“Yazoo is where everything started for me. I was just a young boy walking down West Second Street. That was where I was born. It all began in Yazoo.”
Yazoo legend Robert “Gentle Ben” Williams, who played professional football for the Buffalo Bills for a decade, died Monday at age 65.
Williams first discovered his love for football as a student at St. Francis Catholic School.
“I really enjoyed the competition that came with football,” he said in a 2014 interview with The Yazoo Herald. “Of course, I had an advantage, being a bigger kid.”
St. Francis is also where he picked up the nickname “Gentle Ben.”
“There was a television series at the time with a bear called Gentle Ben,” Williams said. “They just started calling me that from the show.”
Williams made a name for himself as a star football player at Yazoo City High School. He was the captain of the Indians football team in 1971 and served as the captain of the North team in the 1972 Mississippi High School All-Star Game.
Williams went on to make history when he and Jerry Reed became the first African-Americans to sign football scholarships with the University of Mississippi.
He said that at the time he didn’t really ponder the significance of being the first black players on the team.
“I was still young and didn’t understand the circumstances,” Williams said. “All I wanted to do was play football. I was given the opportunity to do that, and I took it.”
Williams said he was amazed by the experience of walking into a football stadium with thousands of cheering fans. He continued to excel at Ole Miss.
Williams still owns the program record for career sacks with 37, including an Ole Miss single-season record of 18 in 1973. Over his career, he amassed 377 tackles, including a career-high 116 as a senior.
Williams a four-year starter for the Rebels and the first African-American Ole Miss football player to earn All-American honors, drawing a first team distinction in 1975. Williams was also a three-time first team All-SEC selection. He was later named a member of Ole Miss' Football Team of the Century.
“It really was the best time of my life,” Williams said.
After Williams earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1976, the Buffalo Bills selected him in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft with the 78th overall pick.
“It was a great time for me with the Bills,” Williams said. “I believe good things happen if you work hard and do your job. Being consistent, that’s what they pay you for. Playing as well as you can on every single play.”
Williams went on to a terrific 10-year career (1976-85) with the Bills, which included a 1983 Pro Bowl selection. Williams saw action in 147 games for Buffalo, including 140 starts. Williams retired as the franchise leader with 45.5 career sacks. He was later named to the Top 50 All-Time Bills team, the franchise's silver anniversary team.
After his football career was over, Williams became a successful business man. He owned LYNCO Construction Company in Jackson.
Williams continued to give back throughout his life and often supported causes helping local youth in his hometown. He was always happy to try to inspire young people to pursue their dreams.
“I want the younger generation to know they need to keep working hard,” Williams said. “Have a place and purpose in life. Hang on to that ambition, and you will do fine.”
Funeral arrangements were still pending at press time.