This will tell you all one needs to know about Ben Williams, the football player.
When Murrah High was preparing to play Williams’ Yazoo City Indians in 1971, legendary coach Jack Carlisle handed out his weekly detailed scouting report of Murrah’s opponent.
“He would write things like, ‘You’ve got to use your hands on this guy,’ or ‘He likes to cut block.’ Anything to help give us an edge,” said former Murrah star Stump Russell.
When it came to Williams, a 245-pound defensive lineman, Carlisle wrote: ‘If you’re lined up against him, buckle your chinstrap and get prepared for a tough night.”
No instructions. Only a warning.
A whole lot of people had nightmarish games opposite “Gentle Ben,” who died Monday at St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson after lingering health issues. He was 65.
Williams made history on the field and off.
He was All-SEC three consecutive seasons and All-America his senior year.
Along with Meridian’s James Reed, he was the first African American to sign a football scholarship with Ole Miss. And in 1975, just 13 years after James Meredith integrated the school, Williams was voted “Colonel Rebel” — basically Mr. Ole Miss — by his fellow students.
“All the other black players kidded him about it,” said Michael Sweet, director of ministries at Gateway Rescue Mission in Jackson and Williams’ Rebel teammate for two seasons. “We’d say, ‘Look at him. Mr. Ole Miss!’ or ‘There he goes, Colonel Reb!’ Ben would just laugh with us. But it really was a big deal.”
Said Williams’ eldest of three children, Rodrick: “It was a huge honor. When your peers vote for you, you know that it’s genuine.”
Williams met his wife of 44 years, Linda, walking to class one day in 1974.
“There was going to be a party that weekend and he wanted to know if I was going,” Linda Williams recalled Tuesday. “I’d never seen him before and I knew nothing about football. I was a freshman, coming from a very small town (Houlka). My grandmother had told me to leave boys alone and focus on my studies.
“But Ben was persistent. And he had the best smile. A lot of girls really liked him. But he chose me. We started dating the second semester, and I still didn’t know anything about football. I’d leave the games after the band played at halftime.
“He finally sat me down and said, ‘I want you to stay for the whole game and be there for me afterward like the other players’ girlfriends are.’ So I did.”
They married in April 1976, just before the NFL draft. Williams was selected in the third round by the Buffalo Bills.
“We married because he figured he was going to get drafted and he didn’t want to leave me,” Linda recalled. “Buffalo turned out to be a great place to live. And that’s where I learned football — sitting in the stands. The other fans taught me.”
Williams, a member of the Ole Miss Team of the Century and Buffalo’s Top 50 All-Time Bills Team, suffered a series of strokes over the past few years and was battling memory loss.
“A lot of times he couldn’t remember present-day stuff,” Linda said, “but he could tell you everything about his days at Ole Miss and Buffalo.”
In 1992, Williams, a longtime owner of a construction company in Jackson, established a scholarship in his name to help descendants of African American alumni of Ole Miss.
In 2014, Ole Miss honored Williams and Reed by naming the entrance to the athletics center the Williams-Reed Football Foyer.
He was able to return to Buffalo in 2019 for a Legends Weekend, where he saw many of his former teammates. He reminisced about a career in which he had 47.5 sacks — a Bills record until NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith broke it.
“That trip meant so much to him,” Linda said.
And in recent years, Williams attended several Ole Miss home games, along with Sweet and another former teammate, Lawrence Johnson of Jackson.
“A couple of years ago, they came by our tent in The Grove,” said Tim Ellis, a former teammate who will forever be known as the Rebel quarterback who beat Notre Dame in 1977. “We all sat around and talked about our time together. We had some folks there from out of town and it didn’t take long for Ben to become their friend.
“If you had a football team or a business, you wanted that guy on your side. Ben always had such a great attitude toward life.”
I have my own Ben Williams story.
The week of Super Bowl XX in New Orleans (Chicago Bears vs. the New England Patriots), I was among several sports writers who were invited to a party hosted by Walter Payton.
Williams was there, and he became enamored with my nickel-sized press pin, which served as a credential to attend press conferences and enter the media room.
