The farm to the NFL

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 28, 2007

FRANKLIN—Growing up on a farm in Southampton County, Walker Gillette didn’t think much about playing in the National Football League.

His father, Jim, played nine season in the NFL, and even scored the game-winning touchdown for the Cleveland Rams in the 1945 NFL championship game. A tight end by trade, Walker played on a 10-0 Southampton High School team in 1965 that hardly ever passed. But it was Walker’s love of running that helped him reach the collegiate and NFL fields.

Walker was a lanky hurdler on the Southampton track team. It was his height (6-5) and speed that attracted the University of Richmond to offer him a football scholarship.

His rise to the top of the college football world in 1968 could not have been predicted, but for a set of circumstances that happened in his freshman and sophomore years of college. Dying to catch a pass, any pass, Gillette arrived at Richmond in 1965. The varsity Spiders went 0-10 and the freshman team was 0-5. That year,

quarterback Buster Brown transferred in from Notre Dame. Brown and Gillette practiced together a year before arriving together on the varsity in 1966.

“Buster threw to me in practice an entire year before we ever played

varsity. I loved it because in the (freshman) games, my quarterback couldn’t

throw the ball 20 yards.”

In 1966, head coach Frank Jones arrived and installed a passing game into

the Richmond offense. All of that came together in 1968 when the Spiders

shocked the college football world. Gillette was a member of the 1968

Richmond squad that won the Tangerine Bowl over undefeated Ohio University.

In the 49-42 win, Gillette, caught 20 passes for 242 yards.

“It was just so much fun. The players on that team still stay in touch with

each other,” he said. “It was a great thing for the school. It put the

school on the map.”

Gillette was named a consensus All-American in his last season, and still

holds records at Richmond for touchdown receptions in a game, in a season,

and in a career.

“My coach hadn’t told me I made All-American until right before the kickoff

of the William & Mary game. It made me nervous,” he joked. “Then I played in

the Hula Bowl and the Shrine Bowl. I met all these players I read about in

Sports Illustrated.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, Gillette was drafted number 15 in the

first round of the 1970 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers. The 1970 NFL

and the NFL today are two different worlds.

“Back then, you took what they paid you or you didn’t play. I made $20,000

my first year, and I was the highest paid rookie San Diego ever had. In the

off season we had jobs. These players now make in seven games what I made in

my whole career. I told my parents it was poor planning,” he said with a


Things went downhill for Gillette after the draft. He played in six

preseason games that year, but only caught two passes during the regular

season. In 1971, he caught just 10 passes. Gillette asked for a trade.

“I asked them, why did you draft me? I was the lead receiver in preseason

my rookie year and then didn’t play for 13 weeks, except for special teams,”

he said.

Gillette was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1972 season where he

blossomed. He led the team in receiving with 33 catches for 550 yards. His

productivity diminished in 1973 (244 yards receiving) and the New York

Giants picked Gillette up on waivers. He played for the Giants from 1974 to

1976 with 1975 his best season in the NFL. With Craig Morton at quarterback,

Gillette led the team in receiving with 600 yards on 43 catches.

Again in 1976, his production dropped off to 263 yards while the Giants

suffered through a 3-11 season in the first year Giants Stadium opened. At

30, Gillette was in training camp in 1977, but was released one week before

the season began.

“I don’t know what happened. They decided to go with younger players. I was

30 years old. Back then when you were 30 they thought you were old,” he

said. “They released me and I went home. I always had a goal to play 10

years in the NFL. I just didn’t make it. I think I got a little burned out

with all the coaches and having to start over every year. I went through

seven different coaches in seven years in the NFL. I was kind of ready to

get out.”

Gillette went back to Richmond where he worked as carpenter and then

eventually went into marketing. He is now a financial advisor at Wachovia

Securities in Franklin. The walls of his office include pictures of Jim

Gillette as a college player at the University of Virginia, and a

large-sized framed football card of Walker in a Giants uniform. He talks

about getting jittery when playing against the likes of Dick Butkus. He

notes the differences in today’s NFL from when he played.

“I didn’t lift weights. I used to beat a speed bag and I ran. I was scared

to gain weight — I didn’t want to be a tight end,” he laughed, citing the

fact that tight ends do a lot of blocking on the offensive line. “The

players today are bigger. I don’t know if they are any faster. I don’t think

they are better players. People get hurt now and they got out. We used to

get hurt and we stayed in because we knew someone was waiting to take your


“They played six preseason games back then. Now there are only four. They

gave you 10 percent of your salary in training camp,” he added. “Training

camp was tough. You better not go into training camp out of shape. I did a

lot of running and it didn’t bother me.”

Lucky for Walker Gillette running was in his blood.