterbacked. Whatever throw needed to be made he could do it: the deep post, the out, touch when it was required.”
According to Duncan, Gilliam’s teaching coupled with Curry’s ability to absorb and implement the offense made it run with precision and efficiency. “Roy was really a born leader,” said Duncan. “He was a diligent student of the sport and knew how to approach each game as a student and a teacher. He was able to read any defense, was very organized and knew how to treat people. Roy had a superb arm and was able to deliver it on the money wherever you were on the field. He was the total package. Gilliam and Curry were innovative and way ahead of their time. After the 1962 season, a scout from the Canadian Football Leauge told Curry, ‘You should come to Canada, you can play your natural position. You’ll never play quarterback in the NFL.’ I wish I would’ve listened to him; I would’ve been there a long time,” he said.
Drafted in the 12th round by the Steelers, Curry’s 4.4-40 speed was a contributing factor in making the squad. Coach Buddy Parker told Curry they wanted to use him as a runner and thrower, but he had difficulty picking up the blocking schemes. Next, he was moved to defensive back.
A comment by Pittsburgh Courier editor Bill Nunn [and Steelers scout from 1969-87] that Curry was being played out of position seemed to help. Toward the end of training camp, they put Curry, a long-strider, at wide receiver where he began to develop. Pro Bowl linebacker Andy Russell, who played on the Steelers 1974 and ’75 Super Bowls, was a rookie in 1963.
“Roy was a gifted athlete who was very fast and could catch anything,” said Russell. “I had no idea he was a quarterback in college. It wasn’t easy [then]. There were very few blacks [Brady Keyes, John Baker, Bob Ferguson, Joe Womack and John Henry Johnson] and Parker hated rookies.” Starting at quarterback was Ed Brown with USC rookie Bill Nelsen his backup.
“Brown had a big arm, he could throw the ball through a wall,” said Curry. “I thought I had a better arm than Nelsen.”
Initially they put Curry at halfback with the idea of utilizing his arm as an option threat. By mid-season, Curry found a comfort zone on special teams and receiver. Playing in six games, he made an impression when the Steelers hosted the Chicago Bears at Forbes Field, three days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Coming into the game, Curry was matched up against All-Pro safety Rosey Taylor, who led the NFL with nine interceptions that year. Beating Taylor on a corner route, Curry caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ed Brown tying the game at 14 with 31 seconds left in the half. The highlight many became familiar with and made famous by NFL films was Bears’ Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka who caught a pass from Bill Wade, ran through the Steelers defense breaking five tackles before being caught from behind and then rolling over and lying on his back in exhaustion. The game ended tied at 17.
Against Philadelphia the next week with a sub-32 degree temperature, Curry was summoned from the bench midway through the first quarter. Accelerating for an overthrown pass, he pulled a hamstring. Less than a month later, a 33-17 defeat to the Giants at a freezing Yankee Stadium put New York into the championship. The Bears beat the Giants 14-10 in Wrigley Field for the title.
The following season, with the hamstring still on the mend, he was released at the end of training camp.
In 1965, he tried out with the Bears. Keeping pace in practice, Curry survived a couple of bone-rattling hits by rookie middle linebacker Dick Butkus. A strained hamstring at the end of training camp moved coach George Halas to put him on the taxi squad. Instead, Curry opted to retire, a decision he still regrets.
“Biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “Halas was doing me a favor; I just wasn’t thinking.” A few weeks later, receiver Jim Jones broke his collarbone during warmups and Jim Hill was activated. Curry came back in 1966, but his hamstring wouldn’t hold up and he moved into coaching.
“We had Johnny Morris, Dick Gordon and myself at receiver,” said Jones, who joined Curry as a defensive coordinator in the late 1970s and early 80s at Robeson High School. Jones and his wife Willa own the popular nightclub, 50 Yard Line, on the South Side in the Chatham neighborhood. “You could see Roy had the talent [at receiver] to play in the league. But coming in as a free agent you had to be extraordinary and be in the perfect situation because there were a limited number of spots. I don’t think it was any knock against Curry, there were just some great players ahead of him.”
Through the late 1960s and early 70s, Curry worked out in the summers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field with the Bears’ Jones, Gordon, Andy Livingston, Gloster Richardson [who was with the Chiefs] and a few other pro players. He was the quarterback as the group kept their timing sharp for the ensuing NFL training camps.
