Skip to main content

Will “Willie” Smith: A Life in Football, Interrupted

He was one of the early players of color in the NFL. Racism and, ultimately, ostracism came with the territory

,

I shuddered when I read that Brian Flores, the head coach of the National Football League’s (NFL) Miami Dolphins, had been fired and that charges of racism followed - in all accounts true. Then, worse, the commentators’ suggestions that he might be “disappeared,” an act of extreme cruelty, a favorite of South American dictators, also the CIA. Another Colin Kaepernick?

I didn’t know Flores but I watched him play in high school in Brooklyn. He was in my daughter’s class and everyone there held him in the highest regard, an outstanding young man with a bright future before him. My daughter kept me up on his career: Boston College, Belichick’s New England Patriots, then the Dolphins.

I shuddered also because I knew how pro football “disappeared” people. My neighbor and good friend Will (Willie) Smith had been disappeared. One day he was an exceptional lineman; in the prime of his career, he had started every game in his two seasons of pro football. The next day it was over; he never heard from the league again.

Will grew up in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas. He finished school before the events at the city’s Central High – when racist mobs made international headlines trying to stop the integration of the school. In response President Eisenhower sent elements of the 101st air born to escort nine children into the school.

Will was raised by his grandparents. He remembers segregation as just the way things were. As a youngster he mowed white people’s lawns, delivered them groceries. He liked school but mostly he liked sports, especially football played on neighborhood streets, but also boxing and track. It was pretty clear early on that he was good, also, by high school years very good, big, strong and bright.

Dunbar High School was all Black; its football teams were legendary. They’d have to travel to find competition – to Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee. Will remembers with pride the long car trips, and their conviction that they should be playing college teams. There was no shortage of colleges recruiting Will. Most were the all-Black southern schools including Grambling and Tennessee State. But times were changing. In the fifties, northern and western universities had begun recruiting southern Black athletes – this need not be exaggerated, it involved just a few. Michigan chose Will, and he signed on. In summer 1955, he went up north by train; at St. Louis the cars to Ann Arbor were “integrated.” Michigan was a Big Ten power house. He was one of only two Black players his senior year. The situation was the same at Ohio State, indeed throughout the North colleges and universities remained virtually all white. Washington, who demolished Wisconsin in the 1959 Rose Bowl, fielded just four Black players, “stacked” at running back.

Black players were nevertheless jeered by fans, humiliated on travels, isolated and second class on campuses. It was only at the end of the 1960s, really, that the dam broke. The University of Southern California (USC Trojans) sent a team with an all-Black backfield to Alabama, coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s turf. Alabama still was “whites only” Alabama, and the Alabama team was all white; George Wallace was Governor. The memory of the children killed in the Birmingham bombing was fresh. Several USC players packed guns just in case; pledges were made to stick together. Never mind, they crushed the Crimson Tide, 42-21. Sam Cunningham, a sophomore, ran for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns.

So, Will was something of a trailblazer; he was recognized as such. Outstanding Black athletes were in their way an elite. He met Joe Louis, the great heavy weight champion, also Sugar Ray Robinson. Visiting New York, he smoked a joint with Miles Davis. His roommate, Jim Pace, also from Dunbar High, was a year ahead of Will. He was named an All American and was recruited by the San Francisco 49ers. There was no question that Will too would be an All-American.

But by then Will was in ‘trouble”. In his sophomore year he met Marj, and they were married the following year. Marj Joslyn came from an all-white high school in Fenton, Michigan. Her father was a tool and die maker for Pontiac, a union activist. Her mother was a nursing assistant. Students were segregated at the University of Michigan, by both race and sex, in dorms fraternities and sororities, as well as in off-campus housing. But this couldn’t be applied in Will’s time there. There were too few Blacks to provide for separate facilities. Estimates suggest that perhaps 1% of students were black – 10 to 50 Black students graduated each year from 1950 to 1961.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Marj and Will met at a party. They stood out from the start. Unlike other interracial couples on campus, they dated openly. Marj remembers, “I didn’t notice being noticed or given the evil eye… I think that’s because Will is loving, warm, outgoing, with no chip on his shoulder.” They talked on the phone, went to mostly all black parities, also to after-hours places in Detroit; they met Yusef Lateef, the famed jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer there at the “West End.”

They were noticed, of course. At the end of their sophomore year, Will returned to Little Rock. Marj stayed in Ann Arbor. That fall, her roommate, also from Fenton, came back with a message from her family: “choose us or Will.” “My father had these liberal principles”, she recalls, “but he had never had to deal with a real Black person or a Jewish person, and they hadn’t even met Will.”

