By Billy Watkins
DEKALB — A steady rain couldn’t keep them away. The line stretched down Bell Street, folks shielding themselves with hooded jackets, umbrellas and cowboy hats.
They came Monday morning to pay their final respects to one of Kemper County’s own. A football coach — but so much more. Billy Brown, 88, was born here, lived here, died here.
Made a difference here.
So it was no surprise that DeKalb Baptist Church was full and then some.
The service didn’t keep folks long. Brown was old school, as a coach and a man. Stick to the basics. Nothing fancy. His longtime friend, Paul Rowe, sang a moving acapella version of the hymn What a Day That Will Be. His pastor for the past 22 years, the Rev. James Ruffin, delivered a reassuring message. And that was it.
Beautiful and poignant.
Trying to explain exactly who Billy Brown was in a few hundred words is challenging.
First of all, it’s personal. When I was 6 years old, Brown coached the first football game I ever saw in person. He and his wife, Frances, (who were married for 65 years) became friends of our family. Later on, as a sports writer, I covered his teams and was always amazed by how hard they played.
Jud Gartman, who faced Brown as a player and a coach at Enterprise-Clarke, told me once: “His teams always love to hit. I mean love it. They’re always hard-nosed and tough.”
Little wonder. We’re talking about a man known for his vise-grip handshake. It affirmed a friendship and seemed to break a few bones at the same time.
Brown played for the legendary Bull Sullivan at East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba. Sports Illustrated once dubbed Sullivan “the toughest coach there ever was.” In 1952, Sullivan took more than 100 players — some of them ex-servicemen — to Camp Rockbrook in Noxubee County for a two-week training camp. Thirty-three made it through. Brown, an 18-year-old, 145-pound running back, was one of them.
After serving in the Army and graduating from Mississippi State, Brown took his first coaching job at Shuqualak High School in 1959. The timing wasn’t great football-wise. Ten senior players graduated the year before, a sizable wallop for a small school. His first team finished 3-6-1. But the next year, his Bulldogs improved to 8-2 in the rugged Big Black Conference, the losses by a combined 13 points. And he coached every sport — boys and girls.
“Coach Brown was only 25 — eight years older than me when he came to Shuqualak, but he seemed really mature for his age,” said J.W. Vernon, a team captain on Brown’s first squad. Vernon attended Monday’s service.
Brown moved to Nanih Wayia for five years where again he coached every team. When he arrived, the school had three sports trophies on display. When he left, it had 67.
His success earned him the job at his alma mater, DeKalb High School, later known as West Kemper. He produced a winner his first season there, the school’s first in five years.
Then came 1970 and public school integration was in full force. Most of Kemper County’s white students transferred to Kemper Academy, a new private school. Brown remained at West Kemper. So did his three children — Bill, Bud and Penny — who were in elementary school.
We talked about his decision some 20 years later. He said several friends turned on him. So did a few relatives. Brown, who didn’t bruise easily, was hurt to his core. In his eyes, friends and family remain loyal, no matter what.
“Let’s just say I didn’t stay after church and talk a whole lot,” Brown said.
Time healed most of the wounds, but Brown said he would make the same decision 100 times out of 100. He was guided by his beliefs and faith, not popular opinion.
He coached at West Kemper another 22 years before retiring in 1991 with a record of 151-126-10, according to the Mississippi High School Historical Society website.
One year earlier, Brown was inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the most fun he ever had was coaching his sons, Bill and Bud, in high school. That was during the late 1970s, just before Mississippi adopted the state playoffs for each classification.
Competing in the Sam Dale Conference, one of the toughest in the state, Brown’s teams from 1975-80 never lost more than three games and won two conference titles.
Bill and Bud had a lot to do with it, but college recruiters weren’t flocking to their home. Too small, too slow was the explanation given.
Sons of Billy Brown love proving people wrong.
Ole Miss coach Ken Cooper was one of the few who believed in Bill, a 5-foot-11, 175 pounds defensive back. He proved it with a scholarship offer. But Cooper was fired after the 1977 season, and successor Steve Sloan never followed up.
Bill decided to walk on at Alabama and try to make Bear Bryant’s team. Walk-ons have it tough at just about any program. The odds are long and lots of times walk-ons are nothing more than blocking dummies with a heartbeat. But at Alabama, where Bryant attracted top talent every year, they faced nearly impossible odds.
“Taking Bill over there (to Tuscaloosa) and leaving him was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do,” Brown told me in 1989. “I knew what he was facing and what he was gonna have to go through.”
By his senior year, Bill was a No. 2 cornerback and intercepted a pass against Ole Miss. In photos of Bryant being carried off the field following the 1982 Liberty Bowl — the last game he ever coached — Bill’s No. 5 Crimson helmet can be seen, raised in triumph.
Bill is now 63 and president of BankFirst in Macon.
Southern Miss took a chance on Bud. He rewarded the Golden Eagles by starting for three seasons at defensive back and earning Associated Press honorable mention All-America honors his senior year.
The Miami Dolphins took a chance on Bud, too, drafting him in the 11th round of the 1984 NFL draft. In the five seasons prior to that, only one player had made a team when drafted after the ninth round. Bud became the second.
His dad’s advice before training camp: “Grit your teeth, back your ears and go wide open.”
Bud played in the Super Bowl his second season, became a starting safety and played five years for Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history.
Now 61, Bud is a retired firefighter.
And let’s not forget about Penny. She’s 58, married and works as an accountant at Mossy Oak in West Point.
Those children rewarded their parents with five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
The seeds to his sons’ success in football were planted early. Friends used to tell the coach “Billy, you’re working them boys too hard. You’re gonna kill ’em.”
In the summer, Bill and Bud worked mornings on on the back of the town’s garbage truck, then spent the afternoons laboring on the family farm.
In the winter, there were always cows to feed. “We’d be in the back of the truck. It would be freezing cold and we would be throwing out those big square bales of hay,” Bud said. “We were probably 9, 10 years old. But we never thought he was killin’ us,. He was just teaching us to work.”
Their dad also taught them how to wrestle, how to outlast the next guy. Whether it was the hay field or the family living room, the three of them would go at it.
“You had to watch Daddy,” Bud said. “He’s from the old school of wrestling — none of that give-up stuff. We’d lock up and it would look like it was going to be a standoff. Most people relax and quit at that point. Relax against Daddy and you’ll wind up on your head.”
Bud’s grandmother panicked when one match ended with daddy sending Bud airborne and face-first into a mud puddle. She ran out to check on him.
That was just after Bud’s fourth season in the NFL.
As I mentioned earlier, this story is personal.
My brother, W.G, played for Brown in the sixth and seventh grades at Shuqualak. He also served as the high school manager those two years.
After our dad died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in January 1961, W.G. reacted with anger. It grew worse as the months passed. Our mother figured there was one person who might be able to reach him — Coach Brown.
“Mama drove me over to their house at Nanih Waiya,” W.G. recalled this past weekend. “Coach took me out to the gym by his house and talked to me. I remember it like it was yesterday. He told me that I could keep being angry and rebellious or I could be anything I wanted to be. He told me what was expected of me now that Daddy was gone. He said, “You’ve got to be a man. You can’t be a kid anymore. Your mama needs you and your little brother needs you to be strong. You have to show everyone that you are not going to let this stop you.’
“God put him there for me at a time I didn’t have that strong male person in my life. Credit to Mama for taking me to him, and credit to Coach for saying the right things. He just always believed in me. He cared.
“He even came to watch me play a game in high school. He was just a bigger-than-life man who took an interest in me. And there is no doubt, he changed my life.”