By Lenny Moon
It’s not too many occasions that one becomes colleagues with a former athlete whose trading cards that were once collected (and traded) by one of the many youngsters that placed this type of gladiator in such high esteem. Such was the case of yours truly and former Jackson State All-American and NFL Pro Bowl wide receiver Willie Louis Richardson. The Greenville, Ms native was a longtime football broadcaster for his beloved JSU Tigers when his life came to end back in 2016 in Jackson. He passed of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 76. Our paths crossed during my several decades of covering the Southwestern Athletic Conference in which JSU is a charter member.
As a collegiate player, Willie starred for the Tigers from 1958-62 enjoying a spectacular career in the Mississippi state capital city. He earned Most Valuable Player awards in three post season all-star games including the then College All-Star game vs the defending NFL Champions that was a signature encounter during those days. No one that I’ve met better described the impact of Willie Richardson’s collegiate prowess better than former Detroit Lions star, fellow JSU alum and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Lem Barney. I had the good fortune of interviewing Barney several times over the years but it was that first encounter during his induction year of 1992 that really resonated with yours truly. That year was a banner one for Lem in that the secondary star was inducted into both the 1st Annual SWAC Hall of Fame staged in New Orleans as well as the PFHOF in Canton. One of the questions that I bounced off of the highly skilled former NFL secondary star was “What led to his determination of selecting JSU over his other options?”. He offered a two word response “Wonderful Willie”. Not Willie Richardson but simply “Wonderful Willie”.
Below is an excerpt of the aforementioned interview with Lem during the era of his TV broadcasting days with Black Entertainment Television (BET) along with veteran Charlie Neal (see video link below)
Lem Barney became the first of four Jackson State players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. Others that followed were Walter Payton in 1993 (Chicago Bears), Jackie Slater in 2001 (L.A./Stl Rams) and Robert Brazille in 2018 (Houston Oilers).
As accomplished an individual as Willie was, he had a distinctive humbleness about him blended with his apparent self confidence and outgoing personality. I had once read that the City of Jackson had honored him with a parade in the downtown district as a result of his earing MVP in the College All-Star Game in 1962. Bear in mind the era referenced in that state’s history represented the same year that president John F. Kennedy’s administration was forced to provide national guard escort for James Meredith to access his classrooms on a daily basis in Oxford, Ms. This of course followed a Supreme Court ruling that a Black had the right to attend a publicly funded university in the state of Mississippi despite the harsh resistance. Before I leave the topic of Mr Meredith, I discovered through dialog with Willie that he personally knew the civil rights icon who was still residing in the Mississippi area. The two were classmates at Jackson State prior to the civil rights activist embarked on his bold trek up Interstate 55. Upon that realization, I instantly requested a meeting with Mr Meredith in which “Wonderful Willie” graciously accommodated. Needless to say, one of the more surreal experiences of my professional career spending a Sunday afternoon with a true American hero. Thanks again Willie.
As a professional, Richardson was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 7th round of the 1963 NFL Draft. He would play seven seasons with the Colts where he earned two Pro Bowl appearances, one season with Miami before wrapping his nine year pro career back with Baltimore in 1971. There was so much more to say about this gentleman that absolutely loved his alma mater. But for the consideration of allotted space, I’ll put a bow on this presentation by stating (in the spirit of Lem Barney) it was certainly my pleasure to have had the privilege and the honor of knowing “Wonderful Willie”.