They called him Gentle Ben. But Jim Carmody, who coached history-making, trail-blazing Ben Williams at both Ole Miss and then the Buffalo Bills, would like to expound on that nickname.
“When Ben Williams was on the football field and the game was on, there was not one thing gentle about him,” Carmody said. “He annihilated people. On the field, he had more than a little meanness to him. At Ole Miss, he dominated everybody he faced. And I’ll tell you something else about Ben. He was a helluva guy, too, one of my favorite people I ever coached.”
Robert Jerry “Ben” Williams, the first African American to play football at Ole Miss and one of the greatest defensive players in the school’s history, died Monday. He was 65.
Williams, from Yazoo City, and James Reed, a running back from Meridian, were the first two African Americans recruited to play football at Ole Miss in 1971. Williams, who possessed remarkable quickness and speed to go with his brute strength, was the first to play as a freshman in the 1972 season, just 10 years after James Meredith integrated the university amid a riot. Williams started as a freshman, made All-SEC the next three years, All-American as a senior.
And this will tell you so much about Ben Williams: As a senior, in 1976, he was voted “Colonel Rebel” – equivalent to Mr. Ole Miss – by the student body.
“His teammates loved him, his coaches loved him,” Carmody said. “Obviously, he was really popular on campus, as well. The only people who didn’t love him were the guys who had to play against him.”
Jackson dentist Roger Parkes was a junior football player at Ole Miss when Williams and Reed signed with the Rebels making the university the last in the SEC to break the color line in football.
“Both Ben and James and were good guys as well as players, but Ben was the first to make a big contribution on the field,” Parkes said. “He was just a physically superior dude. One man was not going to block him and sometimes two people couldn’t do it. He threw people around like rag dolls.”
As it turns out, Williams was more than qualified for the moment. Williams commanded respect – not only with his superior playing ability but with his calm off-the field demeanor and personality.
“People talk about his physical skills and how he threw people around,” Carmody said. “But he was a smart player, as well. He worked at it. He knew how to use his hands and forearms. He listened. He wanted to learn. He wanted to be as good as he could be. His effort was always outstanding.”
Carmody, who coached at Ole Miss twice, at Mississippi State twice and at Southern Miss twice (as head coach and defensive coordinator), said Williams and Jerald Baylis, a nose tackle at USM, were the two best college players he ever coached.
Williams made first team All American as a senior in 1976 and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the third round. Carmody joined him with the Bills in 1982 as the team’s defensive line coach. Williams made the Pro Bowl in 1983.
Williams and Carmody, both Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers, had a long-running joke between them.
“Ben always told me he made me the coach I was, and I guess there might have been some truth there,” Carmody said. “Players like Ben will make anyone a better coach. But I’d always remind him he didn’t make All American until I got him at Ole Miss and he didn’t make All-Pro until I went to Buffalo. We had a lot of laughs about that.”
Carmody says that during all the time he spent at Ole Miss – in two different tenures – he only went to one basketball game.
“Did you ever hear about the time Ben wrestled a real bear at halftime of a basketball game?” Carmody said. “That’s why I went to see that basketball game to see Ben wrestle that Bear.
“It was kind of funny really. Ben couldn’t get the bear down and the bear couldn’t put Ben down, either. It was kind of a tie. I talked to Ben afterward and he said, ‘Coach, you can’t believe how bad that bear smelled. It was awful.’ He said he never had anything to worry about, because the bear didn’t have any teeth, not a single tooth in his mouth.”
Carmody said Williams’ popularity with teammates carried over to the NFL and to the Buffalo Bills. Williams retired from the Bills in 1985 as the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 45.5.
“Ben was on the same defensive line with Fred Smerlas and Sherman White, two really great players,” Carmody said. “Jim Haslett, who later coached the Saints, was one of the linebackers.
“A bunch of those guys came to Jackson a few years ago to spend some time with Ben when he was having some health issues,” Carmody said. “We played golf and then had a big steak dinner at Tico’s. It was more or less a testimonial dinner for Ben. Most of those guys came a long way for that. That’s how much respect they had for Ben.”