The 49ers of the 1950's were loaded with stars on both sides of the ball. Players such as Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and Leo Nomellini drew raucous crowds every Sunday. One of the best receivers in the game played for the 49ers too. From 1951 through 1960, Billy Wilson overcame long odds to earn seven Pro Bowl invitations while leading the league in receptions three times. This is his story.
The Early Years
Billy Wilson was born on February 3, 1927 in Sayre, Oklahoma. He and his family moved to California when he was young to escape the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, seeking a better life in the Golden State.
They settled in the Bay Area and soon, he was starring on ballfields all over San Jose. After graduating from Campbell High School, Wilson enlisted in the Navy at the height of World War II. At the conclusion of the war, Billy Wilson returned home where he played enough for nearby San Jose State College to get noticed by the NFL.
He should have been thrilled that he had been drafted at all. Selected in the 22nd round of the 1950 NFL Draft by his hometown 49ers, he was the sixth receiver selected by San Francisco that year. In front of him were Morris Bailey, Don Van Pool, Ellery Williams, Tom Payne and Leo Crampsey. After Billy was selected with the 283rd pick, the 49errs drafted two more receivers, Jim Williams of Rice and Bob Stillwell of USC, neither or whom would make the final roster.
Facing seemingly insurmountable odds to make the team, Billy Wilson quickly began to catch the watchful eye of his coaches at his rookie camp of 1951, one catch at a time. He began his career as a lightly used receiver, catching 18 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns, good enough for an invitation to the Pro Bowl.
Two years later was the beginning of something special as he caught 51 passes for 840 yards and 10 touchdowns, narrowly missing out on the Pro Bowl. From that year through 1957, Billy Wilson finished each year having caught no less than 51 passes for 757 yards while making the Pro Bowl six straight years from 1954 through 1959.
Statistically, 1957 was not his best year. His 52 receptions paled in comparison to other years, yet he still managed to lead the NFL in receptions for the third time in his career. His 757 yards were just shy of his better years, yet he finished just behind the Colt's Raymond Berry for second in the league.
Arguably his greatest performance that year was in the Western Conference Playoffs against the Lions, catching nine passes for 107 yards and a touchdown while his teammates both built and squandered a 20-point lead. It would be the only playoff game of Billy Wilson's career.
After a three catch, 51 yard performance in 1960, Billy Wilson retired. Although he was done as a player, he was far from finished with the game itself, staying on with the 49ers for years as both a scout and a coach before passing away on January 27, 2009.