Born: July 21, 1938
Willie Bethea was born July 21, 1938 in Trenton. Fast and fearless, Willie was a standout football player at Trenton High School for coach Bob Perugini. Nicknamed “Willie the Wisp,” there was nothing wispy about him—he stood an even 6’, was powerfully built and often described in the newspapers as a “sleek” or “classy” runner. He and defensive end Earl Ward anchored the defense; Willie was All-State Honorable Mention as a senior in 1956. Willie was also the star of the Tornadoes track team, specializing in the hurdles, sprints and broad jump. He and Frank Budd of Asbury Park dominated their events at state meets as juniors and seniors.
Willie served a stint in the Army after high school and continued to play service football at Ft. Dix. In 1958, he suited up for the semipro Bristol Saints across the river in Pennsylvania. Willie and former Alabama and Eagles quarterback Neal Buckman made an unstoppable combination. In 1959, Willie played for Bristol again, with the team changing its name to All-Stars. In 1960, Willie reunited with Buckman on the Franklin Miners, an independent club in northern New Jersey. The Miners were generally regarded as the top “minor-league” club in the East.
In 1962, the team moved its home field to Hinchliffe Stadium and became the Paterson Miners, a charter member of the newly formed American Coastal Football League. Willie averaged 7.1 yards per carry in ACFL games and scored 10 touchdowns, leading the league in both categories. The Miners won the championship against the Providence Steamroller at Convention Hall in Atlantic City. Willie, who rushed for well over 1,000 yards (including non-ACFL games) was named league MVP.
After the season, Willie fielded offers from several NFL, AFL and CFL clubs. He signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Canada appealed to Willie at a time when racial tension was ratcheting up I the U.S. It turned out to be a good choice. He ended up living in Ontario year-round with his wife and kids, working at a steel mill in the off-season.
The “Ticats” spread their carries out among three backs, and Willie settled in at fullback, picking up tough yards. He ran for 435 yards and 3 touchdowns in 9 games as a rookie, averaging almost 5 yards per carry. Hamilton played the British Columbia Lions in the Grey Cup and won 21–10. Willie scored the opening touchdown on a short pass.
Willie had another solid season in 1964, despite missing half the games due to injury. He gained 408 yards on the ground and returned 11 kicks for a whopping 356 yards. Hamilton returned to the Grey Cup in 1964 but lost a rematch with the Lions. The Ticats won the 1965 Grey Cup, beating their longtime rivals, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in high-wind conditions. Willie scored twice, including a 69-yard TD pass from Joe Zuger in the third quarter that provided the deciding points in the 22–16 victory. The Ticats fell short of another Grey Cup in 1966.
The 1967 season was Willie’s best. He had a career-high 147 carries and 737 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 40 passes for 520 yards. He was named an East All-Star after the season. Hamilton had an awesome defense and rolled to the 55th Grey Cup, where they destroyed the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, 24–1. That season Willie was honored as an East Division All-Star.
Willie was released by Hamilton after the 1970 season after helping the club win three championships. He was (and still is) among the Ticats’ all-time leaders with 3,919 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns. He signed a free-agent deal with Winnipeg but did not pass the physical. His knees were shot. In 2012, he was added to Hamilton’s Wall of Honour.