Bobby Wilson had returned home after serving 32 months in the U.S. Army during World War II, and having been a standout athlete at Piedmont High, he tried out at Alabama, hoping to make legendary coach Frank Thomas’ football squad.
He didn’t. But Wilson gave it a shot at Ole Miss, and the Rebels’ coach, Harold “Red” Drew, let him stay and awarded him a scholarship. It marked a major moment in the athletic career of Wilson, who will be inducted into the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Wilson, who died in 2008, showed up at the Ole Miss tryout with two friends. Martha Wilson, a fellow Ole Miss student who eventually became his wife, said it was one of the friends the coaches really wanted, but Wilson “was the only one who did anything there.”
In a four-year career playing both offense and defense, he intercepted 20 passes, which was a Southeastern Conference record. That included 10 interceptions his senior season in 1949, also a record.
The season record fell in 1982 when Georgia’s Terry Hoage intercepted 12. The career record still stands, although LSU’s Chris Williams matched Wilson’s mark in 1977-80.
He helped win an SEC championship in 1947, the first of six Ole Miss won under then-coach John Vaught, who took over when Drew replaced the retiring Thomas at Alabama. In 1948, the Rebels went 8-1, with only a loss to Tulane keeping them from winning another league title. Also, Wilson helped Ole Miss to wins over rival Mississippi State his sophomore, junior and senior years.
He played baseball, too, making all-SEC and serving as team captain as a senior.
And to hear family tell the story, Wilson never bragged about those accomplishments.
“But he didn’t brag about anything he had done,” said Larry Gowens, a Piedmont resident and second cousin to Wilson. “He wouldn’t brag about anything. He was just a regular, common person.”
Martha Wilson said that later, when she and her husband moved to Johnson City, Tenn., as he accepted a coaching job at Carson-Newman, he hardly talked at all about his playing days.
“We were here 10 years before anybody even knew he had played at Ole Miss,” she said.
Wilson’s time at Ole Miss hardly makes up all of his athletic history. As a Piedmont High senior in 1942, he paced the team to a 7-2 record, while scoring nine touchdowns, passing for five more and kicking 14 extra points.
After finishing at Ole Miss, he had a chance to play either baseball or football professionally. The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles had chosen him in the ninth round, but Wilson signed with the Cincinnati Reds, who picked him in the baseball draft.
He spent three years in the Reds’ minor league organization. He had a career batting average of .292 with 18 home runs. His best season came in 1952 with the Columbia (S.C.) Reds.
Playing for former St. Louis Cardinals World Series pitcher Ernie White, Wilson ripped 40 doubles, 10 triples and seven homers as he played outfield and batted a team-high .303. The Reds went 100-54 and won the Class A South Atlantic League championship.
“He had decided to give baseball three years,” Martha White said. “He liked it a lot and was proud of winning the championship his last year.
“In the spring, he would be invited to spring training as a non-roster player, and one of the stories he would tell was about playing against Jackie Robinson. He slid into second base, and there was Jackie Robinson, who was the second baseman. He was safe.
“Also, he played against a lot of the New York Yankees, who were his team when he was growing up. He always liked Yogi Berra.”
Both Robinson and Berra are now in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
When Wilson finished, he and his family went to Greenwood, Miss., where he and Martha served as high school coaches and teachers for 12 years. They enjoyed the high school life, but in 1964, something new came along.
Carson-Newman was looking for an assistant baseball and football coach, and Sam “Frosty” Holt, the school’s head coach in football, basketball and baseball, called Ole Miss looking for a recommendation.
“They wanted someone who was a Johnny Vaught-coached person, and Bobby was recommended,” Martha Wilson said.
The recommendation came from Vaught himself and Tom Swazy, the school’s baseball coach.
The Wilsons moved to Jefferson City, Tenn., in July 1964. While Bobby was slated to coach and teach health and physical education, Martha Wilson was hired as a physical education teacher as well.
Before baseball season, however, Holt took ill, and Bobby Wilson was named head coach.
He spent 23 years in the position, winning the NAIA national championship in 1965. One of his players was future major league pitcher Clyde Wright.
“It was basically the same team they had the year before,” Martha Wilson said, “but he was happy he could take them all the way.”
Baseball was only one of his responsibilities. He also taught a full class load, and Martha Wilson said in those days, Carson-Newman had Saturday morning classes, too, “so he would teach class on Saturdays and then go coach a baseball game.”
“These days, there’s a whole regimen of people to help, but back then, there was just one baseball coach,” Martha Wilson said. “He did it all — recruiting, scouting, raking the field. But he just loved it.
“He loved helping young people. He enjoyed it when they would come back and tell him how much they appreciated him coaching them.”
Even after he finished coaching, he didn’t stop his involvement with sports. Martha Wilson said he played some golf. They also enjoyed trips each summer to see the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves play.
They traveled to various major league parks, and at one point, they were only five stadiums away from seeing every active park in the majors. Then came the building boom, with cities tearing down old stadiums and putting up new ones.
“After that, we gave up trying to see them all,” she said.
He also spent time watching his children participate in sports, then his grandchildren.
“From the time he first picked up a ball at Piedmont until he died, he was always involved in sports,” Martha Wilson said.
Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter @MarkSportsStar.