Three Great Americans

On December 2, one day after teaching his final class at George Mason University, economist Walter Williams passed away at the age of 84. Williams earned his Ph.D. at UCLA, defended liberty with great brilliance, and authored books such as The State Against Blacks. Never an ivory-tower type, Williams readily applied his insights to the world of sports.

It had come to his attention that very few of his fellow African Americans become placekickers in the National Football League. For the erudite Williams, this was not a complicated matter. As he saw it, black players simply did not want to become placekickers, and instead preferred other positions. So it was a matter of volition, an insight with a broader application. 

Many college athletes would excel at wrestling, weightlifting, and track and field. Many choose to play football because in America it is possible to earn a good living in that team sport. These athlete-students will play college football for no money, only payment in kind in the form of tuition, while barred from marketing their own name and image. 

Only in the professional ranks can the athletes earn what they are worth, based on the desire of others to watch them play. Walter Williams understood that dynamic. So did his fellow UCLA alum, Rafer Johnson, who passed away on December 2 at the age of 86.

Johnson went to UCLA on academic and athletic scholarships, became student body president, and played basketball for the great John Wooden in 1958-1959. Johnson could have excelled in the NBA or NFL but his childhood hero was Bob Mathias, Olympic decathlon winner in 1948 and 1952. For Johnson, it did not matter that Mathias was a person of pallor. What counted was dedication and achievement. 

Johnson duly chose the decathlon, perhaps the most difficult athletic discipline. He took home Olympic gold in 1960, prevailing over UCLA teammate C. K. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union. In 1984 in Los Angeles, Johnson took the torch from Gina Hemphill, Jesse Owens’ granddaughter, and lit the Olympic flame. 

Another talented athlete, Paul Hornung, wanted to play football. At Notre Dame, Hornung won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback. With the Green Bay Packers, Horning ran the ball, kicked field goals, caught passes and threw passes. In the 1961 title game, Hornung scored 19 points on one rushing touchdown, three field goals and four extra points as the Packers prevailed over the New York Giants, 37-0. 

Hornung was the NFL’s most valuable player in 1961 and played on Green Bay’s championship teams in 1961, 1962, 1965, and 1966. In a nine-year career, he scored 760 points on 62 touchdowns, 66 field goals and 190 extra points. Horning led the NFL in scoring from 1959-1961 and his 1960 record of 176 points in a single season stood for 46 years. 

If not a contender for the greatest of all time, Paul Hornung was certainly in a class by himself. Even so, Hornung did not get the recognition he deserved when he passed away at 84 on November 13. He was a bon vivant, but hardly alone in that regard. A gambling scandal in 1963 got him suspended for a season, but did not prevent his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1986. 

The lack of acclaim might simply be due to national memory loss. In similar style, Rafer Johnson deserved more praise than he got, and so did Walter Williams.

Like his longtime friend Thomas Sowell, still going strong at 90, Williams showed that African Americans did not need affirmative action to succeed. He rejected the notion that black people were perpetual victims, and his defense of liberty defied political correctness. 

Williams, Johnson, and Hornung confirm that choices matter and that choice thrives best in a free society. If we can keep free society going, others can step up to take their place. 

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: George Mason University and Getty Images