Most of my childhood heroes were either movie characters (e.g., Hopalong Cassidy), comic book heroes (e.g., Batman), or literary figures (e.g., Robin Hood). A real-life idol for most of us Menominee kids, however, was local football player Billy Wells. The Wells were a long-time lumber family in our home town, and Billy was the son of friends of my parents, John and Dorothy (Tilly) Wells. Tilly was the younger sister of our close family friend, Jean Worth. I didn’t really know Billy because he was six years older than me, but my siblings and I were friends with his younger brother John and his cousins Sammy and Rita. The other day I was fiddling around, Googling various people from my distant past, and I was pleased to discover that Billy Wells still enjoys a significant presence in virtual reality.
Billy Wells was the adopted son of Mrs. Wells by a first marriage. He began playing football as a team sport in the seventh grade at Menominee High School. He became an all-around high school star in football, basketball, and track. His varsity football team won two mythical Upper Peninsula championships and attained a three-year record of 19-4-1. According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “Wells was renowned as a dazzling broken field runner who could score from anywhere on the field.” The story quotes Billy as saying he probably had “…seven or eight touchdowns over 40 yards my senior year…” Menominee was a rabid high school football town, and Billy Wells received a great deal of local renown.
Billy Wells at Menominee High (Wells Family web-site)
The new coach at Michigan State College, Clarence L. (“Biggie”) Munn, recruited Wells, along with a host of other players who were to become the most accomplished team in all of MSU’s history. The backfield gained lasting fame as the “Pony backfield” because of their small size (the four averaged 172 pounds apiece), quickness, and power. The team earned a No. 2 national ranking in 1951, then won national championships in 1952 and 1953 with a 28-game winning streak. The Spartans played their first full season in the Big Ten in 1953, and Wells scored MSU’s first Big Ten running touchdown and their first pass reception touchdown. He scored 17 touchdowns for MSU during his three collegiate seasons.
Billy Wells & Janet Richter dancing the Charleston at her MSU sorority (Life Magazine, 1952)
Michigan State won the Big Ten championship in their first year of eligibility, then met UCLA in the 1954 Rose Bowl before a crowd of 101,000. The game was the occasion for the first national color television broadcast (to a grand total of 200 TV sets). UCLA jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but MSU battled back, with Billy Wells scoring two touchdowns, one on a 62-yard punt return with less than five minutes left. After the TD he ran to the bench and told the coach, “That was for you, Biggie.” MSU won 28-20, and Wells was named Rose Bowl Player of the Day. He and other bowl stars went to New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he managed to arrange a dream date in L.A. with Debbie Reynolds.
Billy Wells was drafted by the NFL in the fifth round and played with the Washington Redkins (1954-57), Pittsburgh Steelers (1957), Philadelphia Eagles (1958), and the Boston Patriots of the AFL (1960). He led the Redskins in rushing as a rookie, then spent two years in the military, and returned to be the Steeler’s top rusher. He still holds the Washington Redskins record for the longest run from scrimmage (88 yards). For his career he had 1,384 rushing yards for a 3.8 average, 725 receiving yards, and 9 touchdowns.
Billy Wells (Redskins Halfback), Topps Football Rookie Card (1956)
After retiring from professional football, Wells founded and led a Dixieland band called Billy and His Bachelors which played all over Southern California. Wells did the vocals and played banjo. He did some TV acting in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Bat Masterson, Manhunt, and Colt. 45. Later he worked as a sportscaster in Chicago and producer of movie shorts, then as a field supervisor for a security guard company. He, his wife Beverly (Chappelle), son Chris, and daughters Becca and Scottie lived in Manhattan Beach, a Los Angeles suburb. Billy Wells died in Altadena, CA, on December, 25, 2001, at age 70.
In doing the research for this story I ran across a blog that posed the question: “Who was the greatest running back in MSU history.” The most frequent answer was Lorenzo White who starred for the team in the mid-80’s and went on to play for the Houston Oilers. All the old-timers, though, said Billy Wells. I go along with that. Not bad for a U.P. Menominee guy.