Let’s start with the obvious.
Billy Wilson had every right to be bitter.
On the football field, there was said to be no match for Wilson’s youthful athleticism and explosiveness. Newspaper clips from the 1940s, when he starred in five sports for Lawrence High School, describe Wilson as an all-around threat.
He threw, he ran, he tackled, he kicked and he scored touchdowns.
Wilson was so talented, so successful, that he was recognized as the unanimous winner of the 1943 Thorp Award, given annually to Nassau’s best high school football player. Wilson was the second winner of the award, presented by Newsday with input from high school football coaches.
That he won it as a junior is impressive.
That he was black says even more.
There were no African-American major-league athletes for Wilson to consider role models until 1946 — a year after Wilson left Law rence — when Jackie Robinson began playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor-league system and Kenny Washington was signed by the Los Angeles Rams.
Washington, Ray Bart lett and Woody Strode were teammates on the 1939 UCLA football team, but for the most part, black college football stars were few and far between in the North and nonexistent in the South.
The NBA? It didn’t exist until 1946, and it took three seasons before Nat “Sweet water” Clifton signed with the Knicks to break that league’s color barrier.
So despite Wilson’s exploits on the football field, what future could he foresee in sports? Realistically, where could he go?
Nowhere. Not then.
So Wilson enlisted in the Marines. When he came back to Long Island as a civilian, he returned to Lawrence and raised seven children while working as an assistant grocery store manager. And when that job disappeared about a decade later, Wilson went back to Lawrence High School, where he worked as a custodian until his death in 1982.
His wife, Helen, 85, said in a recent interview that he used to love watching sports on television in the little free time that he had. That could have been him on the screen, if only he had been born at a different time.
So, yes, Billy Wilson had every right to be bitter. But Billy Wilson was not bitter.
— AND CONTROVERSY
Aloysius Wilson, the oldest of Billy Wilson’s seven children, is 62 and lives in Malverne. As a kid, he had no idea that his father was such a lauded athlete in high school.
“He never really talked about himself in those terms, or really anything like that,” he said. “I real ly most remember him working. Most days, I rarely saw him because he would be going to work early in the morning and didn’t come home until late at night.”
But newspaper clips show the Thorp Award was a big deal around town.
According to a Dec. 16, 1943, story in Newsday, Wilson received the award at a “testimonial dinner” hosted by the Lawrence Board of Education. It likely was the first time the board held a special dinner for a student, as opposed to an adult in the community, the story said.
The award is named after Tom Thorp, the first president of the Nassau County Football League, who died in 1942. Wilson received the award that night from Thorp’s brother John, who, the article said, “lauded the selection as proof of a true democracy in that neither color, race nor creed were permitted to overshadow ability.”
But it was not without controversy. Letters to Newsday criticized the choice. The letters that were printed never outright mentioned race, but one can only imagine the type of treatment Wilson must have gone through during those years.
One month before Wilson received the award, a racially charged skirmish broke out after Lawrence’s 7-0 win over rival Baldwin. This is how it was described in Newsday:
“The riot occurred just after the final whistle at Baldwin High School. Billy Wilson, star colored halfback for the Lawrence team, had just been tackled by three players, when several colored fans, apparently thinking Baldwin was ganging up on their star, rushed out to assail the tacklers. In a few moments fights between players of both teams and fans had broken out all over the field and it required concerted action by school officials to break up the melee.”
In response, Baldwin’s Board of Education voted to no longer play Lawrence in any athletic events.
Frank Trotta, 89, who grew up with Wilson and still lives in Lawrence, said he does not remember that clash specifically. But he distinctly remembers the first time that he saw Wilson discriminated against because of the color of his skin.
That was when Lawrence traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, to play a football game and Trotta said the other team refused to let Wilson play.
“He handled it very good,” Trotta said. “The good thing is we beat them anyway.”
In January 1962, to commemorate the 20th year of the Thorp Award, all of the previous winners were invited to a dinner at a Westbury hotel.
By then, the list was impressive.
Jim Brown, who won the 1952 Thorp as a Manhasset senior, was in the midst of rewriting the NFL record book with the Cleveland Browns. John Mackey (Hemp stead, 1958) and Matt Snell (Carle Place, 1959) were playing collegiately then, well on the path toward becoming stars in the NFL.
Several other Thorp winners made their mark at Division I colleges. Longtime Long Island football coach Sal Ciampi Sr. remembers that day. Then a senior at Lawrence High School, he was there because he was the 20th winner of the Thorp Award.
“Everyone who showed up,” Ciampi said, “they either were talking to Billy Wilson or they were talking about Billy Wilson.”
Count Ciampi among those who wonder what Wilson could have become had he gone to college.
“Billy Wilson just came up at the wrong time,” Ciampi said recently. “The black athlete just didn’t have the opportunities then. If he came up in the ’60s, he would have been a major college athlete — big-time major-major.”
In the Newsday story recapping that ’62 dinner, Wilson admitted wondering what he could have been, which is something people said they rarely heard him express.
“You know,” Wilson said, “I always told myself that I could have been All-American if I’d gone to college.”
There’s always that question about what could have been.
“I can only say what my father told me about Billy,” said Rich Mollo, Lawrence’s coach from 1976-97. “And that was that he was head and shoulders above everyone else when it came to running and being shifty, agile and having moves that other people could only dream of.”
Pete Cimino, who played for Lawrence from 1953-55 and was its coach from 1969-75, said: “I knew some of the people who played with him, and everyone to a man said the same thing: If it could have been done on the field, Billy was the man to do it. It’s only the circumstances that prevented him.”
Helen, now living in Far Rockaway, said one of Wilson’s coaches wrote her a letter many years ago that said he tried to get him a tryout with the Giants but couldn’t, she said, “because he was black.”
“How much better did Billy Wilson have to be than everyone else to get the award?” said Mike Candel, who covered high school football for Newsday from 1976-2002 and was involved in the Thorp Award during those years. “You have to think for him to win it in 1943, he had to be so head and shoulders above everyone else that it would have been ridiculous to pick somebody else. That’s important. Not only was he the first, but how good did he have to be to be the first?”
At that time, there was a rule prohibiting winning the Thorp twice, Candel said, eliminating Wilson from contention in his senior year.
Aloysius Wilson also wonders about a few things. He wonders how life would have been different had his father had more opportunities.
He said his father never pushed him to play football or talked much about his football achievements, perhaps because he didn’t want his son to be stuck in his shadow.
“He didn’t want to influence me to do anything but be good in school,” he said.
Aloysius played football at Lawrence, and that’s when he first understood how things had been for his father, who he said never spoke to him about the racism with which he must have dealt.
“I believe,” Aloysius said, “that he didn’t want to put those thoughts in our heads.”
Aloysius said his father “was a humble man and he kept it to himself. What he believed, I don’t know.”
Lastly, Aloysius wonders about the trophy itself. He’s heard a lot about it, but he’s never seen it. His mother said the trophy was lost long ago.
“I would love to see it, love to have it,” Aloysius said. “I would pay for it.”
Because being the first black man to win the award — four years before Jackie Robinson made it to the Dodgers — stands for a whole lot.