Early this week I was contacted by several Sidney alums and also a current longtime Bellefontaine coach to be sure I’d heard that Jesse Williams had passed away. His exploits as an elusive ball carrier remain legendary in Bellefontaine along with the communities who saw him play.
Jesse wore #40, the same number as the great Chicago Bears running back of the 1960’s, Gale Sayers. Like Sayers, Williams seemed to glide rather than run.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play. Late in the 1965 season Sidney was in the hunt for its first Miami Valley League football crown since 1937 when it was time to visit league newcomer Bellefontaine, coached by future Michigan mentor Gary Moeller. I was 11 years old and witnessed one of the most exciting games of my life as the home team scored with :30 left to break a tie and win 38-30.
As I exited the old downtown stadium with my dad, he commented on the exciting contest and I agreed before adding, “What scares me is that their best two players are freshmen.” I was speaking of the inseparable duo of Jesse Williams and Gail Clark. Sidney would face them three more times. Clark was a blocking and grinding fullback who was a dominant linebacker on defense.
In 1966 the Chiefs came to Sidney for a 12-0 win, again with MVL title implications. A year later it was back to Logan County where Williams tallied all 14 points in a shutout victory. Then came their senior season of 1968 when Sidney had a potentially great team that had just rolled over three straight non-league opponents before Bellefontaine invaded for a league opener in front of over 6000 fans at Julia Lamb Stadium which didn’t hold that many.
Sidney led 35-8 at the half before the Chiefs got to within 35-28 with midfield area possession as time expired. The Yellow Jackets had finally beaten Williams and Clark, and would go on to 30 straight wins.
Jesse ran for 290 yards and five touchdowns in his final high school game six weeks later as Bellefontaine finished 8-1-1. He was nationally recruited along with Clark and the duo landed together at Michigan State where Williams was derailed by injury and Clark became a star who went on to the NFL.
Jesse took advantage of his Michigan State experience to earn a Master’s Degree in criminal justice. Most of his adult life was spent in the state of Washington. He returned home regularly, especially to see his mother who still resides there. One visit came on Labor Day weekend 2008 when Jesse and Gail teamed up once more to represent the Chieftains in the pregame coin toss at Sidney Memorial Stadium on the 40th anniversary of that 1968 classic.
I exchanged notes this week with several Sidney players who had competed against Jesse Williams. All admired him as a nice guy and great player. Lots of us remember him.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross authored a book on the first century of Sidney football, available at the Ross Historical Center in downtown Sidney (once reopened).