I was reading a story today by Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Sports Network in which he names his all-time NFL special teams unit.
Now nobody studies NFL special teams units like Gosselin does. Since 1980, Gosselin has studied and ranked all the special teams units in the NFL. That has gone on now for 38 years and his rankings are must-read material.
Back in 1980, Gosselin was covering the Kansas City Chiefs. The special teams coach of the Chiefs then was Frank Gansz. It was by talking with Gansz that Gosselin learned the formula about how to rank special teams units.
Before I read the story on his all-time team, I was wondering if Travis Williams of the Green Bay Packers and later the Los Angeles Rams was on Gosselin’s 53-man unit. It turns out that he wasn’t, as the returners which Gosselin has on his team are certainly worthy of getting that honor.
The three kickoff returners Gosselin has on his team are Gale Sayers, Josh Cribbs and Mel Gray. The three punt returners are Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Rick Upchurch.
Everyone of those players were consistently very good at returning kicks throughout their NFL careers, as opposed to Williams, who made a name for himself in 1967, which also happened to be his rookie year in the NFL.
In that season, Williams returned 18 kickoffs for 739 yards, which averages out to 41.1 yards-per-return, which is still a NFL record. No. 23 returned four of those 18 kicks for touchdowns and almost had a fifth against the Chicago Bears.
Williams was never able to replicate that performance again on a consistent basis, but he did score again on returns on two occasions for the Packers in 1969, when he returned a punt for 83 yards and another kickoff for 96 yards.
Also, in 1971 when he was a member of the Rams, Williams returned another kickoff for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Besides flashing outstanding ability as a kick returner, Williams also showed that he could be a game-changer when he played running back.
Never was that more true than in the 1967 Western Conference title game, when the Packers played the Rams at Milwaukee County Stadium. The “Roadrunner” was the star of the game for the Packers.
No. 23 didn’t return a kickoff for a score, but he did rush for two touchdowns and had 88 yards rushing.
Right guard Jerry Kramer talked to me about that first TD run by Williams.
“I remember blocking on Merlin [Olsen] very vividly on one play,” Kramer said. “It’s still crystal clear in my mind. Travis is going outside right on the play. And I’m blocking on Merlin and I’m trying to get outside position on him. And he’s starting to move and I’m chasing him.
“All of a sudden, I see Travis about even with us, but near the sideline and I knew that he was gone.”
Gone he was, as Williams scampered 46 yards for a score.
The 1967 season was a special one for the Packers, as the team won it’s third straight NFL championship under head coach Vince Lombardi. That feat has never been duplicated either. That season was also the last year the Packers were coached by Lombardi.
The Packers also won their second straight Super Bowl that season, which was an outstanding feat based on all the injuries the team had that season.
In 1966, quarterback Bart Starr was the NFL MVP. But for the first part of the 1967 season, Starr was affected by a number of injuries which forced him to miss two games.
In addition to that, when the season started, the Packers no longer had halfback Paul Hornung or fullback Jim Taylor as starters in the backfield. That combination was considered to be the best in the NFL for several seasons.
Hornung was claimed by the expansion New Orleans Saints when Lombardi had put him on the Green Bay expansion list. No. 5 never played with the Saints however, as he was forced to retire due to a neck/shoulder injury.
Taylor did play for the Saints that season, as he played out his option in the 1966 season and signed with the Saints in 1967.
With Hornung and Taylor no longer available, Lombardi made Elijah Pitts his starting halfback and Jim Grabowski his starting fullback. Both were having solid seasons when in Week 8 of the 1967 season against the Baltimore Colts, both Pitts and Grabowski were lost for the season with injuries.
Lombardi then added fullback Chuck Mercein to the team via waivers and Green Bay now had a one-two punch at both halfback and fullback throughout the rest of the 1967 season.
Donny Anderson and Williams shared time at halfback, while Mercein and Ben Wilson shared duties at fullback.
The result? The Packers finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1967.
When the postseason came around, Lombardi utilized all of his backs, depending on the opponents.
Against the Rams, Lombardi primarily played Williams at halfback and Mercein at fullback. Against the Cowboys in the “Ice Bowl”, Anderson played primarily at halfback, while Mercein received most of the playing time at fullback.
But in Super Bowl II versus the Oakland Raiders, Anderson again was in most of the time at halfback, while Wilson got the start at fullback that game and led the Packers in rushing that day with 65 yards.
In 1967, Williams was part of a rookie class, which included Bob Hyland and Don Horn. I wrote a piece about that class a little over a year ago.
Williams first showed his kickoff return prowess in Week 7 of the 1967 season, when he returned a kick for 93 yards and a score against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis.
At the time of that kickoff return, the Packers were trailing the Cardinals 23-17 in the fourth quarter. The Packers ended up winning that game 31-23.
Two weeks later against the Cleveland Browns at Milwaukee County Stadium, Williams really put himself on the NFL map. Williams returned two kickoffs for touchdowns that day in the first quarter. The first was 87 yards and the second one was 85 yards. If that wasn’t enough, the “Roadrunner” rushed for 43 yards in just four carries in the game.
Williams returned his fourth kickoff return for a touchdown against the Rams in Week 13 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 104 yards.
As a running back in the 1967 regular season, Williams rushed for 188 yards (5.4 yards-per-carry average) and one score, while he caught five passes for 80 yards (16 yard average) and another score.
In the postseason, Williams rushed for 137 yards (4.6 average) and had two touchdowns (both against the Rams).
As it was, Williams only showed glimpses of what he did in 1967 throughout the rest of his career in Green Bay and in the NFL.
In 1968, Williams only had a 21.4 average in returning kicks (no touchdowns) and only rushed for 63 yards the entire season.
In 1969, Williams appeared to have bounced back in fine fashion, as he had two return touchdowns and also rushed for 536 yards (4.2 average) and four scores. No. 23 also caught 27 passes for 275 yards and three more touchdowns.
But in 1970, Williams again regressed, as he had just 276 yards rushing (3.7 average) and one touchdown, plus caught just 12 passes, one of which was a score.
In 1971, new head coach and general manager Dan Devine traded Williams to the Rams, where “The Roadrunner” had his last season in the NFL because of a knee injury.
Sadly, Williams died at the young age of 45 in 1991 of heart failure after a long illness. Williams had dealt with homelessness, poverty and alcohol for a number of years leading up to his death.
Williams had battled depression due to the deaths of his wife, mother and sister in 1985.
It was a tragic end to the life of Williams, who had been the brightest of lights for the Packers in the glorious season of 1967.
It was in that season when the “Roadrunner” set a kickoff return record which has yet to be broken. That didn’t get Williams on Gosselin’s all-time NFL special teams unit, but I certainly believe that Williams deserves honorable mention for his kick returning skills.