Up on Craggy Pinnacle. Art by Helen Nagan.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Willie Tullis, Football Star

This weekend, Willie Tullis, born in Newville, educated in Headland, and one of the best athletes in the history of Alabama, is returning to the Wiregrass for his high school class reunion. These days, Willie lives in Houston, where he is a counselor.

When Dad was at the MD Anderson Cancer Clinic the first of this year, he and Willie were able to get together, and it meant a lot to both of them. Since then, Willie and I have kept in touch via calls and texts. I know he thinks a lot of Dad. Their connection goes way back, and my goal is to expound on their relationship in the coming week.  This post will be a work in progress, so check back in for updates.

This photo was taken at a football camp at Marion Military Institute, where Dad played football for two years.  Pictured with Ken Stabler and Willie Tullis (wearing the cap) are: (L-R) Jeff Adams, Brett Armstrong, John Espy and Joey Armstrong.

Willie Tullis is the greatest football player to ever come out of Headland High School, period.  He was a QB with a rifle arm, and a dominant player on both sides of the ball.  In the early 70s, especially in the South, the few blacks who made it to QB in high school, even if they were exceptional, were often simply moved to "skilled" positions (e.g. DB, WR) in college, if they got signed.  This often had to do with racial stereotyping, and luckily it's now a thing of the past.  Despite being a top-notch high school QB and drawing recruiters to Headland for his exploits as QB, he didn't get signed by a major university (such as Auburn or Alabama), in part because they didn't want him as a QB.  They would sign him as a skilled player.  (Side note: Charles Thomas, a black QB, did letter at Auburn in the late 70s).  Willie certainly had the all-around talent and skill to play other positions, but QB was his primary position and love.  Willie ended up signing with Southern Miss, where he hoped to play QB.  That didn't pan out, so Willie opted to transfer to Troy State (in Alabama), where he started at QB and had a stellar career.  He also played some DB.  After college, he was drafted by the Houston Oilers as a skilled player.  What's most fascinating is that when QB Ken Stabler retired from the Houston Oilers, Willie Tullis tried out as his replacement.  In the end, the Oilers wanted Willie to be a DB, and that's what he became.  He also returned kicks and punts.  To this day, he remains the only Headland football player to ever make it to the NFL.  Quite a feat!

One of the things I discovered from talking with Willie is that Dad had a big influence on him.  My plan is to get Willie to talk about this on video.  One example, I'm sure, involves that picture above.  I do remember Dad saying he picked up Ken Stabler at the airport and drove him to the Marion campus.  My guess is he also was the one who encouraged a young Willie Tullis to go to the camp.  The one story I have confirmed is that, after a practice in Headland, Dad approached Willie and gave him some advice.  It was basic, but it became something Willie considered, and then incorporated into his workouts.  In a text to Dad, I shared this anecdote as an example of a  positive characteristic of his.

# 9, influential. When you advised a young Willie Tullis to do extra wind sprints after practice because it would benefit him, he did just that. Said it made him much better!


#12 Willie Tullis


Willie Tullis was drafted into the NFL and played eight seasons with three teams: the Oilers, Saints and Colts. His rookie year he returned kickoffs right beside the legendary Carl Roaches. I remember being in Barbour County, and the Oilers and Rams were on television. A kickoff went to Headland's Willie Tullis. See what transpired!  And, an article about the game.

 
 
courtesy of Craig Dixon
To read about Willie's induction into the Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame, click here.

And here's a story about Willie's induction into the Troy University Sports Hall of Fame.



The Headland football team photos came from HEADLAND FRIENDS AND MEMORIES.

And one of Willie on the Headland High baseball team.

 

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