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My Meeting With Fred Willis


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#1 jbennett

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 08:34 AM

Last Saturday I had what turned out to be a real treat- a long interview with former Boston College, Bengals and Oilers RB Fred Willis at his home in Massachusetts. I had first spoken to Fred earlier in the year when I visited his new pizza restaurant in Worcester MA. Originally I had just planned to drop off some photos and information I'd promised him, but my visit turned out to be a 3 hour conversation with one player who is truly a master story teller.

I have interviewed quite a few baseball and football players for various research projects in the past- and had many good experiences- but I've never heard stories told quite as good as Fred can tell them. Fred is still very proud that he was the first RB to lead a conference or league in receptions for over 30 seasons, which he did in 1973 for a terrible Oilers team.

Our conversation ranged over his entire career, from high school to the pros. Fred was the Oilers player rep during the 1974 strike and he told me he has enough material on that alone for a whole book. Like many players of his era, he is highly critical of Gene Upshaw.

I did not plan for the meeting to go on as long as it did and so unfortunately I was unprepared for it- I wish I had recorded the thing because there was just priceless stuff in it. I did take some notes immediately afterward and I do hope that this can be the nucleus for a future Coffin Corner profile (I called my friend Chick Ludwig, who has done a Where are they now book on the Bengals, and told him Willis should be his first interview if he does another).

Here are a couple of stories I will share with you right now-

Much of what we have discussed had to do with some of the very famous (and infamous coaches) he played for- Sid Gillman, Bill Peterson, Bill Walsh, Jack Bicknell, Bum Phillips- he even met Frank Leahy who came back to BC to give the team a pep talk. Most of all, his stories concerned Paul Brown, whom Willis refers to rather irreverently as "P.B.".

Willis and PB to put it lightly were birds of different feather, leading to a big blow up in 1972 that saw Fred being traded in a deal for Charlie Joiner.

When Willis was a rookie in 1971, he noticed that his teammates began showing up at 8:30 am on Film Day, even though the screening did not begin until 10 am. Fred quickly learned that was because all the veterans players knew to grab the seats in the back of the room first, because if you sat in the front, "PB would kill you, over and over again, for the whole session". As Fred told me, "Brown was a coach that you only fumbled for once." Apparently Brown's prize possession was a state of the art stopwatch, which he would use to time 40 yard dashes to the millisecond, and he would taunt Willis for being slower than the other backs on the team.

After his senior year at Boston College, Fred was selected to go play in several All star games. At one of them (might have been the Senior Bowl or Blue Gray game), Fred was joined on the team at running back with John Riggins. The game was played in Alabama, and the two guys went out for a rollicking night on the town. Riggins became making overtures to a very married young lady who was out in a bar with her husband. As the drinks flowed, Riggins became more aggressive and amorous, which infuriated the husband of course. Finally, Willis was shocked to see the husband pull a large knife out of his pocket and head after Riggins- Willis saw it in time to push the guy and the knife fell to the floor, and then he got Riggins and himself out of the establishment in a hurry.

He still does not think Riggins even was aware of what was happening, but told me that if I ever see him, "tell him he owes me one".

Fred remains in touch with old teammates Ted Thompson and Mike Reinfeldt, now both NFL GMs.

He also mentioned that he had one game with over 40 carries with the Oilers- does anyone have any record of this?

Like I said, I am thinking of writing the whole thing up for Coffin Corner in the near future. If you have any questions about things we might have discussed in this interview please post as it will at least probably jog my memory.

Thanks.

#2 coach tj troup

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 09:54 AM

Last Saturday I had what turned out to be a real treat- a long interview with former Boston College, Bengals and Oilers RB Fred Willis at his home in Massachusetts. I had first spoken to Fred earlier in the year when I visited his new pizza restaurant in Worcester MA. Originally I had just planned to drop off some photos and information I'd promised him, but my visit turned out to be a 3 hour conversation with one player who is truly a master story teller.

I have interviewed quite a few baseball and football players for various research projects in the past- and had many good experiences- but I've never heard stories told quite as good as Fred can tell them. Fred is still very proud that he was the first RB to lead a conference or league in receptions for over 30 seasons, which he did in 1973 for a terrible Oilers team.

Our conversation ranged over his entire career, from high school to the pros. Fred was the Oilers player rep during the 1974 strike and he told me he has enough material on that alone for a whole book. Like many players of his era, he is highly critical of Gene Upshaw.

I did not plan for the meeting to go on as long as it did and so unfortunately I was unprepared for it- I wish I had recorded the thing because there was just priceless stuff in it. I did take some notes immediately afterward and I do hope that this can be the nucleus for a future Coffin Corner profile (I called my friend Chick Ludwig, who has done a Where are they now book on the Bengals, and told him Willis should be his first interview if he does another).

Here are a couple of stories I will share with you right now-

Much of what we have discussed had to do with some of the very famous (and infamous coaches) he played for- Sid Gillman, Bill Peterson, Bill Walsh, Jack Bicknell, Bum Phillips- he even met Frank Leahy who came back to BC to give the team a pep talk. Most of all, his stories concerned Paul Brown, whom Willis refers to rather irreverently as "P.B.".

Willis and PB to put it lightly were birds of different feather, leading to a big blow up in 1972 that saw Fred being traded in a deal for Charlie Joiner.

When Willis was a rookie in 1971, he noticed that his teammates began showing up at 8:30 am on Film Day, even though the screening did not begin until 10 am. Fred quickly learned that was because all the veterans players knew to grab the seats in the back of the room first, because if you sat in the front, "PB would kill you, over and over again, for the whole session". As Fred told me, "Brown was a coach that you only fumbled for once." Apparently Brown's prize possession was a state of the art stopwatch, which he would use to time 40 yard dashes to the millisecond, and he would taunt Willis for being slower than the other backs on the team.

After his senior year at Boston College, Fred was selected to go play in several All star games. At one of them (might have been the Senior Bowl or Blue Gray game), Fred was joined on the team at running back with John Riggins. The game was played in Alabama, and the two guys went out for a rollicking night on the town. Riggins became making overtures to a very married young lady who was out in a bar with her husband. As the drinks flowed, Riggins became more aggressive and amorous, which infuriated the husband of course. Finally, Willis was shocked to see the husband pull a large knife out of his pocket and head after Riggins- Willis saw it in time to push the guy and the knife fell to the floor, and then he got Riggins and himself out of the establishment in a hurry.

He still does not think Riggins even was aware of what was happening, but told me that if I ever see him, "tell him he owes me one".

Fred remains in touch with old teammates Ted Thompson and Mike Reinfeldt, now both NFL GMs.

He also mentioned that he had one game with over 40 carries with the Oilers- does anyone have any record of this?

Like I said, I am thinking of writing the whole thing up for Coffin Corner in the near future. If you have any questions about things we might have discussed in this interview please post as it will at least probably jog my memory.

Thanks.

thanks for the stories. the most carries willis had in a game was 26 vs. his old team the bengals on 11-14-76, and as a rookie on 11-21-71 when he had 26 against the oilers. the most receptions he had was 11 vs. denver on 1014-73. he a few games of over twenty carries, and his only 100 yard rushing game came on 11-12-72 against the eagles.

#3 jbennett

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 10:26 AM

Thanks- I was pretty sure his memory was off by a few carries, but I did not want to interrupt him.

I now am pretty sure I've found the game he was talking about, because he mentioned it as a game against the Steelers, and it was a 13-10 Oilers win in Pittsburgh in 1974 where Willis carried the ball 23 times for only 34 yards. He recalled Jack Lambert being in his face for the entire game.