OXFORD, Miss. – Ben Williams, the first African-American to play in a varsity football game for Ole Miss, will have his No. 74 jersey number retired later this season, Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics Keith Carter announced on Thursday.
Williams’ jersey retirement ceremony will take place at the 2022 Battle for the Golden Egg, against Mississippi State, on Nov. 24. He will be just the fourth player in Ole Miss’ storied football history to have his number retired, joining Archie Manning (18), Chucky Mullins (38) and Eli Manning (10).
“It is our honor to recognize Gentle Ben and his immense impact by enshrining his No. 74 among the greats to ever wear the Red and Blue,” Carter said. “Few individuals in the history of our university have opened more doors for others than Ben. In a year that our campus is celebrating 60 years of integration, the athletics department is excited to forever distinguish Ben — the player and the person — for breaking down walls in our football program and helping make Ole Miss what it is today.”
Williams, who was affectionately known as “Gentle Ben”, joined James Reed to become the first African-American student-athletes to sign football scholarships with the Rebels. The Williams-Reed Football Foyer, located in the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center, pays tribute to the contributions of Williams and Reed.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Williams was a four-year letterwinner for the Rebels (1972-75) and earned All-America honors, drawing a first team distinction in 1975. Williams was also a three-time first team All-SEC selection and member of Ole Miss’ Football Team of the Century.
Williams owns the program record for career sacks with 37, including an Ole Miss single-season record of 18 in 1973. Over his career, he amassed 377 tackles, including a career-high 116 as a senior.
Off the field, Williams is one of the most popular players in school history and particularly during his playing days when he was elected by the student body for what is now known as Mr. Ole Miss.
Following his time in Oxford, Williams participated in the 1976 Senior Bowl, as well as the Coaches Association All-America Bowl and the 1975 East-West Game.
After Williams earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1976, the Buffalo Bills selected him in the third round of the 1976 NFL Draft with the 78th overall pick, becoming the first African-American athlete from Ole Miss to be chosen in the NFL Draft.
The Rebel legend went on to a terrific 10-year career (1976-85) with the Bills, which included a 1983 Pro Bowl selection. Williams saw action in 147 games for Buffalo, including 140 starts. Williams retired as the franchise leader with 45.5 career sacks. He was later named to the Top 50 All-Time Bills team, the franchise’s silver anniversary team.
A businessman and owner of LYNCO Construction Company in Jackson, Williams served his family, community and alma mater by giving his loyalty, time and financial support.
At Ole Miss, he provided leadership in several crucial areas 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 chair of the Minority Scholarship Endowment fund-raising efforts.
In his community, he was active in the Easter Seals Society and the Multiple Sclerosis Association. Professionally, he was a member of the Association of Building Contractors and a recipient of the Ralph L. Wilson Leadership Award.
The Robert Ben Williams Minority Scholarship Endowment, which supports scholarships awarded for academic excellence, was established in 1992 to provide assistance for young Mississippians or lineal descendants of University of Mississippi alumni. Formerly known as the Minority Alumni Scholarship, this was the first fund to be established by the university’s African-American alumni.
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.
Prior to his Rebel career, Williams was a two-year letterwinner and was the 1971 team captain at Yazoo City High School. He also captained the North team in the 1972 Mississippi High School All-Star game.
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