GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A couple football seasons ago, John Williams was driving from his native Cross City to a University of Florida football game when he pulled over to a road side stand to buy some boiled peanuts.
Williams and the vender struck up a conversation that invariably turned to football.
“I love the Gators,” the man said. “Been a Gator fan forever. Since way back in the ‘60s.”
“Really?” Williams returned. “Well, you know what? I used to a be kicker for the Gators.”
The look he got was incredulous.
As was the response.
“C’mon, man! Florida never had no black place kicker.”
That’s the usual response, according to Williams. In fact, that was pretty much the reaction of the UF Association of Black Alumni when in making preparations for its 50 Years of Black Alumni celebration the Oct. 12-14 weekend and its salute to social trailblazers Willie Jackson (first African-American to play football at Florida, along with Leonard George) and Don Gaffney (first African-American quarterback for the Gators), Williams happened to mention he was the first black place kicker in Florida history.
“And I always tell them, yes, it’s true,” Williams, now 59, said Thursday. "That was me."
Williams was UF’s place kicker in both the 1972 and ’73 seasons, hitting eight of 19 field goals during those two seasons -- including a 53-yarder vs. Ole Miss in ’73 that stood as the school record for three years -- and 14 of 16 extra points as a sophomore, the only year he kicked PATs, holding the job until All-Southeastern Conference standout David Posey showed up on campus.
His place in Gators lore, however, should not be so anonymous.
Forty years ago, Florida faced eighth-ranked LSU, armed with All-America quarterback Bert Jones, in a home game on Nov. 25, 1972. The weather, to put it mildly, was less than ideal.
“Torrential downpour,” recalled Gator Radio Network analyst Lee McGriff, a standout wide receiver on that ’72 squad. “Worst I’ve ever seen Florida Field. You couldn’t barely see the other team’s sidelines.”
So you can imagine the conditions for kickers that day. Actually, maybe you couldn’t, but this should help.
LSU’s Juan Roca missed seven field goals in the game.
The one Roca made, a 45-yarder early in the third quarter, gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
Williams, meanwhile, had done nothing but boot the opening kickoff when Coach Doug Dickey summoned him with just over two minutes to go in the game to attempt a 35-yard field into the wind and water mess.
“Talk about putting me to the test,” Williams said. “All day, I was watching and thinking about their guy missing seven field goals -- and now I had to block all that out.”
Along with the rain. And the circumstances. And the pressure.
David Bowden got the snap, placed the ball down and Williams, a straight-on kicker like most of them at that time, laid into it.
“I wasn’t worried about it getting there,” Williams said. “I was worried about keeping it straight in that weather. I was sort of afraid to look up.”
But he did. The kick was on line, true and split the uprights, as Bowden jumped into his arms screaming, “You got it, baby!”
It was a 3-3 win for the Gators and a 3-3 loss for the Tigers.
“An upset tie,” Williams, now a sales and marketing rep in Atlanta, called it (as did most media accountings, including The Palm Beach Post to the right). “But it was a big boost for our team to beat a team like LSU. They were really good and were probably mediocre. So tying them was a moral victory for us.”
But the highlight of Williams’ career.
Next week, he’ll relive that moment probably over and over with some former teammates who will toast his time as a Gator and his role as a pioneer.
Maybe the next roadside vendor won’t be so skeptical.
“John had a really, really strong leg, but mostly I think about him and remember what a great guy he was,” McGriff said. “I never really thought of the pressures he may have been experiencing at that time because I never thought of John as being the first black kicker in Florida history ... he was just our kicker.”
Against LSU, he was a hero.