Flashback: Packers RB Ben Wilson sparkled in surprise role
Ben Wilson only played one season with the Green Bay Packers, but he holds the distinction of being the leading rusher in Super Bowl II in Miami.
The enduring memory older Packers fans have of the fullback is on his hands and knees, searching in vain for his lost contact lens behind the Packers bench in the Orange Bowl.
“I tell people I broke Jim Taylor’s Super Bowl rushing record,” Wilson said tongue-in-cheek during a telephone interview from his Arkansas home last weekend. “But what everyone remembers me for is looking for my contact lens. I got ‘famous’ for that. Got more press and attention for that than I did playing in the game.”
Early in the final quarter, Wilson was knocked out of bounds along the Packers sideline. The lens fell on the ground as the team physician tried to center the contact lens in his left eye behind the team bench. Wilson had two pairs of contacts, but only had one with him.
The near-sighted Wilson had just been fitted with contacts in early December, after coach Vince Lombardi suggested he get his eyesight checked as he was dropping too many passes.
“Never did find it,” said Wilson, who was replaced by rookie speedster Travis Williams.
Despite missing most of the fourth quarter, Wilson was the Packers’ workhorse, carrying the ball 17 times for 62 yards in Green Bay’s 33-14 victory over Oakland. That eclipsed Taylor’s Super Bowl mark of 56 yards set a year earlier in the Packers’ 35-10 triumph over Kansas City in Los Angeles.
“It was a peculiar decision by Coach Lombardi to start Ben in the Super Bowl,” former Packers guard Jerry Kramer said. “The coach was playing a hunch.
“Everyone thought Chuck (Mercein) would start. He had played pretty well in the postseason in Milwaukee (victory over Rams) and Green Bay (win over Dallas in Ice Bowl). Chuck had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the Super Bowl and had relatives in for the Super Bowl. But Coach Lombardi went with Ben, 15 minutes before kickoff.”
No one more shocked than Wilson.
“Chuck played really well against Dallas and was instrumental in the last drive that won the game,” he said. “I played just a couple of plays in the Ice Bowl and thought Chuck is the starter for the Super Bowl. Everyone thought so.
“Well, Vince come up to me in warmups and asked me how I felt. I said, ‘Fine.’ Then in the locker room after pregame (warmups), he told me, ‘I’m starting you.’ He didn’t give a reason why. All I can say is that I was surprised. I just went out there and did my best to help us win the game.
“I never thought he’d replace a guy who helped win the NFL Championship Game with a guy who was hurt and played sparingly in the last five or six games.”
Wilson’s career detour to Green Bay began with a phone call on a July afternoon from Los Angeles Rams head coach George Allen.
The former USC standout, a key member of the Trojans’ 1962 national championship team, was a fifth-round selection of Los Angeles in the 1963 NFL Draft. He was a backup and never started a game in a Rams uniform, but rushed for 394 yards in 1963 and 553 yards in 1964 before tailing off to just 189 yards in 1965.
He was injured in 1966, but had a no-cut contract and was collecting a paycheck while considering his post-NFL career.
“I remember it well,” Wilson said. “It was the day before the Fourth of July. I thought I was done with football. I was hurt a lot, and it was time to do other things.
“Then I got the call from Coach Allen who said that Vince Lombardi had made a deal for me and I was going to Green Bay.”
Wilson could not believe it.
“I was a journeyman, a marginal player,” he said. “But Lombardi traded for me. Allen told me not to say anything to anyone until Vince calls you.”
Thirty anxious minutes later, Lombardi did.
“Vince said he had made a deal for me and told me when to report to Green Bay,” Wilson said. “He asked me if I was in shape, and I lied and told him, ‘yes.’ ”
“So I trained hard to try to get in shape for two weeks. Well, I had a terrible camp. Lombardi’s two-a-days about killed me because I was so out of shape. There were many times I thought I was going to pass out.”
Training camp was far different than with the Rams.
“In L.A., it was laid back and we couldn’t wait to get practice over with so we could go play golf,” Wilson said. “In Green Bay, we were so tired after practice that we didn’t even think of golf. Even on our day off.”
Kramer laughed out loud when told of Wilson’s experience.
“No one could prepare you for Coach Lombardi’s training camp,” Kramer said. “You cannot push yourself hard enough for what you were about to experience. You were going to suffer and just had to make it through.”
Wilson survived, and added depth and experience to a young running back group that featured “Million Dollar babies” Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski. The moniker reflected their combined contract totals, an investment Lombardi made to secure the future of the franchise’s ground game after the departure of future hall of famers Paul Hornung and Taylor.
