(Photo courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)
Talk of Fame Network
by Ron Borges
It wasn’t easy to be noticed if you were Billy Wilson, which may be why he’s still waiting to be by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Wilson was the best receiver in football for a number of years in the 1950s, but they were years he played for a San Francisco 49ers’ team that boasted of having “The Million Dollar Backfield.” Every member of that group – quarterback Y.A. Tittle and running backs Joe ‘The Jet” Perry, Hugh “The King” McElhenny and John Henry Johnson – is in the Hall of Fame, and not only did they play together in four of Wilson’s 10 NFL seasons; three-quarters of that unit was together for seven of those years.
Is it any wonder, then, that their leading receiver has been forgotten? Well, it always was to no less a student of the passing game than Hall-of-Fame coach Bill Walsh.
“Billy Wilson was the top pass receiver of his time and one of the finest blockers,” Walsh once said of Wilson. “I’ve thought that Billy certainly should have been enshrined years ago.”
Considering not only when he played and who he played with but also how his career began, that is an astounding statement. Wilson was born in Sayre, Okla., but left for California with his family at the age of 3 to flee the Dust Bowl drought. After high school, he entered the Navy during World War II before attending San Jose State and being drafted by the 49ers in 1950, their first season in the NFL after four years in the All-America Football Conference.
Wilson was not only a 22nd round draft choice, he was the SEVENTH receiver the 49ers drafted that year. Of those seven, Wilson was the one who rose the highest, playing 10 years, going to six Pro Bowls and leading the NFL in receiving three times. The “Million Dollar Backfield” came together in 1954 when Johnson joined the others, and for the next seven years it would terrorize NFL defenses.
Quietly, so did Wilson.
He led all receivers with 60 catches in both 1954 and 1956, and his 52 receptions were also tops in the NFL in 1957. When considering those numbers, it should be remembered an NFL schedule then was only 12 games, and the bulk of the offense centered around the running game, especially in San Francisco. Yet Wilson shone brightly in those years, reaching the Pro Bowl six consecutive seasons between 1954-1958.
“He’s one of the few players of another era that would excel today,” said Hall-of-Fame coach Don Shula, who played defensive back against Wilson in the ’50s and grew to respect his ability to leap above cornerbacks and gain significant yardage after the catch.
The proof of Shula’s statement is the longevity of Wilson’s accomplishments. Although retired for 54 years, Billy Wilson remains fifth in 49ers’ history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdown despite having played significantly fewer games than those who came after him and at a time when the passing game was an afterthought — especially if you were in the same huddle with “the Million Dollar Backfield.”
“He’s probably one of the most underrated players in NFL history,” claimed his Hall-of-Fame teammate, offensive tackle Bob St. Clair, at the time of Wilson’s death from bone cancer in 2009.
That was true when he played, and it is certainly true today, a time when Billy Wilson’s accomplishments seem to have been lost in the dustbin of history.