By Stephanie R. Jones
Before Willie L. Richardson Jr. left his imprint on Jackson State University, before he made his mark in the National Football League, the young wide receiver from Coleman High School in Greenville made an impression on other high schools boys in a game against Lanier High School in 1959.
That’s when retired NFL player Noland Smith said he knew he wanted to play football.
Smith said he went to that game to see the band and convince his mother to buy him a trumpet.
After seeing Richardson play, Smith told his mother, “I don’t want you to buy me a trumpet. I want to play football.”
“Willie was a one-man show that day,” Smith said of Richardson, who scored six touchdowns. “He was my biggest inspiration.”
Richardson, an NFL Pro-Bowler and member of the JSU Hall of Fame, SWAC Hall of Fame, Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, sports broadcaster/commentator and avid golfer, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Northwest Jackson. He was 76.
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by others in the sports community and beyond.
Pastor Larry Nicks, producer of Talking Sports Live on 105.9 FM, said of Richardson Tuesday evening on the show with host Rob Jay: “He was our Jackie Robinson.”
Vernon Perry, president of the Mississippi Retired NFL Players Association said, “when you talked about Willie, you talked about Jackson State. He paved the way for those of us who went on to the NFL.”
Perry said Richardson, along with Smith, was instrumental in re-establishing the retired players association in the state.
Jay, who worked with Richardson covering JSU games and later on the radio program, said Richardson knew more about football than anyone he knew.
“He saw things in games that I didn’t. I never met anyone like him,” Jay said.
Jay, who played baseball at JSU, said Richardson would often say to him he didn’t know anything about football. “He would say ‘who in this room went to the Super Bowl?’”
Richardson played in Super Bowl III with the Baltimore Colts and caught five passes during the game. He was drafted by the Colts in 1963. He played with football greats Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.
JSU issued a statement saying Richardson, who played at JSU from 1959 to 1963, was one of the pioneers of Jackson State football.
While at JSU, the statement said, he was an All-American. He is eighth all-time on JSU’s single season pass receptions list with 55 in 1960; and his 1,227 receiving yards in 1960 has him ranked fourth in JSU’s single season records. After JSU, he played nine seasons for the Colts and one with the Miami Dolphins.
In 1967 he was named a first team All-Pro member by the Associated Press and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
In 2003 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as being a member of the JSU Sports Hall of Fame (1978), the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1979), and the SWAC Hall of Fame (1993).
He finished his professional career with 195 receptions for 2,950 yards and 25 touchdowns, according to The Clarion-Ledger.
Jay said Richardson was not only a supporter of JSU but every school in Mississippi. “He wanted every team in Mississippi to win,” noting that Richardson was at the announcement of Fred McNair being named the new head coach at Alcorn State University – a JSU rival – recently.
Jay and Perry also commented on Richardson’s golfing skills.
“He was good at just about everything he did. Everybody wanted to play with him. Whichever group he was playing with would always win,” Jay said.
Said Perry, “He should have been on the Senior PGA Tour.”
Rick Cleveland, head of the Mississippi Sports Hall of fame said the state has lost a treasure not just as an athlete, but as a person.
“Everything that Willie did, whether catching a pass or swinging a golf club or saying hello to a stranger, he did with grace,” Cleveland said. “We have lost a legend and I have lost a friend.”
Richardson is survived by his wife, Earline, and children Sonji Boyce, Willie Richardson III and Shaun E. Terry, all of Memphis.
Westhaven Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. Viewing will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at the funeral home, 3508 Robinson Road, Jackson. The family hour will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Rose E. McCoy Auditorium at Jackson State. Funeral Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at New Hope Baptist Church, 5202 Watkins Drive, Jackson.
Stephanie R. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 454-0372.