Roy Curry, Jimmy Orr remember Willie Richardson

The great Willie Richardson.
The great Willie Richardson.
Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

Willie Richardson and Roy Curry were first opponents, then teammates and forever friends. Curry, a Clarksdale native who has lived in Chicago for half a century, loaded up a car Thursday to drive to Jackson to help celebrate the life of Richardson, who died Monday at age 76.

“When the Lord wants you, he’s going to take you,” Curry said by phone Wednesday night. “That’s all there is to it, but I’m here to tell you the Lord took a great man from us this week. Willie Richardson was one of the best ever.”

At Jackson State, when the 1950s were turning into the Swinging Sixties and America was changing fast, Curry threw the passes that Richardson caught and the two led the Tigers to a black college football championship in 1962.

You can make a strong case that the talent level in the SWAC then was like the talent in the SEC today. The Grambling team Jackson State defeated in 1962 included two future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Willie Brown and Buck Buchanan. Jackson State had five future NFL players. The Florida A & M team JSU defeated for the national championship had four men in the backfield who ran the 100-yard dash in 9.5 or better, including Bullet Bob Hays, the world’s fastest human at the time, who ran a 9.1.

Old-time Jackson State fans will tell you Curry had a small cannon hanging off his right shoulder. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was quick and nimble and could throw every pass route a quarterback needs to throw. Richardson, who would go on to NFL stardom, could run every route.

“Willie had great speed for a big guy and he caught anything thrown anywhere near him,” Curry said. “And he could just jump up over people and catch the ball. If I got it near him, he caught it.”

Grambling double- and triple-teamed Richardson, so much so that Curry threw only three passes in his direction all night.

“And guess what,” Curry says. “All three went for touchdowns. On the last one, Willie jumped over three of them and caught it. I am telling you, he was an amazing athlete.”

Before their JSU days, Curry played at Clarksdale Higgins High and Richardson at Greenville Coleman, which were fierce rivals. They played against one another in football, basketball, baseball and track.

Richardson turned down scholarships from all the historically black schools and also Michigan State to play for big John Merritt at Jackson State.

“Merritt told us if we all came to Jackson State, we would win a national championship, and that is what we did,” Curry said.

The National Football League were very selective about the African American players they drafted and hired at the time. Richardson was one of the first of the Jackson State players who flooded the league over the next couple decades. Curry was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers but shifted to running back and then wide receiver, because black men just didn’t play quarterback in the NFL back then. Curry played one season for the Steelers and caught one pass for 31 yards. He later had a short stint with the Chicago Bears, but retired from football and has lived in Chicago since. He and Richardson remained close friends.

Richardson, playing his natural position, went on to a much more successful NFL career, mostly with the Baltimore Colts where he was teammates with the likes of fellow wide receivers Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr. All three were Pro Bowlers on different occasions, catching passes from the great Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall.

Orr, a white Georgia boy with a drawling Southern accent, laughs when he remembers, ”Ol’ Willie was a whole lot faster than me and Raymond.”

At first, Richardson was a back-up to both Orr and Brown. When Orr was injured in 1967, Richardson took his place and zoomed to stardom. In one game, at Philadelphia, Richardson caught 11 passes, and Orr, doing the post-game radio show, asked him, “Willie, are you trying to take my position?”

He did.

“Let me tell you,” Orr said, “Willie Richardson was a damned good receiver and a damned good guy, too.”

Richardson played nine years in the NFL, eight with the Colts during which he caught 188 passes for 2,883 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Orr fondly remembers a game in which Richardson beat Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Herb Adderly on a post pattern for a winning touchdown catch to beat the Colts’ chief nemesis 13-10.

Richardson celebrated by turning and throwing the ball high into the upper deck at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

“Oh yeah,” Orr says. “Willie could throw it a mile, too.”

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