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UGA great Wally Williamson: Soldier, football star and the embodiment of a true Bulldog

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LAKE MARY, Fla. -- Wally Williamson grew up with aspirations to play professional football, but when his college career was over, he knew that would not be an option. His first college coach, Wallace Butts, summed up the situation concisely.

"Wally," he told the 5-foot-10, 200-pound guard, "you have everything but size."

By the time Wally's eligibility was exhausted (a three-year letterman 1960-'62) and he had coached the freshman team in '63, Georgia had a new coach, Vince Dooley. Wally was 10 hours shy of a degree. He was feeling insecure, even desperate, since his family could not underwrite the cost of the remainder of his education. He went to see Dooley, and an interesting development took place.

"Coach, I need 10 hours to get my degree," Wally said, not expecting the new sheriff in town to be sympathetic. Dooley's immediate response was, "Fine, you go to school and graduate."

Taken aback, Wally offered polite thanks and enrolled one final quarter, forever grateful to the man who would eventually become Georgia's winningest football coach.

"That was nice of him," Wally says. "He has always been a man I respected. He has a lot of class."

Later, he would experience another encounter with Dooley in which Wally was able to repay the Bulldog coach, but more about that later.

In those years, every able-bodied young man had to negotiate terms with his draft board. The Vietnam War was peaking. Wally expected to serve, but he didn't want to go to OCS and come out with a long term commitment to the military. He knew he would be drafted eventually. Then the terms would be dictated. He wanted a choice in his military duties.

With a long-standing interest in becoming a pilot, an Army recruiter told him about a warrant officer aviation course which meant that he could become a helicopter pilot -- a three-year commitment. So Wally became a pilot, later realizing that his military service as a helicopter pilot probably had as much risk as he would have experienced if he had been drafted and assigned infantry duty.

He had almost 1,000 hours of combat duty when his luck ran cold. He had often flown into heavy fire in the jungles in his Huey without ever being hit, but there was that fateful mission when gunfire from below came up through the floor of his chopper, and a bullet ripped through his right leg. The aircraft, disabled, still maintained air speed. His co-pilot, whom Wally was training, took over the controls. Wally applied a tourniquet to his leg, and the co-pilot maneuvered the helicopter to a rice paddy which was near a field hospital. They were eventually rescued.

His football experience had taught him not to panic. He knew that, as it is in football when you are injured, getting over the initial shock enables you to maintain control and embrace a sense of survival. After recuperating in Saigon, he was sent to Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, where he became a helicopter instructor until he was discharged.

Looking back, Wally, now retired, considers himself fortunate that his luck actually did not run out in a Vietnamese jungle when his helicopter was hit.

"I had several buddies who didn't make it home, and I still think about them today. It is not a good feeling," he laments.

About that second encounter with Dooley: Wally had drawn a cartoon Bulldog during his days as a player. The drawings became popular. When the University copyrighted all its symbols and images a few years back, Dooley asked Wally if he would allow his drawing to be included under the copyright protection.

"I drew for fun," Wally says. "I really didn't think about any monetary value, and if the university could benefit, then I was all for it. After all, the university really took care of me."