Willie Lee Jones has become Lincoln’s own Paul Bunyan, with tales of superhuman feats attached to the legacy of the man who was tragically murdered in 2014 at 64.
The most often heard warning to opponents and those practicing against Jones was that you got “him mad at your own risk.”
“Put together Ray Lewis, Lawrence Taylor and Junior Seau and you get Willie Lee Jones,” said Henry Lawrence, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, and a fellow Lincoln graduate.
“He was better than Lawrence Taylor, he was a good size guy (6-feet-3), 240 pounds and could run close to a 4.4 40. He was the most intense, meanest, ferocious player I ever encountered. He was the best linebacker who never played in the NFL.”
Jones might have been the best defensive player who ever put on a Lincoln High uniform, and that is saying a lot considering the talent the program produced.
“He is one of the greatest I ever coached. There was not a place on the field he couldn’t play, but he liked defense because he liked to hit people,” said Eddie Shannon, his coach at Lincoln. “I never coached a guy who could play so many positions on both sides of the ball so well. Sometimes I just let him go anywhere he wanted and he’d get the job done.”
A 1968 graduate of Lincoln, Jones was a major contributor to the program’s success and earned a scholarship to the University of Tampa, an NCAA small school division program, where he played under Fran Curci.
Jones broke the color barrier at the University of Tampa along with Leon McQuay, who went on to have a successful NFL career.
But things didn’t start off easy. Jones wasn’t practicing hard and the coaches called Ed Dick, who recruited Jones for Tampa. He contacted Shannon, who took a trip to Tampa with one of his assistants and who put the “wood” to Jones as only Shannon and his “paddle” board could.
“The coaches at Tampa called me and said, ‘Whatever you did to Willie, don’t ever do it again. He came out the next day and nearly destroyed our entire offense by himself,’” Dick said.
A similar thing happened at Lincoln when he was being teased by his teammates because he received couple of black eyes in a game from a one-armed player.
“I had never seen anybody block him and keep Willie at bay except this one-armed guy, who gave him fits and he didn’t like being laughed at though it was in fun,” said Ray Bellamy, a former Lincoln High School star.
But getting Jones mad wasn’t a smart thing, especially if you might be on the other end of his anger. That day he got so mad that Shannon had to shut practice down because he feared he might lose a good part of his team.
“Willie didn’t like being teased and he was taking his anger out on everybody. I had to stop the practice or we might not have had anybody left,” Shannon said.
“Willie took football seriously and didn’t want anybody laughing at him. He demanded people do the right thing on the field and didn’t want penalties because it hurt the team,” Bellamy said. “He was a serious competitor who fought like crazy and they won a national championship at Tampa in their division when he played.”
Jones arguably played his best game in 1970, leading Tampa to an upset over Miami in a victory that eventually earned Curci the head job at Miami. Tampa was 18-3 during Jones’s last two seasons.
“Willie could play against any competition and excel. He reminded me of Ted Hendricks, the greatest Miami defensive end. You couldn’t block either,” Curci said. “Willie was like Lawrence Taylor because he could play up or down and could run. 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 was selected in the 14th round of the 1972 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins. But there were other leagues around at the time and he decided to play in the World Football League and then the Canadian Football League.
Jones eventually retired from football and worked for the city of Palmetto for the rest of his life.
That life ended tragically in January 2014 when he was shot and killed by George Williamson Jr., 70, described by police as a friend, in what was called a senseless killing. Williamson was convicted of manslaughter with a firearm and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But for those who are part of Lincoln football, Jones remains a legend whose tales of greatness and laughter hold a special place in the hearts of the school’s storied athletic program.
“Willie was ferocious on the field, but gentle and kind off it,” Dick said.
About this series
This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Bellamy’s recruitment by and signing with the University of Miami, breaking the color barrier for African-American athletes in the Southeast.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Bradenton Herald is publishing “Lincoln’s Legends & Legacy,” a recurring series of articles throughout July on some of the top athletes from Lincoln High School, the pre-integration era high school for African-American students in Manatee County. Coming Sunday: Ed Dick.