“Man, you need to give me that pin. It’s cool looking,” he said.
“Ben, I can’t. I need it so I can do my interviews for my stories,” I told him.
He returned a few minutes later. “Man, you need to give me that pin … “
About the fifth try, he walked over and started gently removing it from my coat lapel. “Come on, man. You can get another one,” he said.
“Ben, I hope you enjoy wearing it,” I told him. He looked at me and smiled.
After explaining the situation to one of the media executives early the next morning, I earned a laugh and another media pin.
It seems everyone who crossed paths with him has a Ben Willams story.
“People talk about him bringing it on game day,” Ellis recalled. “He brought it in practice, too. I was a freshman when he was a junior, so I spent a lot of days running scout team against the first defense. Back then, quarterbacks didn’t wear a yellow jersey that meant they couldn’t get hit. Ben and Gary Turner hit me and wrapped me up one day. I had to untangle myself from a seven-man blocking sled.”
Russell lined up at linebacker behind Williams, one of his suite mates.
“He was already unbelievably strong and quick, but he just got better and better every week, every season,” Russell said. “Plus, he had Jim Carmody coaching him.
“His senior year, when they moved him to noseguard, the center didn’t have a chance. He made my job a lot easier.”
And let’s not forget the first play of the 1975 Egg Bowl.
In the days leading up to the game, State’s center was quoted in several newspapers that perhaps Williams wasn’t as good as his press clippings.
Williams read every story. Teammates and coaches made sure of it.
“I was standing on the sideline and a teammate said to me before the first play, ‘Watch what Ben is about to do to this guy.’ ”
Jim McIngvale captured it all with one photograph from the sideline. It showed State’s center flying backward, his legs completely off the ground. It showed quarterback Bruce Threadgill trying to retrieve the ball, which was on the ground. And it showed Williams’ right forearm above his helmet.
“Ben’s forearm was legendary,” Ellis said. “It was brutal.”
I contacted McIngvale about the photo’s whereabouts. He hopes to find it among some old negatives. If he does, we will update the story with the photo included.
“That story makes sense,” Rodrick Williams said, “because my dad always said he took a lot of pride in people jawing at him. He took all those words to heart — then he took it out on the field.”
Sweet and Williams grew closer in recent years. Sweet cut the grass at the Williams’ home in Jackson as Gentle Ben’s health declined.
“I’d just seen him about two weeks ago,” Sweet said. “He looked strong. And I was over there Saturday, working in his yard. That’s what made the news so shocking when I got the call from Linda Monday morning.
“She asked me to let Lawrence Johnson and Gary Turner and (former Jackson State and Houston Oilers star) Vernon Perry know that he’d passed.
“I woke up (Tuesday) and just couldn’t believe it was real.”
Rodrick, a long haul truck driver, remembers his dad as “more firm than strict when I was growing up,” he said. “But when he spoke, you knew to listen.
“The main thing he instilled in me was the value of hard work and to love your family. He loved all of us kids (Rodrick, 41-year-old Aisha and 34-year-old Jerrett) and his three grandchildren.
“He was always my hero. Always.”
Sweet admired the way Williams never gave in to fame.
“Even during his Buffalo days, he never tried to live beyond his means,” Sweet said. “He never built a big mansion, never drove fancy cars. He preferred trucks. And he would sign jerseys, footballs, helmets, whatever fans wanted him to sign.
“He appreciated his life. He told me many times, ‘Michael, it’s been a good run.’ ”
It was Williams who helped set Sweet straight his freshman season.
“I was sort of a hard-headed guy when I got to Ole Miss,” Sweet said. “Ben took me aside one day and said, ‘Just give your best and do what the coaches ask you to do. You have a lot of talent. If you do that, it’ll work out for you.’
“I told him many times how much his words helped me. And he was an upperclassman and one of the best players in the country. He didn’t have to take the time to talk with a freshman.”
A few years ago, Sweet wanted to make sure that Williams had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
“I finally just asked him,” Sweet said. “He smiled and looked at me and said, ‘Michael, how else do you think I’ve made it as far as I have?’ ”