An assistant for two years at Dunbar Vocational High School, Curry was head coach at Robeson High School from 1969-2000. A highlight was the 1982 squad that went to the state championship with only 25 players.
“Roy is a beautiful person; that’s why I went over to Robeson to work with him,” said Jones. “He had a great feel for the kids and the community. He was a no-nonsense guy who brought a lot of new ideas onto the field and that’s why we were so successful.”
There is a special bond among the group who played in the black colleges from the 1960s. Held in high regard as a player and person, Curry often socialized with friends in Chicago and Jackson, Miss., [where his wife is from and they have a second home].
One of Curry’s trips was in 1971 when he and his wife, Carolyn, hopped into his new Cadillac Eldorado and drove to Las Vegas. On the way, they stopped in Kansas City for four days and stayed with Gloster Richardson and Otis Taylor, who were enjoying their Super Bowl IV victory over Minnesota. Staying at The Sands Hotel, they went to see Ike and Tuner at the International Hotel. Curry’s sister, Earline, had dated Ike Turner in high school. He told the waiter who he was and asked if they could see Turner. They were quickly escorted backstage and paid a visit.
“My wife has a great personality and she got along with the girls,” he said. “We had a real nice time reminiscing with Ike; he introduced us to everyone. Colonel Parker walked in and when he heard we were from Clarksdale he invited us to see Elvis Presley, who was playing next door. We ended up staying for the second Ike and Tina show. My wife still kids me she missed out on seeing Elvis.”
A record of 240 wins against 73 loses put Curry into the Illinois Coaches Association Hall of Fame. A passionate teacher whose affection for the game was palpable, he left an indelible mark on his players and many coaches he mentored. Over a dozen of his former players are coaching in the Chicago Public League.
Mickey Pruitt was a running back-free safety on the 1980 group that lost to Mt. Carmel in the Chicago Prep Bowl and the miraculous 1982 team that had 14 of the 25 players who went both ways and finished second in state. Pruitt played three seasons with the Bears and two with the Dallas Cowboys including the 1992 Super Bowl.
“In practice we went over play after play so the game was more like a dress rehearsal,” said Pruitt. “We always felt prepared; we knew everything he put together would work well. Coach loved to teach and he was always willing to help a lot of other coaches. Going from what he taught made it easier for me in college [at Colorado] and at the pro level to pick things up.”
Handing over the head coaching reins to Fabray Collins in 2000, Curry remains an invaluable resource. Putting out just over 20 players, who enter high school with minimal football experience, the four-person staff places a premium on players ability to absorb a wealth of information. Carrying a firm voice and guiding hand, Curry relays instruction wherever it’s needed.
“You need to look left to hold the linebackers before you come back [right] and throw the ball,” he said to first-year senior quarterback Lamont Barnes. “The slot receiver needs to be closer to the line. You need to run the skinny post to take the cornerback with you so this spot is open for the running back.”
Preferring to watch from the stands during the game, Curry outlines a number of points offers a brief input at the half and after the game. Every year, a number of students will receive scholarships from smaller colleges. Quarterback Johnny Johnson and wide receiver Brandon Green [2008 graduates] teamed with Charles Brown  for three years and a record of 28-7 [they started for four years on the varsity]. Johnson and Green received scholarships to Minnesota and are in the process of earning masters degrees in education. Brown lettered four years at Northwestern and is working for Chicago Scholars as a launch program manager. Now a financial analyst for Allina Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minn., Johnson lettered four years at defensive back; Green did the same as wide receiver special teamer.
“I was 5-8 and 160 pounds, but ran a 4.48-40,” said Johnson, who started at quarterback for two years. “Coach Curry explained I would have to go back a little further in my drops and roll out to find the hole between the line and I’d have to be faster mentally. Everything was about attention to detail. We were so versatile. We’d run the spread half the time, the pro-style and sometimes in the fourth quarter we’d run the wishbone or the Wing T; other teams just couldn’t defend our passing attack. We adjusted throughout the game. He’d show the receivers how to find the hole in the defense and how to run the right route. We’d drill everything in practice until we had it perfect, so in the game it was second nature. Coach Curry always stressed being accountable and responsible in everything you do. When I got to college I felt ahead of the game because of the background I came in with. The whole staff stayed in touch with me while I was at Minnesota. When we played at Purdue or Illinois, there would be 40 people from Robeson who would come to the games. It’s a genuine family atmosphere that we had and it is a big help for me to get where I am at today.”
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com