Friday Flashback: Ben Williams

  • By John Antonik
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  • March 08, 2013 11:45 AM
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The problem many Los Angeles Rams fans had with quarterback James Harris, wrote famous LA sports columnist Jim Murray in 1974, was that his hair wasn’t blond and his eyes weren’t blue. He didn’t answer to “Billy, Bobby or Joe” and he didn’t have a little pot belly (a clear jab at rotund Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen).

Murray likened Harris, an African-American, to that of being a member of the Bomb Squad – Murray’s point: black quarterbacks back then were only allowed to make one mistake. Mess up and he was getting moved to wide receiver or defensive back.

In 1969, an Associated Press story titled “The Negro quarterback: black struggle hits pro gridiron” took a sociological look at the lack of black quarterbacks in professional football. According to the article, the two most prevalent stereotypes at the time were that blacks were incapable of leading white men and they didn’t possess the same intellectual capacities as their lighter-skinned counterparts. That same story could have been written in 1869 if they were playing football then – that’s how little perceptions had changed in a hundred years.

Marlin Briscoe became the first black quarterback to see extended action in pro football’s modern era in 1968, establishing a Denver Broncos record with 14 touchdown passes that year. After the season, Briscoe wanted to be paid a decent salary like the rest of the quarterbacks in the league so he held out for more money. Denver’s counter offer was to release him, and when he eventually returned with the Buffalo Bills, he did so as a wide receiver.

By the mid-1970s, there were only two black quarterbacks in the NFL – the aforementioned Harris and Pittsburgh’s Joe Gilliam.

It was still several years before Doug Williams kicked the door down with his unforgettable performance in Super Bowl XLVII, leading the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 rout over blond-haired, blue-eyed John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Williams and Warren Moon paved the way for guys like Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick to do their thing in the NFL. Today, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is considered one of pro football’s brightest young stars.

The vast majority of us don’t give skin color a second thought whenever we root for our starting quarterbacks, but when Ben Williams quarterbacked the West Virginia Mountaineers for a brief time in 1973 and 1974, it was a MAJOR factor. The burdens that he carried on his shoulders whenever he walked out of the locker room and onto the football field are inconceivable today.

It was almost as if he stepped up to the plate already with two strikes on him and without a bat in his hand – that’s what confronted Williams when he finally got his chance to play quarterback for the Mountaineers against fifth-ranked Penn State in State College, Pa., on Oct. 27, 1973.

It was the first time an African-American had ever started a game at quarterback for the West Virginia Mountaineers, and, yes, it was widely reported in the newspapers at the time.

“Back then, in ’72 to ’74 when I was in college, I don’t ever recall seeing or playing against another team that had a black quarterback,” remembered Dwayne Woods, a Mountaineer running back and one of Williams' teammates.

Despite throwing a school record 96-yard touchdown pass to Danny Buggs, Williams was thrown to the wolves, or to the Lions, as it were. He completed only 6-of-22 passes for 166 yards in West Virginia’s 62-14 loss to Penn State – the worst defeat of Bobby Bowden’s coaching career and one of the worst losses in WVU football history.

“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” Garrett Ford recalled. Ford was WVU’s first black assistant coach and later the first black administrator in the athletic department. “Penn State just killed us.”

The following week, Williams remained the starter for West Virginia’s game against Miami because he was the only guy left. Ade Dillon, a Navy transfer who was more Joe Kapp than Joe Namath, had the Mountaineers off to a 3-0 start with upset victories over Maryland and Illinois before he went down with a separated shoulder against Pitt.

Next up was the sore-shouldered Chuck Fiorante, a Western Pennsylvania quarterbacking phenom who was supposed to be THE next Joe Namath (how many of them have there been?), but he stumbled badly in a loss to Richmond. Fiorante completed 13 passes (out of 28) for the game, but five of the 13 went to Richmond Spiders.

Come on down, Ben Williams.

