Remembering Willie Richardson

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 [1969] and the Dallas Cowboys [1971]. 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.”   [caption id="attachment_74886" align="alignright" width="240"]Willie Richardson Photo Courtesy: Indianapolis Colts[/caption] 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. [caption id="attachment_74885" align="alignleft" width="240"]Willie Richardson Photo Courtesy: Indianapolis Colts[/caption] “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 [1968] 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

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