Wilson was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Grabowski, while versatile Elijah Pitts backed up Anderson. Lombardi added speed to his backfield with the selection of Williams (Arizona State) in the fourth round of the 1967 draft.
The future of the Green Bay offense looked bright, with quarterback Bart Starr coming off a league-MVP and Super Bowl-MVP season, a veteran offensive line intact, and Boyd Dowler, Carroll Dale, and Marv Fleming comprising the receiving corps.
Dale played with Wilson for two seasons in Los Angeles and was not surprised he fit in well with the defending champion Packers.
“Both Ben and Chuck were guys off the street, but they worked hard to contribute,” Dale said Sunday in a phone interview. “I was teammates with Ben and it was so gloomy in L.A. because we weren’t winning and guys were just out there playing for a job. We had a different atmosphere in Green Bay. We were winning and success breeds success. We were expected to win and needed Ben to come in and play at a high level. And he did.”
Wilson took over when Grabowski was injured midseason and ended up with 453 yards on 103 carries (4.4-yard avg.) and two touchdowns — second on the team only to Grabowski’s 466 yards in 120 carries. He also caught 14 passes for 88 yards.
But Wilson had injury issues of his own, injuring his knee and foot (arch) in the final month of the season.
“I was brought in because Vince needed some experience,” Wilson said. “But when Grabowski got hurt, I started. Then when I got hurt, Chuck was brought in and did the job.”
Green Bay faltered at the end of the 1967 regular season, dropping its final two games to the Rams in Los Angeles and the Steelers at Lambeau Field to tie the Rams for the Western Conference title. A playoff in Milwaukee decided the winner in the NFL’s first regularly scheduled playoff game in league history. Williams had a breakout game with 88 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s decisive 28-7 victory.
The opportunity for an unprecedented third consecutive NFL Championship came the following Sunday at home against the Dallas Cowboys, in a game etched in NFL lore for its brutal weather conditions and dramatic finish.
“I wasn’t a factor in the Ice Bowl,” Wilson said. “I was just trying to stay warm. My wife and son flew in from L.A. for the Rams game in Milwaukee the week before the Ice Bowl. When she woke up the morning of the Dallas game, she said it was too cold and she couldn’t stay. They left for L.A.
“I remember doing anything we could to stay warm. I wore two pairs of socks and wrapped my feet in Saran Wrap. It was just miserable. We just wanted to win the game and get out of there, like Lombardi said. Then we had to go to Miami and put the AFL in their place. Vince was driven and we took the field to win. It was a given we would and we did it.”
Wilson had knee surgery in the offseason, and though he rehabbed it for the entire 1968 season in Green Bay with the blessing of Lombardi the GM and new head coach Phil Bengtson, he was not able to pass the team physical in 1969.
“They said I’d have to have another knee surgery, and I said I was done,” Wilson said. “I ended up having seven surgeries before having both my knees replaced about eight years ago. I suffered for years and wished I’d had done it sooner. The game was tough but I loved it.”
Wilson, 78, is enjoying retirement in a small Arkansas town, close to his son and grandchildren.
“I have 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren,” he said proudly. “I’m a widow and my wife and I had five children. I used to play a lot of golf, but I just took up gardening as a hobby to stay active. I started with some flowers and tomatoes ... now I have to transplant things I started inside (Okra, peppers, Jalapenos) outside or I’m going to need a lawn mower in my kitchen.”
With the 50th anniversary of the Ice Bowl and Super Bowl II approaching, Wilson is looking forward to reconnecting with his former teammates.
“As we grow older, our numbers continue to dwindle and some guys are not in the best of health, battling Alzheimer’s and other things,” Wilson said. “I was real close to Willie Wood, who went to USC and played quarterback. It’s hard, because now I call him and some days he knows me. Sometimes he doesn’t.
“I was just in Green Bay for a short time, but I loved it. With most NFL teams in the ’60s, players bunked by race. Not in Green Bay, not with Lombardi. And the city and fans embraced the players, almost adopting them. It was a great place to play football and a dream come true for me.”
BEN WILSON FILE
Packers years: 1967
Jersey No.: 36
Packers highlights: Leading rusher in Packers’ 33-14 victory over Oakland in Super Bowl II with 17 rushes for 62 yards. Played in 14 regular-season games in Green Bay tenure
Other teams: Los Angeles Rams (1963-66)
Residence: Crossett, Ark.
BEN WILSON CAREER RUSHING
(Year Team Rush Yds Avg. TDs)
1963 LA Rams 109 394 3.6 1
1964 LA Rams 159 553 3.5 5
1965 LA Rams 60 189 3.2 1
1967 Packers 103 453 4.4 2
Career 4 years 431 1589 3.7 9
Source: Pro Football Reference
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