When Williams was under center for the Mountaineers, there were just a handful of college programs with black starting quarterbacks at the time, most notably Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway, Georgia Tech’s Eddie McAshan, Iowa State’s Wayne Stanley and Ohio State’s Cornelius Greene.

“Dunbar High in Washington, D.C.,” says Ford of Greene. “That was a big deal when he took Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. To young black kids that was unbelievable.”

It was also a big deal a couple years later when black quarterbacks Thomas Lott and J.C. Watts were leading Oklahoma to the Orange Bowl every season.

“I recruited the best players at all positions because it was the right thing to do, so therefore, I was recruiting black quarterbacks before anyone else was recruiting them – especially for the option game,” former Sooners coach Barry Switzer told me last spring. “I recruited a running quarterback, a guy who could probably run the ball first, throw it second, and when I got the combination of the two we were usually pretty good.”

From all accounts Ben Williams could do both, possessing a strong arm and outstanding foot speed, which is abundantly clear whenever you pull out the old highlight films and watch him play. Williams could flick darts, usually while rolling out or on the move out of the pocket, and it looked like he could run the option the way Russell Wilson operates it today.

The ‘74 media guide describes Williams possessing “more talent than any quarterback in school history” – a statement that most likely came from Bowden.

Bobby Bowden was raised in the Deep South in the most notorious city in the country for race relations – Birmingham, Ala. – but anyone who knows him says that he doesn’t possess a prejudiced bone in his body. Years later, when Bowden was coaching at Florida State, he turned the Seminole program into one of the best in the country by recruiting many African-American football players.

And Bowden was doing the same thing at West Virginia University in the mid-1970s. Ben Williams came to WVU from Wilmington, Del., where he was a three-sport star at Wilmington High. During his senior year, in 1971, he led his high school teams to state titles in football, basketball and track. Despite standing only 5-feet-11 inches and weighing just 170 pounds, Williams had schools all over the country pursuing him.

“To be honest, we were taken aback when he told us he was going to West Virginia,” recalled Ben’s younger brother John Williams. “He had offers from across the country and West Virginia, for some reason, was really recruiting him hard. We used to see the scouts coming to Wilmington often to watch him play.”

John Williams, also a high school quarterback, had a role model to look up to in his big brother Ben but there was no one for Ben to emulate. He was on his own.

“I looked up to my brother because he was a great quarterback in high school,” John Williams said. “He had all of the tools where I was more of a thinking quarterback.”

After the disappointing loss to Penn State, Williams recovered to lead West Virginia to a big upset victory over 14-point favorite Miami in the Orange Bowl. The sophomore coolly led the Mountaineers on a 95-yard, game-winning march when he completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to Marshall Mills with just 22 seconds left on the clock.

Williams also led West Virginia to victories over Virginia and Syracuse to give the Mountaineers a season-ending 6-5 record, taking some of the heat off of Bowden, who was coming under pressure to win more games.

Based on his season-ending performance and a strong fall training camp, Williams began ’74 as West Virginia’s No. 1 quarterback. That year the Mountaineers were stacked - at least that was what Bowden was telling everyone. While taping a show for Charleston television personality Wade Utay, Bowden made little effort to conceal his enthusiasm by calling his team the best that he had been around in eight years at WVU. He also gushed about his junior quarterback, mentioning that Williams was possibly the best athlete on a squad full of athletes. “Ben has the strongest arm; he is a good runner and he won’t be sacked for losses because he can scramble as good as anyone we’ve ever had,” Bowden said.

Then reality set in.

West Virginia suffered an embarrassing 29-25 loss to Richmond in its home opener and Williams was awful, completing just 2-of-15 passes for 46 yards with an interception. He played the next two games against Kentucky and Tulane – one a win and the other a loss – before Bowden very quietly went back to Fiorante as his starting quarterback for the Indiana game, another West Virginia victory. Soon Williams was alternating with Fiorante, Williams coming into the game to run the option while Fiorante was used primarily as the passer. Williams had worn those disappointing early-season performances like a bad toupee and he eventually lost the confidence of the coaching staff.

