By Trey Williams
By Trey Williams
Billy Gene Williams became one of Johnson City’s all-time great athletes while quarterbacking Langston High School to championships during segregation in the late 1950s.
Williams began starting at Langston as a 125-pound running back in the seventh grade, and as football official A.G. Dawson noted some 50 years later, it wasn’t because Langston was hurting for talent.
By the time Williams was a 5-foot-9, 165-pounder, the Golden Tigers opened his senior season in the fall of ’57 by defeating Elizabethton-Douglas 134-0.
Dawson said the officials mentioned the possibility of shaving minutes or letting the clock run continuously to Elizabethton coach John Bolden after Douglas got in a 56-0 hole.
“He said, ‘Nah, we might get hot,’” Dawson said.
Langston stayed red-hot in what was the most lopsided victory involving a Tennessee team since Bobby Dodd-led Dobyns-Bennett defeated Norton (Va.) 193-0 in 1926.
Williams “only” scored four touchdowns in the romp, playing one series of the second half before calling it a night.
Future Langston quarterback Johnny Russaw (class of ’64), who was the first African-American football player to receive a scholarship at East Tennessee State, couldn’t wait to watch Williams on Thursday nights in Memorial Stadium.
“Billy Gene Williams had me wide-eyed big-time,” Russaw said. “If mine and Kenny Hamilton’s teams broke any records, I’d say they’d been set by Billy Gene’s.”
Williams was strong-armed and mobile, good enough to start at Dillard University in New Orleans as a true freshman.
“I could throw it,” Williams said last Sunday night. “And I could pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.”
The New Orleans Sports Writers association agreed. The writers voted him player of the week as a freshman. He passed for a touchdown and ran for another and had an 85-yard TD run called back in a 25-8 win against Fisk University. He threw a 37-yard TD pass to Ernest Black in a 14-13 loss to Tuskegee Institute.
“Billy Gene Williams was the best player I’ve ever seen,” Russaw said. “He could do it all. He was my idol. He was the one I patterned myself after. Just the pureness of his game made you want to watch. He was fast and could make you miss.
“Billy Gene could throw it 60 yards easy. He threw it a lot on the move, and you hardly ever saw receivers breaking stride.”
Williams ran for two TDs, threw a 12-yard TD to Jack Patton and made an interception in the end zone in a 25-0 defeat of Bristol-Slater in ’57.
“I’m going to tell you, Billy Gene was about as good of a quarterback as there’s ever been around here,” the late Patton said in 2007. “Steve Spurrier might’ve been a little bit better (passing accurately), but Billy Gene could throw a football on the run. And if he had time to set up, he could throw it.
“Billy Gene played quarterback, he punted and he played safety, too. And let me tell you, he’d run up in there and stop that running play. He’d hit you. Billy Gene Williams could do it all.”
Williams outran the odds. He was five when his father died, not long after busting an eardrum while working at Free Service Tire Store. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was in the fourth grade.
“That’s the reason I flunked the fourth grade – daydreaming about my mother,” Williams said. “Miss Lucy Jones was a life-saver. She treated me and my brother (Columbus, a Langston teammate) just like we were her own. She was a friend of my mother.”
Williams also received invaluable guidance at Langston, where he played for H.W. Williams, Bill Cope and Paul Christman. They wanted players to develop on and off the field.
“I enjoyed playing for all three of ‘em,” Williams said. “I didn’t have no trouble. What they said to do, I did it.”
Williams said Christman, who became the head coach prior to Williams’ junior season, had a 9 p.m. curfew during football season and would drive around town looking for anyone who’d dare to ignore it.
“He was a man of few words,” Williams said, “but he’d get ‘em over.”
Christman inherited outstanding football and basketball teams when he took over at Langston and Williams said the coach didn’t let his ego get in the way of a smooth transition.
“With Christman, our team was made when he came,” Williams said. “All he had to do was put two or three plays in. (laughing) My second year, Williams had put me in at quarterback, and that’s where I played the rest of the way through high school. I started at quarterback in the eighth grade.”
Williams’ college career was interrupted by being drafted into the Army. He served two years with stints in Georgia, Kentucky, Washington and California.
He said Christman suggested he return to college football somewhere such as Tennessee State afterward, but Williams’ heart wasn’t in it.
Williams also played basketball at Langston. He will be recognized as “the last man standing” from 1957-58 Langston championship basketball team when Science Hill hosts Dobyns-Bennett in a “throwback” game on Friday.
The other starters on Coach Paul Christman’s basketball team were Patton, Norman Scott, Columbus Williams and John “Skip” Dickson. Williams said the Tigers went 10 players deep, at least, and played full-court defense.
“We had a better scrimmage team than games with the other teams (we’d play),” Williams said. “He (Christman) would play us one quarter and the other team (backups) one quarter. We had pretty balanced teams. (We defended) all over the court. We’d average 16-18 points a game by stealing the ball.”
Langston won 20 games in row and finished a 26-5 season with an 84-71 loss to Chattanooga Howard.
Seeing the Kingsport-Douglass colors during the retro game last Friday night could have evoked painful memories for Williams. He broke his leg on the second play of a 21-19 win against Douglass as a junior in football.
The victory clinched the Tri-State Athletic Conference East Division title for Langston, but it lost the championship 7-6 to Lynch (Kentucky) the following week. Williams missed the game in a cast after playing nearly the entire Douglass game with a broken leg.
“It happened the second play of the game,” Williams said. “I thought I had a charley horse. I could run, but not as fast.”
Patton caught a TD pass from Williams in the defeat of Douglass.
“When you got tackled against Kingsport, you better get up,” Patton said. “They would have you hollering under that pile, twisting knees and ankles. They broke Billy Gene’s leg like that.
“I remember thinking: ‘What are we going to do?’ He was our leader. But he came back and played some more that game.”
Among the talented teammates Williams mentioned having at Langston were Aaron Long and Lowell Hedspeth. Long was the leading rusher Williams’ junior season.
“Aaron was pretty fast,” Williams said. “He could jump, too. And you’d be surprised of his size. He moved to Washington, D.C. (after high school).”
Williams was just as happy to get teammates involved as he was to pile up his own statistics.
“I always tried to share the ball,” Williams said. “That line would tell me when it was time for me to keep it, and I’d usually end up scoring when they did. Those linemen are smarter than you think.”
Williams rushed for 12 touchdowns in eight games while leading Langston to a Tri-State Conference East Division title as a junior, often playing sparingly in lopsided wins. The Golden Tigers added a Tri-State Conference title his senior year.
Williams fondly recalled football games at Memorial Stadium – the same plot of land where he now frequently shoots pool at the Seniors Center. As a child, back when he’d sneak in an East Tennessee State football game, Williams liked to watch the Golden Tigers band march from Langston to Memorial Stadium before the Thursday night games.
He admired the majestic bowl of Memorial Stadium.
“You know what, that’s the best stadium I ever played in,” Williams said. “When State College used to play over there they had about five or six holes (in the fence) where we could get in. Up under them hedges you had a little trail. (laughing) You could come in right here and stay up and under the hedges and come out about 30 to 40 yards away.”
Williams, who could be hard to find on the field too, had a head for the game. Kansas City quarterback Pat Mahomes has reminded more than one person of Williams.
“He was very deceptive, the way he moved and the way he handled the ball in the backfield,” Russaw said. “He could move an offense. I saw him throw a ball left-handed one time when it looked like they had him.
“He had some good players around him at Langston, but it was Billy Gene Williams that pretty much rewrote the Langston record books.”