Remembering a Georgia star whose greatness was cut too short

Loran Smith's picture

When we watch SportsCenter, the stars on our high-definition screens, more often than not, are young men in their twenties — in some cases thirties, and in rare cases their forties.

Old for an athlete can often be 35 years of age. Quarterbacks may last beyond 40. Kickers, the graybeards of football, for obvious reasons, last longer. Wizened, crafty pitchers sometimes hang around longer than others. Golfers have the best chance to win after their 40th birthday.

Players lose that step as they age, some sooner than others. Roger Kahn’s masterfully written book, “The Boys of Summer,” was about the young players who were the Dodgers of the early fifties — Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Roy Campanella, and other household names in the borough of Brooklyn. That’s what they were — boys.

College football is a game for boys on their way to becoming men in the National Football League. Boys make mistakes, but passionate fans failed to take that into account. Boys make big plays, but also experience moments when they are the goat. Mistakes are only forgivable if victory surfaces at the end.

This past week stimulated reflections of a boy-man who, in his youth, was a fluid athlete whose play often bordered on brilliance. He came before my time, but I read about him as a kid and have heard his teammates talk about him for years. I did get to see him play one game in the mid-fifties. It was a game against Vanderbilt, the game that essentially ended his career.

In Jimmy Williams’s final days, I saw him not as the sparkling athlete of his youth, but a tired and aged man whose body had endured the ravages of time. But I shall not remember him when he limped from an operation on his back, from which he never fully healed. I shall not recall him struggling to get in and out of a car. Those scenes are replaced by those when he had the speed, quickness, and adroit moves that made him one of the best defensive backs in the country.

Jimmy, who died this week, lettered for the Bulldogs under Wallace Butts in 1952-55. Butts seldom had greater affection for a player than he had for Williams, who had the ability to strike opposing receivers with a recklessness that would warm any coach’s heart.

As a defensive back he could defend the pass, but where established his reputation was when he made punishing tackles that left backs and receivers with bruises that hurt deeply — lasting bruises that made them wary of Jimmy’s presence. In the open field, he was a menace. His tackles, crisp and deadly, rocked like depth charges.

In that Vanderbilt game in 1954, Jimmy suffered a devastating knee injury that took away his greatness. He returned to play, but he was never the same. In those days, the surgical repairing of knees was not what it is today. Jimmy played again, but he was not the back he once was. His teammates believe that had he not injured his knee, he would have made All-America and likely would have flourished in the National Football League.

Jimmy grew up in Athens where he was introduced to sports at the YMCA. He played his high-school games in Sanford Stadium on Friday nights with a passionate goal of having the same experience as a collegian. When it worked out, his gratitude became everlasting.

Williams also played underneath Sanford Stadium. There is a culvert that runs the length of the stadium, carrying the waters of Tanyard Creek to the Oconee River. One of Jimmy’s great pranks was to venture into the far reaches of the culvert, catch small snakes, and release them under the door of the rooms of freshman football players. Then, with covert stealth, steal away incognito while havoc was wreaked in the dorm room he left behind.

It was the same kind of stealth he employed on the football field in tracking down backs and receivers — except he was never incognito. Every opponent kept an eye on Georgia’s No. 33.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]