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Cleveland: On the Life of Willie Richardson

We lost the ineffable Willie Richardson last week, dead at age 76, a football legend surely beloved by all who knew him, no matter their allegiances.

Richardson was a Jackson State man whose playing career takes us back to a different time in Mississippi and America when historically black colleges in the Deep South were brimming with the fastest, quickest and biggest football players in America.

You can argue the Southeastern Conference produces the most professional football talent of any college league these days. I’d agree. You can also argue the Southwestern Athletic Conference produced the most professional football talent of any league a half a century and more ago. Agreed, again.

In fact, I’d take the argument a step further and suggest so much of the SEC talent today are the grandsons and great grandsons of the SWAC stars of yesteryear.

Willie Richardson was one of those SWAC pioneers. Were Willie Richardson reincarnated today, Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and every other college football power around would court him as if he were the exclamation point on the end of the sentence, the guy who could bring championships home.

Out of Coleman High School in Greenville, Willie was a blend of rare speed and size, mixed with big, strong hands he used to snatch footballs out of the air as if they were baseballs. He was smart. He worked hard at his craft. He was, according to all who played with him, a wonderful teammate.

He was a fantastic talent, but he was not that far off the charts for the SWAC at the time. Grambling, Alcorn, Southern, Prairie View, etc. were loaded. The league was filled with remarkable athletes. Former Jackson State athletic director Walter Reed remembers when 10 to 15 Jackson State players a year would sign professional contracts.

In 1975, JSU Tigers Walter Payton and Robert Brazile were two of the first six players chosen in the draft. That’s right: two of the first six. And there were more …

A dozen years before Payton and Brazile, Richardson paved the way. Jackson State didn’t have to beat the SEC recruiting Richardson. The Tigers did have to convince Willie he would prefer nice and warm Jackson, where his folks would watch him, to Michigan State, which was making its mark in the Big Ten Conference by heavily recruiting African-American players from the Deep South.

Big John Merritt successfully swayed Richardson away from Michigan State and Marino Casem at Alcorn State. Merritt did so by convincing Willie that, with him, the Tigers could win a national black college championship, the only national title available to historically black schools at the time.

Richardson led the SWAC in receiving for four years. Roy Curry, from Clarksdale, threw him most of those passes. Old-time JSU fans will tell you Curry threw the prettiest spirals you ever saw, long or short, over-the-middle or to the sidelines.

Together, Curry and Richardson did lead the Tigers to a national black football championship in 1962. It was not easy. To win the SWAC, the Tigers had to whip Grambling, which was led by future Pro Football Hall of Famers Willie Brown and Buck Buchanan. Curry threw Richardson three touchdowns to help the Tigers beat Grambling and qualify for a bowl game against Flordia A & M.

That was a Florida A&M team coached by Hall of Famer Jake Gaither and including Bob Hays, the world’s fastest human, and three other world class sprinters.

JSU defeated Gaither’s team handily for the national title. Richardson, taken in the seventh round by the NFL Baltimore Colts and in the third round by the AFL New York Jets, chose the Colts because they were his favorite team. He became a Pro Bowler and All-Pro catching passes from Johnny Unitas.

Pro football stardom never changed anything about Willie Richardson, as hundreds of funeral goers would have attested. He remained an humble, graceful gentleman, who would use his rhythmic golf swing to beat your brains out — while you nonetheless enjoyed his company.

  • ••

Rick Cleveland is the historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and a syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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Adam Brown
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