OXFORD • Ben Williams, the first African-American varsity football player at Ole Miss, has died, the school said Monday.
Williams, 65, had been hospitalized in Jackson after a stroke.
He and James Reed became the Rebels’ first black players in 1972. Williams was moved to the varsity while Reed played with the freshman team and joined the varsity the next year.
“They took it upon themselves to make sure that any of the new black players that came in felt comfortable. They certainly did that,” said Gary Turner, who along with Pete Robertson became the school’s third and fourth black players in 1973.
Although nicknamed “Gentle Ben,” Williams was known for his tenacity and effort on game days.
He finished his college career with 377 tackles and 37 sacks.
“In a game he turned into something different than that Gentle Ben you heard about. On every play from start to finish he gave 100 percent,” Turner said.
Success on field
A Yazoo City native, he was a three-time All-SEC defensive tackle and was an All-American in 1975. He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the third round the following spring and went on to have a 10-year pro career.
Popular outside of football as well, he was voted “Colonel Rebel” by Ole Miss students – an award now known as Mr. Ole Miss.
The school honored Williams and Reed in 2014 when it named the entrance to the Manning Performance Center in their honor.
“I am so grateful to the university for this honor,” Williams said at a ceremony then. “It is one of the greatest honors of my life and makes me proud to be an Ole Miss Rebel.”
One of Turner’s greatest on-the-field memories came when Williams gave him an assist against Alabama in Jackson in 1974.
Richard Todd ran the Crimson Tide’s wishbone then, and Ole Miss players had seen Todd’s tendency on the option to pitch, sometimes carelessly, just before going down.
“I remember Ben telling me in practice, ‘I’m going to really make a hero out of you.’ He caught Todd by the waist and could have easily tackled him because he didn’t run through Ben Williams. He was so strong in the upper body. Sure enough, Richard Todd pitched the football, and I intercepted it and ran for a 42-yard touchdown,” Turner recalled. “Everybody was cheering, and I was on Cloud 9. He quickly reminded me that he had a hand in that as well.”
Turner received a game ball for the play.
Williams was the 78th overall pick in the 1976 NFL draft and played through 1985, earning a Pro Bowl selevtion in 1983.
He saw action in 147 games for Buffalo, including 140 starts. Williams retired as the franchise leader with 45.5 career sacks. He was later named to the Top 50 All-Time Bills team, the franchise’s silver anniversary team.
Williams was inducted into the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. He received the Distinguished American Award from the Ole Miss Chapter of the National Football Foundation in 1991.
He was named an SEC Legend in 2002.