Making Montrose Proud
If you were to say that Demaryius "Bay Bay" Thomas was the first native of Montrose, Georgia to play major college football and for a team in the National Football League, you would be wrong. That high honor goes to one Willie Hall, who although he lived only a short time in his native home, was the first from his community to play football on Sundays. In fact, Hall played on many Sundays including the most heralded football Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday.
Willie Charles Hall, according to Wikipedia, was born on the 29th day of September 1949 in Montrose, Georgia. Willie's family moved to New Brittain, Connecticut, where he was a multi-sport star at Pulaski High School, including running out the backfield, throwing the javelin and putting the shot in track. Hall, a talented athlete, did not go to a major college but opted instead to attend Arizona Western. His team lost to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M college in the 1969 National Junior College Championship. Hall became a defensive stalwart and caught the eye of John McKay, coach of the University of Southern California Trojans. The Trojans, led in previous years by running back O.J. Simpson, were considered one of the top teams in the country.
Hall, a small (6'3") but solid (214 pounds), stepped right in and led the staunch Trojan defense. His first game was one of his biggest. The Trojans traveled to Alabama to face the Crimson Tide under the direction of Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. It was the first time in the history of Alabama football that a fully integrated team had played in the state. The Californians triumphed by defeating the Alabamians, 42-21. With no let up in the schedule, the Trojans, minus their usual squad of All-Americans, played well on defense, but failed to live up to their reputation as an offensive powerhouse. Hall's team lost to rival UCLA, but ended the 1970 season on a positive note with a drubbing of national rival Notre Dame to finish the season fifteenth in the national polls at 6-4-1. Hall was named the Player of the Game for his outstanding defensive performance of eight unassisted tackles and in hounding Irish quarterback Joe Theismann all day long.
A revenged loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl and three straight losses to Oklahoma, Oregon, and Stanford was too much for the Trojans to overcome. In the second half of the season, the team played well with victories over Notre Dame, California, Washington, and Washington State, along with a season-ending, sister-kissing, oh-no tie with U.C.L.A for its second straight 6-4-1 season and a 20th spot in the polls.
In between his two football seasons, Willie was a member of the U.S.C. track team.
Despite his team's lackluster performance, Hall, in his final collegiate season, had one of this best seasons of his football career. As team co-captain and wearing jersey number 83, Hall was chosen as a first team player on the Pacific 8 All-Conference team at linebacker. He was honored by his teammates as the team's most valuable player in addition to his winning the Gloomy Gus Henderson Trophy for most minutes played. Willie Hall's penultimate honor came when he was selected as linebacker on several NCAA Division I All-American teams.
The post season honors continued to pile up for Hall. He was selected to represent the West team in the 1971 East-West Shrine game, the North in the 1972 Senior Bowl game, and the College All-Stars in the once perennial summer preseason game against the NFL's defending World Champions, in this case, the Dallas Cowboys. Because of injuries and circumstances beyond Willie's control, he did not make the last two games.
Hall was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 1972 NFL Draft. The young linebacker's career got off to an inauspicious start. His injury before the All-Star game kept Willie from playing a full schedule of games in his rookie season. But like all good players, Willie Hall shook it off and got right back in the game in his second season with the Saints. He told a reporter for the Times-Picayune, "I suppose I had a bad year last season, if you call getting hurt and not getting to play a bad season." Hall added, "I wasn't expecting a lot of things I found in pro football. I had to rearrange my thinking. The Saints improved in Willie's second season, but only to a five-win, nine-loss mark.
Following the 1973 season, Willie was let go by the Saints and became a free-agent. The Oakland Raiders picked him up just before the opening of the 1975 season. Finally, Willie was back on a winning team. The Raiders went 11-3, captured the AFC West championship, but lost in the AFC Championship against their new rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hall saw limited playing time in seven games in his first year with the Raiders.
During the 1976 season, Willie played in all the games for the Raiders, intercepting two passes. The Raiders went 16-1 during the regular season and in the playoffs. And, on January 9, 1977, Willie Jones was back at home in front of 110,000 screaming fans in the Rose Bowl in the biggest game of career, Super Bowl XI. Playing along side Willie were his former U.S.C. teammates, Clarence Davis, Alonzo Thomas, Mike Rae, and John Vella. Hall, starting at right inside linebacker, had a rough day running all over the field trying to keep Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton contained. In the second half when the Vikings were rallying to bring the score within five points, Hall stepped in front of a floating pass, picked it off, rambled for 16 yards, ending the Purple Gang's comeback hopes. "The other halfback was my man but I saw Tarkenton look to the inside and that's where I went," said Hall. "I don't think he saw me coming. He just threw it, and I was there." In the game, Hall stopped another Vikings drive with a fumble recovery at the Oakland 6-yard line. The Raiders, with seven future NFL Hall of Fame members, defeated the Norsemen, in a 32-14 rout.
The Raiders went 12-4 in 1977, but failed to make it past the AFL Championship. But, on December 11th, in a rematch of the Super Bowl, Willie, wearing his silver and black #39 jersey, picked up a fumble on the bounce at the Minnesota 2-yard line and took the ball into the end zone for the first and only touchdown of his career. He also picked up his third career interception that year.
In his final season in the NFL, the Raiders dropped to an uncharacteristic 9-7 record. Hall, playing only in eleven games, picked up his 5th and final career interception and his third fumble recovery.
I am sad to say, I don't know what happened to Willie Hall after he left the NFL. I have met some of his relatives, but regretfully didn't follow up with them on his status. If there is someone out there, who knows more about Willie Hall, Montrose, Georgia's first NFL player, please let me know. But for now, let us all cheer Montrose's newest NFL star, Demaryius Thomas, and hope that he will play at least a hundred Sundays and come back home to Montrose with one or more big fat gold Super Bowl rings on his hands.