It was later that Marj learned that her mother had received letters from counsellors, her academic advisor and the Dean of Women. The advisor wrote: “She is going through a state of youthful rebellion which must pass away. Her rebellion did not take a very intelligent or constructive course, and it is not going to be easy to redirect it, but this is what we all must try to do.” Against this advice, eventually the family would accept Will.

The coaches too noticed their relationship. It wasn’t difficult. Neither Marj nor Will were the kind to hide out. More, Marj was smitten; she wanted to be with Will all the time. She wanted to see his games, also to watch practices. In the event, they were married in July 1958. This seems to have mattered little to the coaches. Possibly it made things worse. Will would not start another game. Surely an All American, he was relegated, as far as the world could see, to “second string” – never to be a “starter,” never on the “first team.” In big games, it was another story; he went in for the second series. The coaches said nothing, no explanations were offered.

He did play; senior year he was the best player on the team. He went in whenever needed, guard, tackle, linebacker, special teams. He preferred guard: “The guard had to be strong and fast, he needed to understand the entire play, not just his assignment. There were times when I out ran the running back.” The Bears noticed. Will was the only Michigan player drafted that year. He was the first lineman taken in the draft – by Chicago.

The National Football League remained virtually all white when Will joined the Bears in the summer of 1959 for pre-season training and games. The league had formally banned Black players from 1934 to 1945. Will wasn’t Michigan’s first Black player; Eddie Macon, a running back in 1drafted in 1952, preceded Will by five years. Still, the league discouraged this, maintaining as best it could a color line. Nevertheless, Marion Motley and Bill Willis had broken through in 1946; playing for the Cleveland Browns. They were the first blacks to play in the modern era. Others followed, even as racism came with the territory, often intense and virulent. The men endured the shouting and insults on the field and discrimination off it. Motley responded in kind, “They found out that while they were calling us niggers and alligator bait, I was running for touchdowns and Willis was knocking the shit out of them… so they stopped calling us names and started trying to catch up with us.”

Will was certain he’d make the Bears. Following a pre-season game, Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers coach, had taken him aside to tell him he was first rate. George Hallas, the Chicago coach, (one of the early backers of the ban), seemed to like him, but the league’s choice was still to limit the number of Black players. In that summer Will and Marj and Brad were living in Chicago and Marj was expecting. They had no friends or family there so Will had to explain to the Bears’ coaches that he’d have to be prepared to take Marj to the hospital. The response was, “You can’t leave, if you do don’t come back.” The time came and Will headed for the locker room. There a trainer caught up with him and told him, “You’ve made the team, don’t go.” He went and was released on waivers. No reason given.

Will was picked up by the Denver Broncos for the 1960 season. The owners of the new American Football League were desperate for talent and happy enough to take advantage of the racism of the NFL. Will never once blamed Marj, but he knew she and his kids were always a factor, if unspoken. The coaches made it clear they didn’t like her coming around. Or him having any obligations beyond football. Will spent a season with the Broncos, starting all fourteen games. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders. It was the same story, he started all fourteen gamed but when it came time to renew his contract, Al Davis, the Raiders coach stonewalled him. Will complained that the other guard, a white player from Notre Dame, was making more than him; he demanded that he be treated fairly. Davis was outraged; replied “my way or you’re out of here.” Will stood his ground and that was it. He was certain some team would pick him up. It did not happen. He never heard from pro football again, ever. Disappeared.

Will went on to be a dean of students at Michigan, later at UC San Diego. At Michigan he worked with (not against) the fledging student movement and remains in touch with several of the SDSers he got to know back then. In the seventies he and Marj and Brad moved up here to Mendocino County, “dropping out” you could say. But he worked in the big Fort Bragg redwood mill – on the green chain - to keep food on the table. Then he returned to work as counselor and mediator – helping people work out conflicts. He’s good at it and is well known and popular for it here on the coast. He doesn’t pay much attention to pro football, but was encouraged by the Kaepernick moment and the noisy Legion of Boom up in Seattle. He thinks his career cut short was probably for the best; he’s kept his health and his wits.

It was good to see that Brian Flores was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only team at the time with a Black coach. Still, as an defensive assistant and linebackers’ coach, he is way below what might be expected for a coach with his resume.

Still, I think about Will’s story and wonder about all the young players who sacrifice everything for a chance in the NFL, only to be disappeared.

[Cal Winslow’s latest book is Radical Seattle, the General Strike of 1919 (Monthly Review Press)]