Later that season, Bowden went to another black quarterback – Dayton’s Kirk Lewis – and he led the Mountaineers to a big 39-11 victory over Syracuse before he, too, fell out of favor. That’s when Bowden turned to true freshman Dan Kendra to lead the team against Virginia Tech. Kendra engineered a fourth quarter comeback to beat the Hokies and helped save Bowden’s job. At that moment Dan Kendra became West Virginia’s quarterback of the future.

As for Ben Williams, his fate was sealed the same way Briscoe’s and many others were before him - he was moved to another position. Williams played a little defensive back during his senior season in 1975 when West Virginia defeated North Carolina State in the Peach Bowl.

“That’s what happens when you are losing,” explained Woods. “Bowden believed that Ben Williams could play at West Virginia, but back then you got one chance – and ’74 was a losing season and that was his chance.

“That’s the way the fans take it,” Woods added. “When you are not doing well they want changes and the change was when Kendra came along and completed his first pass. That was what everybody cheered for.”

Wayne Gatewood, a freshman offensive lineman in ’74, knew exactly what Williams was going through. There were not many black offensive linemen during that era – most big guys choosing to play defensive line like their idols Deacon Jones, Bubba Smith and Big Daddy Lipscomb did – and Gatewood said he was recruited with the idea that he would become a defensive lineman for the Mountaineers. However, he wanted to stay on the offensive side of the ball.

“My guy was Bob ‘The Boomer’ Brown,” said Gatewood. “That’s why I wore number 76, because of him. He was not only a great offensive tackle, but he was a great student. Ben Williams … I had plenty of respect for him because I knew what he was up against.”

John Williams said his soft-spoken older brother rarely talked about his playing career at West Virginia once it ended.

“He thought he was a failure when he didn’t make the NFL,” John said. “He really thought he was going to make the NFL and he thought he was a failure to the family. He took that personally on his shoulders.”

For many years Ben lived in the area and worked for Martinka Coal Company in Fairmont before he lost his job when the mine closed. Then a few years ago, he moved to Ft. Lauderdale (he was born in Florida before moving to Delaware to attend high school) to live with an aunt. On Valentine’s Day of this year, Williams suffered an aneurysm and died on Feb. 17.

“He never recovered from it,” said his brother. “He went into a coma and he was declared brain dead and we finally took him off of life support.”

Ben Williams was 58.

“Ben finally got his life together and was serving the Lord the last several years,” said John Williams. “As a matter of fact, the day he passed away he had just come from bible study, went home, had a headache, and went to see his neighbor who was a nurse.”

In ensuing years West Virginia has enjoyed a great run of success with African-American quarterbacks, starting with Major Harris in the late 1980s and continuing with Darren Studstill, Rasheed Marshall, Pat White and now Geno Smith. In fact, Smith could be the first quarterback taken in this year’s NFL draft coming up in April. If that happens, he will be the first quarterback in school history to be selected in the first round. This comes 40 years after Ben Williams first opened the door to black quarterbacks at WVU in 1973.

“Somebody had to take it on the chin so that these guys who came after Ben could go there,” said Gatewood.

Back in ’74, when Williams lost his starting job and was later moved to another position, he may have been resigned to his fate, but he never caused any problems.

“We all agreed that he was before his time, but he didn’t do anything to hurt the next guy; these days a lot of athletes hurt the next guy coming along,” explained Woods. “If Ben Williams would have caused a bunch of trouble and been arrested or something like that, that would have pushed a Major Harris back even further.”

Today, any kid who wants to play quarterback has someone they can emulate – no matter whether his hair is blond and his eyes are blue, or his hair is black and his eyes are brown - thanks to guys like Ben Williams.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.