Most astute football historians can tell you Greenville’s Wilbert Montgomery played at Abilene Christian before he went on to NFL stardom as a remarkably productive Philadelphia Eagles running back.
A few probably could tell you Montgomery briefly attended Jackson State before transferring to NAIA Abilene Christian.
But few can tell you why he transferred away from JSU and those who try would mostly be wrong. Most assume, as I always have, Montgomery transferred because Walter Payton, Eddie Payton, Joe Lowery and Ricky Young, all future pros, already played the running back position at JSU when Montgomery arrived in 1973.
Not true, Montgomery said last week during a visit to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. (Montgomery was recently elected to the state’s Hall of Fame and will be inducted next July.)
“We had a lot of backs but I wasn’t scared of the competition,” Montgomery said. “I was playing safety anyway. I wanted to play defense, but then Walter got hurt and the coaches moved me from defense to offense. That’s why I transferred.”
So, of course, Montgomery went to Abilene Christian and once the coaches there saw him run, they put him at running back. And he responded by scoring a record 37 touchdowns as a freshman. Before he was finished at Abilene, he scored an NAIA record 76 touchdowns, even more than Walter Payton scored at JSU.
You don’t have to be an astute historian to know the rest of the story. Montgomery was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he was a two-time Pro Bowler, rushing for 6,538 yards and scoring 58 career touchdowns. When the Eagles started a Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame in 1987, Montgomery was an inaugural inductee.
Montgomery was a remarkable back – tough, strong and durable enough to make the tough yards between the tackles, or use his speed to go wide around the end. He was such an effective receiver, the Eagles often split him wide and threw to him as they would a wide receiver. He also returned punts and kickoffs, and there’s a story there.
In high school, he was his team’s punter. And when his high school coach, the late Gary Dempsey, began taking him around to visit colleges, Montgomery told Dempsey he wanted to go to Southern Miss to watch Ray Guy.
“I had heard all about Ray Guy,” Montgomery said. “I had heard about how his punts went over the stadium lights and I just wanted to see it for myself. Guy played safety and so did I. Guy punted and so did I. I told Coach Dempsey I wanted to go watch Ray Guy and I wanted to sit at the very top row of the stadium. Sure enough, I did, and his punts went way higher than I was.”
Little did Montgomery realize as a high schooler in Greenville, he would later return Guy’s punts in the NFL.
Montgomery said it is difficult to explain how difficult that was.
“Man, it’s like the ball is up there in the clouds,” he said. “You are looking up, trying to find it and you are looking up into the sun. You can’t use your hands to shield your eyes because the officials will think you are signaling a fair catch. Finally, you find it, this little dark speck way up there in the sky and then it takes forever to come down.”
Although Montgomery and Walter Payton were together only for a short time at JSU, their relationship lasted throughout their pro careers and beyond.
“Walter and I talked all the time,” Montgomery said. “He was a great friend. Heck, at one time he was even trying to get me to marry his sister.”
People such as Payton, Guy and Archie Manning are why Montgomery says he is so proud to be going into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s incredible the athletes that come from this state,” Montgomery says. “When you get into this hall of fame, that’s saying something. Nobody, anywhere, produces athletes like Mississippi does.”
Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.