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Sidney B. Williams, Jr. '61
(1935, Little Rock, Arkansas - ), Football, 1956-58
Sidney B. Williams, Jr., a native of racially-charged Little Rock, Arkansas, played his own small part in defeating Southern segregationist ideology during the 1950s by becoming the first African-American starting quarterback in the modern Big Ten conference. He recovered from a disappointing start to his athletic career at Wisconsin to make history and lead the Badgers for two and a half seasons.
Williams was born and raised in Little Rock, graduating from segregated Dunbar High School in 1954. At Dunbar he excelled in football, basketball, and track, earning all-state honors on both the gridiron and the hardwood. After his stellar high school career, Williams reportedly received scholarship offers from more than 15 colleges. In the end, he chose to attend Wisconsin for its top-rated Engineering program. Ironically, it was the athletic director at Little Rock's Central High School, (a school which would soon be thrust into the national spotlight of school desegregation), who first counseled Williams to apply to Wisconsin. Source: UW Sports Information
Once in Madison, however, his trailblazing career was nearly derailed before it began. Williams suffered through a mediocre season on the freshman football team in 1954, and he was not initially invited to varsity practice in 1955. Determined to get another chance, he arrived in Madison before his sophomore year and convinced the Badger football coaches to give him another try.
He made the roster in 1955 as a substitute but saw no game action. The following season he found a niche as a hard-hitting safety in the defensive backfield. In the days before the wholesale adoption of the two-platoon system, however, Williams saw only limited action because he had trouble finding a suitable offensive position.
Wisconsin stumbled to a 1-5-1 record at the start of the 1956 season, and UW Head Coach Milt Bruhn struggled to find an effective leader for his offense. Disappointed with his choice of quarterbacks, Bruhn installed Williams (who had previously played only 63 minutes) at the helm late in the season. Equipped with only a handful of the Badgers' plays, the new quarterback led unheralded Wisconsin to 13-13 ties against Illinois and heavily-favored 6-1-1 Minnesota in the team's last two games. The rookie signal-caller scored the game-tying touchdowns in each contest.
Having solved Wisconsin's quarterback problems, Williams returned to lead the team for two more seasons. The Badgers rebounded from their poor '56 season to post a combined 13-4-1 record under Williams in '57 and '58. Directing UW's option attack, Williams was equally adept at running or passing the ball. In a victory at Purdue his junior year, Williams romped for a 73-yard touchdown run.
The 6-2, 185-pound athlete helped lead UW to a 7-1-1 mark as a senior (including a season-opening 20-0 victory over Miami played in the Orange Bowl). The Williams-led Badgers lost only to conference and Rose Bowl champion Iowa (20-9). For his career, he completed 50% of his passes for 997 yards and six touchdowns. He also gained more than 300 yards on the ground, and, on defense, intercepted two passes.
Throughout his career, Williams was cognizant of his pioneering role. After his Junior year Ebony magazine ran an illustrated feature on the Badgers' African-American quarterback. For the most part, Williams let his accomplishments speak for themselves, but he did tell the magazine that "naturally, I'm kind of proud. I just hope that it will prove that anybody capable can play quarterback or any other position."
Three days before the Badgers routed Marquette 60-6 on September 28, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had been forced to deploy 1,000 troops to Williams' hometown of Little Rock to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. In the midst of the turmoil, UW's quarterback sent an encouraging letter to the Little Rock Nine, many of whom had attended Dunbar High School (Williams' alma mater), supporting them in their efforts at integration.
After the end of his trailblazing college career, Williams left campus in 1958 for two years of professional football - one year with the NFL and one season in the Canadian Football League. Hampered by injuries during his brief pro career, however, he returned to Madison and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. A strong student, he received the Ivan Williamson Scholastic Award, given annually to the football player exemplifying high standards of academic achievement and sportsmanship.
Upon leaving Wisconsin, he embarked on a highly successful business career. He received a law degree from George Washington University in 1967 and was for many years a highly-respected patent lawyer for the UpJohn company, being appointed Executive Director of Trademarks and Domestic Patents for the company in 1990.
He retired from UpJohn in 1995, but he has remained active in the affairs of his alma mater, serving on the Board of Directors of the University of Wisconsin Foundation, as well as on the College of Engineering's Industrial Advisory Board. In 1994, he received the University of Wisconsin's Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Sidney Williams lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Carolyn, a local judge.
Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin