Run­ning back Ben Wil­son played key role in Su­per Bowl II

In Su­per Bowl II he led team in rush­ing

Packer Plus - - News - MARTIN HEN­DRICKS SPE­CIAL TO PACKER PLUS

Ben Wil­son only played one sea­son with the Green Bay Pack­ers, but he holds the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the lead­ing rusher in Su­per Bowl II in Mi­ami.

The en­dur­ing mem­ory older Pack­ers fans have of the full­back is on his hands and knees, search­ing in vain for his lost con­tact lens be­hind the Pack­ers bench in the Or­ange Bowl.

“I tell peo­ple I broke Jim Tay­lor’s Su­per Bowl rush­ing record,” Wil­son said tongue-incheek dur­ing a tele­phone in­ter­view from his Arkansas home last week­end. “But what ev­ery­one re­mem­bers me for is look­ing for my con­tact lens. I got ‘fa­mous’ for that. Got more press and at­ten­tion for that than I did play­ing in the game.”

Early in the fi­nal quar­ter, Wil­son was knocked out of bounds along the Pack­ers side­line. The lens fell on the ground as the team physi­cian tried to cen­ter the con­tact lens in his left eye be­hind the team bench. Wil­son had two pairs of con­tacts, but only had one with him.

The near-sighted Wil­son had just been fit­ted with con­tacts in early De­cem­ber, af­ter coach Vince Lom­bardi sug­gested he get his eye­sight checked as he was drop­ping too many passes.

“Never did find it,” said Wil­son, who was re­placed by rookie speed­ster Travis Wil­liams.

De­spite miss­ing most of the fourth quar­ter, Wil­son was the Pack­ers’ work­horse, car­ry­ing the ball 17 times for 62 yards in Green Bay’s 33-14 vic­tory. That eclipsed Tay­lor’s Su­per Bowl mark of 56 yards set a year ear­lier in the Pack­ers’ 35-10 tri­umph over Kansas City in Los An­ge­les.

“It was a pe­cu­liar de­ci­sion by Coach Lom­bardi to start Ben in the Su­per Bowl,” Kramer said. “The coach was play­ing a hunch.

“Ev­ery­one thought Chuck (Mer­cein) would start. He had played pretty well in the post­sea­son in Mil­wau­kee (vic­tory over Rams) and Green Bay (win over Dal­las in Ice Bowl). Chuck had been on the cover of Sports

Il­lus­trated be­fore the Su­per Bowl and had rel­a­tives in for the Su­per Bowl. But Coach Lom­bardi went with Ben, 15 min­utes be­fore kick­off.”

No one more shocked than Wil­son.

“Chuck played re­ally well against Dal­las and was in­stru­men­tal in the last drive that won the game,” he said. “I played just a cou­ple of plays in the Ice Bowl and thought Chuck is the starter for the Su­per Bowl. Ev­ery­one thought so.

“Well, Vince come up to me in warmups and asked me how I felt. I said, ‘Fine.’ Then in the locker room af­ter pregame (warmups), he told me, ‘ I’m start­ing you.’ He didn’t give a rea­son why. All I can say is that I was sur­prised. I just went out there and did my best to help us win the game.

“I never thought he’d re­place a guy who helped win the NFL Cham­pi­onship Game with a guy who was hurt and played spar­ingly in the last five or six games.” Only Lom­bardi. Wil­son’s ca­reer de­tour to Green Bay be­gan with a phone call on a July af­ter­noon from Los An­ge­les Rams head coach Ge­orge Allen.

The for­mer USC stand­out, a key mem­ber of the Tro­jans’ 1962 na­tional cham­pi­onship team, was a fifth-round se­lec­tion of Los An­ge­les in the 1963 NFL Draft. He was a backup and never started a game in a Rams uni­form, but rushed for 394 yards in 1963 and 553 yards in 1964 be­fore tail­ing off to just 189 yards in 1965.

