July 7, 2015

1967: Packers Obtain Ben Wilson from Rams

On July 7, 1967, with 31-year-old FB Jim Taylor, who had been an integral member of four NFL Championship squads in Green Bay, having played out his option and a deal worked out to allow him to join the expansion New Orleans Saints, the Packers traded a future draft choice to the Los Angeles Rams for FB Ben Wilson.

The 28-year-old Wilson was formerly a star at USC and had been chosen as a future pick by the Rams in the fifth round of the 1962 NFL draft. Known as “Big Ben”, he weighed 247 pounds as a rookie in ’63, although he had slimmed down to 217, which he found to be a more ideal playing weight (he reported to the Packers at 225). He fit LA’s need for a big fullback behind the effective but smallish (5’10”, 200) Dick Bass, but after running for 394 yards in his first year, Wilson stunned the club by announcing that he would go to dental school instead of returning in ‘64. He reconsidered, however, and with Bass suffering a knee injury Wilson led the team with 553 yards on 159 carries (3.5 avg.). He dropped to 189 yards with a 3.2-yard average gain in 1965 and was relegated to LA’s taxi squad in ‘66 after being beaten out by Les Josephson and Henry Dyer as the backups to Bass.

The Packers were coming off of back-to-back NFL titles but were in transition at the running back positions. The heir apparent to Taylor was second-year FB Jim Grabowski. HB Donny Anderson was slated to replace Paul Hornung, who had been taken by New Orleans in the expansion draft (he retired during training camp). Veteran backup Elijah Pitts was still around at halfback and a newcomer was fleet rookie HB Travis Williams, who would prove to be especially valuable as a kick returner.

Wilson saw little action in the first two games of the season with Grabowski starting at fullback, but led the team in rushing with 82 yards on 13 carries in a Week 3 win against the Falcons. That was his most extensive playing time until a Week 8 loss to the Colts when Grabowski suffered a knee injury (Pitts was also lost for the remainder of the year with an Achilles tendon injury). Wilson rushed for 100 yards on 16 attempts the following week in a 55-7 shellacking of the Browns (better remembered for Travis Williams returning two kickoffs for TDs and Donny Anderson scoring four times). He gained 80 yards in a win over the 49ers and led the team in ground gaining in each of the next two games, although with lesser numbers.

In the regular season finale, Wilson had injury problems and Chuck Mercein, who had been claimed off waivers from the Giants, saw more action. It was Mercein starting in the Western Conference Championship game against the Rams and the frigid NFL Championship win over Dallas. But Head Coach Vince Lombardi chose to go with Wilson instead of Mercein in the Super Bowl matchup with Oakland and he responded with 62 yards in 17 carries as Green Bay won by a 33-14 score. It turned out to be Wilson’s last game with the Packers, but it was a good one as he capped off his career as part of a makeshift committee of running backs that contributed to a third consecutive NFL title and second straight Super Bowl victory.  

For the season, Wilson rushed for 453 yards on 103 carries, which was second on the team only to Jim Grabowski’s 466 yards on 120 attempts, for a 4.4-yard average with two TDs. He also caught 14 passes for 88 yards. In the postseason, he ran the ball 21 times for 75 yards.

As a footnote, the draft choice that the Rams obtained for Wilson turned out to be a second round pick in 1968 that was sent on to Atlanta and used to take John Wright, a star flanker out of Illinois who had a short and inconsequential career with the Falcons and Lions.