Former Bills DE Ben Williams was a mainstay for the Bills defense for a decade. (photo source)
DE Ben Williams (1976-1986) | 6'3", 251 lbs.
Notable Achievements: 1982 Pro Bowl, 1980-1982 UPI 2nd team All-Conference
Robert Jerry "Ben" Williams was born September 1, 1954 in Yazoo City, Mississippi. After a decorated career at the University of Mississippi both on and off the field, the Bills selected "Gentle Ben" in the third round of the 1976 draft with the No. 78 overall pick. Williams had a long and steady career with the Bills that spanned 10 seasons and 147 games; he started at left defensive end for all but seven of those games. Williams helped provide strong run support and pass rush ability to the "Bermuda Triangle" defense that helped the team exorcise their demons of the 1970's by making the playoffs in both 1980 and 1981. He was an underrated stalwart that I had originally overlooked for inclusion in this list, but he is definitely deserving.
Before getting into Ben Williams' pro career, it's worth understanding where he came from. Simply put, Williams was a trailblazer at Ole Miss, setting the stage for future generations of student-athletes at that school. He played for the Rebels from 1972-1975, earning All-SEC honors three times and All-American status in 1975, but his biggest contribution was of more historical significance. Williams was the first African-American football player for Ole Miss, the first to earn All-SEC honors, and the first African-American chosen by the student body as Colonel Reb, the University’s highest elective honor. He was also the first African-American from Ole Miss to be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He helped establish the Robert "Ben" Williams Minority Scholarship at the school by endowing the scholarship. It's easy to see why he was able to become such a strong, dependable presence in Buffalo.
Once Williams reached Buffalo, he was a rock for 10 seasons, entering the starting lineup as a rookie and remaining there until he retired prior to the 1986 season. His career was probably best described as steady and unspectacular, yet productive. He credited his longevity in Buffalo with the simple explanation of good health: "I would attribute that to probably playing injury-free. As you know, I didn't have any serious injuries during the time that I played in Buffalo. I think I only missed two games my entire career in Buffalo."
Early on, Williams was best known for his run stuffing abilities, utilizing his athleticism to ward off blockers. Only after the team added NT Fred Smerlas and switched to the 3-4 in 1979 did Williams become a pass rushing stud. Aided by the attention afforded to the "Bermuda Triangle" of Smerlas and linebackers Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson, Williams went on to have a strong run of 10+ sack seasons.
Even though the sack wasn't an official stat until 1980, Williams ended up with a career total of 45.5, retiring as the franchise leader at the time. Williams had a pair of monster seasons in 1980 and 1981, helping the defense to No. 1 and No. 7 rankins respectively. The team would also win the division in 1980 for the first time since 1966, and earned a Wild Card berth in 1981. Williams finished the 1980 season with 11 sacks and 63 total tackles. The following year he added 10.5 sacks and 82 tackles. Much to the chagrin of his teammates, he was snubbed by the players and coaches around the league and wasn't awarded with a Pro Bowl invite. He finally earned that due in the strike shortened 1982 season, when he finished with 46 tackles and 4 sacks. He followed that up with another monster season in 1983, registering 10 sacks and an unheard of 103 tackles. Once again, he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl. He played for two more seasons, but never had the same type of production he had in that four year stretch.
Williams was best known for his hard-working personality and understated approach to the game. He studied film non-stop, which was probably not the norm in those days for players, and really utilized his smarts to beat opponents. Many believe his humble, low-key approach to the game is why he didn't get the Pro Bowl recognition he likely deserved. His retirement was a microcosm of his understated, no nonsense career. He simply walked into Coach Hank Bullough's office during training camp and told him he was retiring. Ironically, he retired the same day that QB Jim Kelly arrived to "save" the Bills. Even though I never saw Ben Williams play, his approach to the game would have more than earned my respect and admiration. Plus, it's hard not to appreciate all those sacks he accumulated.
As someone who never saw him play and with little information about him available on the interwebs, it's hard to determine what his best moment was. Chris Brown suggests that it came on December 13, 1981 when Williams took New England QB Matt Cavanaugh down in the end zone for a safety, enabling the Bills to go on to win 19-10. Sounds good to me.
Member of Buffalo Bills' Silver Anniversary Team
The University of Mississippi’s M-Club Hall of Fame
Recipient of the Ralph L. Wilson Leadership Award
Ben Williams may not be as easily recalled as some of his more well-known teammates are (Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett, Joe Ferguson, etc), but he was as good as they came. If the sack numbers had been kept his entire career, he'd likely be second or third on the franchise's all-time list. As it is, his 45.5 careers sacks unofficially ranks fifth in team history. A couple more Pro Bowl selections would have really elevated him on this list.
Joe DeLamielleure on Williams:
“He was a great leader and great player. He had extremely long arms. He was like a poor man’s Elvin Bethea, and he was a Hall of Famer. Just a step below that.”
Not too shabby considering Bethea was an 8-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer.
45.5 career sacks (No. 5 in franchise history)
147 games played, 140 starts