Tennessee has had hundreds of great athletes, a host of all-Americans, many professionals and one Ron Widby.
The most versatile Volunteer, the last four-sport letterman, died Tuesday at age 75. He lived in Allen, Texas, a couple or three streets north of Dallas. This is not an obituary. It is intended as a genuine celebration of his life.
Good friend and former teammate Bill Justus said Ron didn’t just die, he ran out of gas. He had health problems for years. As far back as the 40th reunion of the championship basketball season, Widby had trouble moving around.
That was a discouraging dropoff from the good times – outstanding multi-talented athlete at Fulton High School, all-American football punter and basketball forward for the Volunteers, very good first baseman and a .300 hitter in baseball with surprising power and touch in golf.
Had there been more months in the year, he would have undoubtedly played tennis and found something to do in track and field. He loved competition. Games were so much fun.
Widby played professional basketball in the old ABA, punted in two Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and ended the football part of his career with the Green Bay Packers. He still holds the Cowboys’ record for the longest punt – 84 yards.
He became a teaching pro in golf and just missed qualifying for the Senior PGA. When his club had no tennis pro, Widby demonstrated his ability and knowledge and was certified to fill that void. He had just taken up tennis. His experience was hitting balls fed by a machine
When his athletic adventures finally dwindled to celebrity golf tournaments, he became a gentleman farmer.
“That was mostly a hobby,” said Justus.
There were no wide Widby cornfields or great crops of hay.
Justus said, best he could tell, there never was another Knoxville athlete like Ron Widby.
“He could do it all, play any game, and make it look easy. His skill set didn’t require a lot of practice. He was a natural.”
“God gave me a talent,’’ Widby once said. “I really can’t explain why, but sports came naturally … A lot of people asked if I got tired (playing four sports). I said, ‘No, I was young.’”
I saw that Widby was exceptional at age 10. I was the referee for Saturday morning biddy basketball at old Knoxville High School gym. He was best in his age group. After that, he simply excelled, game by game, sport by sport, year by year.
Widby wasn’t a fast runner or spectacular jumper but he was 6-4, 210, graceful, quick, competitive and blessed with remarkable hand-eye coordination.
I hurt his feelings once by writing that he was too slow to be a basketball guard and not tall enough to be a great forward. He didn’t read the next paragraph to find that he was the best betweener I had ever seen. He had no way of knowing that I cast the clinching vote that put him on an all-America team.
I got in trouble a second time. He told me the Vols were going to win the 1966-67 SEC basketball title. I doubted it.
When they clinched the crown in three overtimes at Mississippi State, Widby and too many teammates waited patiently for me to write a game story and sidebar and send the reports to Knoxville. They then politely picked me up, hauled me to the team dressing room and stuffed me, fully clothed, into a cold shower.
Widby provided one medium towel and an explanation: “I told you so.”
Those scoundrels ruined my best Kmart suit but loaned me a warmup uniform for the plane ride home.
Widby was more famous for his double-doubles, basketball and football on the same weekends.
On Friday, Dec. 17, 1965, he and the Vols were in Shreveport, La., in the Gulf South basketball tournament. On Saturday afternoon, he played football in Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl. A UT plane was standing by to get him back to Shreveport for Saturday night basketball.
A year later, he played in the Sugar Bowl basketball tournament in New Orleans on Thursday and Friday nights and punted in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon.
There may have never been a better senior year. Ron led the nation in punting average at 43.8 yards. He averaged 22.1 points and 8.7 rebounds while leading the Volunteers to a conference basketball title. He was SEC player of the year. He scored 50 in his last regular season game.
“He was a special athlete,’’ Justus said. “If we were playing croquet, I’d take him on my team.”
(Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org).