Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rick Cleveland: Remembering the SWAC

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


Anonymous said...

Another teriffic piece. If you don't get chill bumps from this - DOA

Anonymous said...

I will miss him covering JSU football with Rob J. on Saturdays. Thank you sir.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS