Ole Miss football star built bridges as one of the university’s first African American players.
Written by Gene Phelps | Photographs Provided by Ole Miss Athletics
The Ole Miss community lost a true football legend and a race-barrier breaker with the May 18 death of Robert Jerry “Gentle Ben” Williams, 65, from natural causes.
Williams, a standout defensive lineman from Yazoo City, and running back James Reed from Meridian, were the first Black football players to sign scholarships with the program in the early 1970s.
“Gentle Ben’s impact on our university, the SEC and college football as a whole is immeasurable,” said Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter.
“Ben not only helped break the race barrier for our football program but was also the first African American student to be elected by the student body for what is now known as Mr. Ole Miss,” Carter said. “He was a great person, player and ambassador for our university and will forever be beloved by Rebel Nation.”
Williams, who at a hulking 6-foot-3, 250-pounds earned All-America and All-Southeastern Conference honors for his play at Ole Miss (1972-75), was tabbed “Gentle Ben” by his junior high classmates in Yazoo City because of his size and friendly nature. The nickname came from a popular television show “Gentle Ben” which featured a large, mostly passive bear living with his human family.
Williams’ lone brush with a live bear came while he was playing for the Rebels. He wrestled a touring black bear as part of a basketball game’s halftime promotion at Tad Smith Coliseum. The “Gentle Ben vs. Bear” battle ended in a draw.
On the football playing field, the victory nearly always went to Gentle Ben. “There was nothing ‘Gentle’ about him,” one former football staffer said.
Bob Lewis, a retired Associated Press news reporter, now living in Richmond, Virginia, played offensive line — center — for Ole Miss during Williams’ college playing days.
“Ben was more than difficult to block,” Lewis said. “He was impossible to block if he didn’t want to be blocked. He wasn’t just quick, he was remarkably powerful. He used his whole body to uncoil on a blocker like a giant trip hammer.
“He could literally blow full-grown offensive linemen off the turf.”
Williams signed with the Rebels following a standout high school playing career for Yazoo City, one that included All-Big Eight Conference honors and a 1972 Mississippi All-Star Game selection.
At Ole Miss, he recorded 377 career tackles, including a career-high 116 stops his senior season. He remains the program’s career sacks leader with 37, including a single-season record of 18 sacks in 1973.
Following his senior season, he played in the 1976 Senior Bowl All-Star Football Game in Mobile, Alabama. He also participated in the Coaches All-American Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game.
Williams was selected as the 78th overall pick in the third round of the 1976 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. His 10 seasons in the league produced a Pro Bowl selection in 1983. He started in 140 games and retired in 1985 with a franchise-high 45.5 career sacks. He was later named to the Bills’ All-Time Top 50 Team.
Following his pro playing days, he provided leadership in several crucial areas for Ole Miss by serving as a member of the Black Alumni Advisory Council, The University of Mississippi Foundation Board of Directors and M-Club Board of Directors, and as chairman of the Minority Scholarship Endowment fundraising efforts.
Williams was inducted into the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. He received the Distinguished American Award from the Ole Miss Chapter of the National Football Foundation in 1991. He was named an SEC Legend in 2002 and was honored at the SEC Football Championship Game.
Lewis believes Williams’ jersey No. 74 should be retired or designated to a player each season in the same manner as the Chucky Mullins No. 38 courage award.
“Ben was never loud, never showy, but quietly confident in what he could do,” Lewis said. “He was funny. He was naturally gregarious and inclusive — and that smile of his attracted people to him from every corner of campus. He cared about his teammates and was quick to share credit with them.
“… Ben’s (story) is not just one of the important stories in Ole Miss history; it’s one of the most important, under-told and underappreciated in all of college football. His memory needs to burn brightly and conspicuously as long as they’re playing football in Oxford, Mississippi.”