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Tom Wilson, 74; former Rams halfback fought to get benefits for NFL retirees

January 07, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

While playing football as an enlisted man in the Air Force in the 1950s, Tom Wilson was such a prolific scorer that he earned the nickname "Touchdown Tommy" -- and caught the eye of a fellow named Pete Rozelle, then an executive with the Los Angeles Rams.

As a rookie halfback with the Rams, Wilson set what was then a National Football League single-game rushing record with 223 yards against the Green Bay Packers at the Coliseum in the last game of the 1956 season. He also led the league with a 31.8-yard kickoff return average that year.

Wilson played for the Rams under coaches Sid Gillman and Bob Waterfield before being traded to the Cleveland Browns in 1962.

The next year he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, and after the 1963 season he retired from professional football.

In eight seasons he gained 2,553 yards, averaging 5.03 yards per carry, and rushed for 18 touchdowns.

"He was a great running back that very few people knew about," Jim Brown, Wilson's teammate with the Browns, said in an interview with The Times on Saturday. "He had a very different style, a lot of stutter in his movements. He'd stutter around and find you a lot of yardage."

Wilson, 74, died Dec. 31 of colon cancer at his home in Pittsburg, Calif., where he was surrounded by friends and relatives, his daughter Katrina Wilson said.

In recent years he worked with other retired NFL players in the San Francisco Bay area to obtain benefits for ill or indigent league veterans who played in the days before guaranteed contracts and a collective bargaining agreement.

An excellent golfer known for his cross-handed style, he helped organize tournaments featuring other former NFL players to benefit children's charities in Northern California.

John Wooten, another former Browns teammate, called Wilson "a friend-for-life type of guy who got along with everybody all the time."

Wilson was born in 1932 in Stamford, Conn., and grew up in North Carolina. His father, Walter Wilson, was a railroad worker and his mother, Sadie, was a homemaker.

A good athlete in high school in Durham, Wilson played one season of minor league baseball before enlisting in the Air Force.

Rozelle, who would later go from the Rams' front office to become commissioner of the NFL, spotted Wilson on a scouting trip through the South. Wilson -- who scored 44 touchdowns in 31 games for Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina and Shaw AFB in South Carolina from 1953 to 1955 -- agreed to a contract and reported to the Rams in July 1956.

When his pro football career ended, Wilson moved to San Francisco, operated an auto body shop and raised a family.

Wilson's pro football bonds were strengthened by his son, Steve, who played 10 seasons in the NFL as a defensive back and wide receiver and went to the Super Bowl twice with the Denver Broncos.

"He was very supportive," said Steve Wilson, who is now head football coach at Texas Southern University. "We were one of many father-son combos that played in the NFL.... It was a pretty neat situation."

In addition to son Steve and daughter Katrina, Wilson is survived by his wife, Patsy Wilson; daughters Deborah Lewis and Wanda Rogers; son Michael Wilson; and brother Walter Wilson Jr. Another son, Tom Wilson Jr., died of cancer in 2004.

The family plans a celebration of Wilson's life next month.


Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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