He was in­jured in 1966, but had a no-cut con­tract and was col­lect­ing a pay­check while con­sid­er­ing his post-NFL ca­reer.

“I re­mem­ber it well,” Wil­son said. “It was the day be­fore the Fourth of July. I thought I was done with foot­ball. I was hurt a lot, and it was time to do other things.

“Then I got the call from Coach Allen who said that Vince Lom­bardi had made a deal for me and I was go­ing to Green Bay.” Wil­son could not be­lieve it. “I was a jour­ney­man, a mar­ginal player,” he said. “But Lom­bardi traded for me. Allen told me not to say any­thing to any­one un­til Vince calls you.”

Thirty anx­ious min­utes later, Lom­bardi did.

“Vince said he had made a deal for me and told me when to re­port to Green Bay,” Wil­son said. “He asked me if I was in shape, and I lied and told him, ‘yes.’ ”

“So I trained hard to try to get in shape for two weeks. Well, I had a ter­ri­ble camp. Lom­bardi’s two-a-days about killed me be­cause I was so out of shape. There were many times I thought I was go­ing to pass out.”

Train­ing camp was far dif­fer­ent than with the Rams.

“In LA, it was laid back and we couldn’t wait to get prac­tice over with so we could go play golf,” Wil­son said. “In Green Bay, we were so tired af­ter prac­tice that we didn’t even think of golf. Even on our day off.”

For­mer Pack­ers guard Jerry Kramer laughed out loud when told of Wil­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

“No one could pre­pare you for Coach Lom­bardi’s train­ing camp,” Kramer said. “You can­not push your­self hard enough for what you were about to ex­pe­ri­ence. You were go­ing to suf­fer and just had to make it through.”

Wil­son sur­vived, and the added depth and ex­pe­ri­ence to a young run­ning back group that fea­tured “Mil­lion Dol­lar ba­bies” Donny An­der­son and Jim Grabowski. The moniker re­flected their com­bined con­tract to­tals, an in­vest­ment Lom­bardi made to se­cure the fu­ture of the fran­chise’s ground game af­ter the de­par­ture of fu­ture hall of famers Paul Hor­nung and Jim Tay­lor.

Wil­son was No. 2 on the depth chart be­hind Grabowski, while ver­sa­tile Eli­jah Pitts backed up An­der­son. Lom­bardi added speed to his back­field with the se­lec­tion of Wil­liams (Ari­zona State) in the fourth round of the 1967 draft.

The fu­ture of the Green Bay of­fense looked bright, with quar­ter­back Bart Starr com­ing

off a league-MVP and Su­per Bowl-MVP sea­son, a vet­eran of­fen­sive line in­tact, and Boyd Dowler, Car­roll Dale, and Marv Flem­ing com­pris­ing the re­ceiv­ing corps. Dale played with Wil­son for two sea­sons in Los An­ge­les and was not sur­prised he fit in well with the de­fend­ing cham­pion Pack­ers.

“Both Ben and Chuck were guys off the street, but they worked hard to con­trib­ute,” Dale said Sun­day evening in a phone in­ter­view. “I was team­mates with Ben and it was so gloomy in LA be­cause we weren’t win­ning and guys were just out there play­ing for a job. We had a dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere in Green Bay. We were win­ning and suc­cess breeds suc­cess. We were ex­pected to win and needed Ben to come in and play at a high level. And he did.”

Wil­son took over when Grabowski was in­jured mid­sea­son and ended up with 453 yards on 103 car­ries (4.4-yard avg.) and two touch­downs — sec­ond on the team only to Grabowski’s 466 yards in 120 car­ries. He also caught 14 passes for 88 yards.

But Wil­son had in­jury is­sues of his own, in­jur­ing his knee and foot (arch) in the fi­nal month of the sea­son.

