Commentary | The late Willie Lee Jones earned his status as football legend

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 1, 2014 

BRADENTON

He was born before his time and died too early.

Hopefully the legend of Willie Lee Jones will eventually get its proper due.

Jones was killed last Friday in what police called a senseless death.

Dead at 65, his courage should not be forgotten.

Few people know the former Lincoln High football great broke the color barrier at the University of Tampa with Leon McQuay, who went on to a successful career in the NFL.

Jones shined at linebacker and defensive end at Tampa after he finished his career at Lincoln in 1968.

If he had been born 20 to 30 years later, Jones would've been sitting in Bear Bryant's office at Alabama or some other major college campus.

But this was 1968 in the South, and things were different.

Fran Curci coached Jones at Tampa and in a lot of ways owes his career to the Lincoln great.

In 1970 with Jones as his defensive stalwart, Tampa finished 10-1 and beat Miami in the Orange Bowl in an upset so gigantic Curci was hired as Miami's head coach the next season.

Tampa, labeled a small-college team at the time because there were no NCAA Divisions, was 18-3 in Jones' final two years.

"He was great against Miami. Willie could play against any competition and excel," Curci says. "He reminded me of Ted Hendricks, the greatest Miami defensive end. You just couldn't block either."

Jones was drafted by the Miami Dolphins after college. He couldn't come to terms with them and wound up playing in the old World Football League and Canadian Football League. Curci says he believes it was a colossal mistake by the Dolphins. Unfortunately in those days, if you came from a small college NFL teams routinely offered less money.

Jones would not sell himself cheap. Maybe it cost him money in the long run, but this was a man of principle.

"He was the best linebacker who never played in the NFL," says three-time Super Bowl champion Henry Lawrence, who knows a thing or two about the subject.

Lawrence played with Jones for two years at Lincoln, noting the only game they lost was when their lives were threatened.

"Willie was totally tenacious and vicious. If he had gone to the NFL, you would've been talking about him like you talk about Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus and Willie Lanier," says Lawrence, an offensive lineman for 13 years with the NFL's Oakland Raiders.

"Willie was something special. He was like Lawrence Taylor because he could play up or down and could run," Curci says. "He could've been in the NFL for many years. I don't know what happened with Miami.

"With Willie, it was better to cut him loose, allow him to go wherever he thought the ball was and let the other guys play in a system like we did with Hendricks."

Jones proved he was fearless off the field, says Ed Dick, a longtime friend who helped him get into Tampa.

"Willie was a dichotomy. He was ferocious on the field, but gentle and kind off it," Dick says.

Even after Jones had been out of football for years, Miami head coach Don Shula invited him for a tryout. The Dolphins wanted to put him on the taxi squad, but Jones refused and came home believing his skills had diminished.

"I wished he would've stayed. I think his talent would've come back," Lawrence says.

Things were different then. Today coming out of high school, Jones would be courted by every major college program in the country.

"Willie and McQuay were similar. They didn't do that well in school because it was not emphasized," Curci said. "But on the football field, they never made a mistake. They were both intelligent guys and showed what you can do when you are interested in something."

Willie Lee Jones was born too soon and died too early. But his legacy should not be diminished.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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