‘Gentle Ben,’ first black Ole Miss football player to see game time dies at 65

Published 10:10 pm Monday, May 18, 2020

Robert Jerry “Ben” Williams Jr., former Buffalo Bills defensive end and the first African- American player to appear in a game at Mississippi, has died. He was 65.

Ole Miss announced in a release that Williams died Monday from natural causes at a Jackson, Mississippi, hospital. Affectionately known as “Gentle Ben,” he was the Rebels’ first black player to earn All-America honors as a first-team selection in 1975, and was also a three-time first team All-Southeastern Conference selection.

Williams is the Ole Miss career sacks leader with 37, including a single-season record of 18 in 1973, and a member of its Team of the Century.

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Williams was drafted by Buffalo in the third round in 1976 and went on to spend his entire 10-year NFL career with the Bills, with 140 starts in 147 games.

He retired as the Bills’ career sacks leader with 45 1/2 before his record was shattered by Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, who went on to set the NFL career record. Smith often credited Williams for helping his development during his rookie season in 1985.

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Williams earned his nickname because of his friendly off-field personality.

From Yazoo City, Mississippi, Williams and James Reed became the first black football players to enroll at Ole Miss in 1971. Williams played as a true freshman in 1972, while Reed made his debut the following year.

Athletic director Keith Carter recognized Williams’ achievements for breaking the football program’s race barrier and being the first black to be elected by the student body as Colonel Reb, a campus favorite honor now called Mr. Ole Miss. The Williams-Reed Football Foyer at the Olivia and Archie Manning Center honors the players’ contributions.

“Gentle Ben’s impact on our university, the SEC and college football as a whole is immeasurable,” Carter said in the release. “He was a great person, player and ambassador for our university, and will forever be beloved by Rebel Nation.”

Williams eventually returned to Jackson, where he owned a construction company. He served on several Ole Miss boards, and was active in local charities.

In 1992, he helped establish the Robert Ben Williams Minority Scholarship Endowment.

Williams was inducted into the Ole Miss and Mississippi sports halls of fame, and selected an SEC Legend in 2002.

Funeral arrangements are pending.