“I was brought in be­cause Vince needed some ex­pe­ri­ence,” Wil­son said. “But when Grabowski got hurt, I started. Then when I got hurt, Chuck was brought in and did the job.”

Green Bay fal­tered at the end of the 1967 reg­u­lar sea­son, drop­ping its fi­nal two games to the Rams in Los An­ge­les and the Steel­ers at Lam­beau Field to tie the Rams for the West­ern Con­fer­ence ti­tle. A play­off in Mil­wau­kee de­cided the win­ner in the NFL’s first reg­u­larly sched­uled play­off game in league his­tory. Wil­liams had a break­out game with 88 yards rush­ing and two touch­downs in Green Bay’s de­ci­sive 28-7 vic­tory.

The op­por­tu­nity for an un­prece­dented third con­sec­u­tive NFL Cham­pi­onship came the fol­low­ing Sun­day at home against Dal­las Cow­boys, in a game etched in NFL lore for its bru­tal weather con­di­tions and dra­matic fin­ish.

“I wasn’t a fac­tor in the Ice Bowl,” Wil­son said. “I was just try­ing to stay warm. “My wife and son flew in from LA for the Rams game in Mil­wau­kee the week be­fore the Ice Bowl. When she woke up the morn­ing of the Dal­las game, she said it was too cold and she couldn’t stay. They left for LA.

“I re­mem­ber do­ing any­thing we could to stay warm. I wore two pairs of socks and wrapped my feet in Saran Wrap. It was just mis­er­able. We just wanted to win the game and get out of there, like Lom­bardi said. Then we had to go to Mi­ami and put the AFL in their place. Vince was driven and we took the field to win. It was a given we would and we did it.”

Wil­son had knee surgery in the off­sea­son, and though he re­habbed it for the en­tire 1968 sea­son in Green Bay with the bless­ing of Lom­bardi the GM and new head coach Phil Bengt­son, he was not able to pass the team phys­i­cal in 1969.

“They said I’d have to have an­other knee surgery, and I said I was done,” Wil­son said. “I ended up hav­ing seven surg­eries be­fore hav­ing both my knees re­placed about eight years ago. I suf­fered for years and wished I’d had done it sooner. The game was tough but I loved it.”

Wil­son, 78, is en­joy­ing re­tire­ment in a small Arkansas town, close to his son and grand­chil­dren.

“I have 19 grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­chil­dren,” he said proudly. “I’m a widow and my wife and I had five chil­dren. I used to play a lot of golf, but I just took up gar­den­ing as a hobby to stay ac­tive. I started with some flow­ers and toma­toes... now I have to trans­plant things I started in­side (Okra, pep­pers, Jalapenos) out­side or I’m go­ing to need a lawn mower in my kitchen.”

With the 50th an­niver­sary of the Ice Bowl and Su­per Bowl II ap­proach­ing, Wil­son is look­ing for­ward to re­con­nect­ing with his for­mer team­mates.

“As we grow older, our num­bers con­tinue to dwin­dle and some guys are not in the best of health, bat­tling Alzheimer’s and other things,” Wil­son said. “I was real close to Wil­lie Wood, who went to USC and played quar­ter­back. It’s hard, be­cause now I call him and some days he knows me. Some­times he doesn’t.

“I was just in Green Bay for a short time, but I loved it. With most NFL teams in the ’60s, play­ers bunked by race. Not in Green Bay, not with Lom­bardi. And the city and fans em­braced the play­ers, al­most adopt­ing them. It was a great place to play foot­ball and a dream come true for me.” Send email to mar­t­in­when­dricks@ya­hoo.com

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Green Bay run­ning back Ben Wil­son scores a touch­down against the Min­nesota Vik­ings on Dec. 4, 1967.

COUR­TESY OF THE GREEN BAY PACK­ERS

Ben Wil­son played only one sea­son with the Green Bay Pack­ers due to knee and foot in­juries, but he was a sur­prise starter in Su­per Bowl II.

Wil­son

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