Born to a blue-collar, hardworking family in Gary, Ind., the man who would go on to become known as “The Hammer” never intended to be a football star.
A stellar track and field athlete growing up, Fred Williamson did not pick up the sport until his senior year at Froebel High School. In what would become typical logic and reasoning from Williamson, he learned the game of football for one very specific reason.
“I really didn’t want to play football, but I noticed that all the girls were following the football players around,” he said. “You could definitely say I was more interested in the girls than playing football. For some reason, I was an instant success in the sport. I was an all-state track athlete, all-state in sprints and all-state in the shotput. I’m a jock though, so I picked it up. I was all-state as a receiver that year too.”When it came time to choose which college he wanted to attend, Williamson was already looking far down the road. He wanted to be an architect when he was done with school and Northwestern proved to be the best fit for him. He could continue his studies and run track on scholarship.
A meeting with a legendary coach sent him on a different path, one that would ultimately lead him to the Super Bowl and worldwide fame.
“The same year I got on campus, Ara Parseghian was hired as head coach of the football team,” Williamson said. “He came out to see me one day at the track and asked me if I ever played any football and would I play for him. I became a flanker for Northwestern that year. I was the second black athlete that Northwestern had ever given a scholarship to. It was a lot of weight on my shoulders, but that motivated me.”
Willamson earned All-American honors at Northwestern, yet still gave no thought to a career in football once his time at Northwestern ended.
Things changed In 1960, when he signed with the San Francisco 49ers and made the switch to defensive back.
There, he earned his nickname and began his march to worldwide acclaim. An early innovator of the bump-and-run style of coverage (often predicated on delivering a bone-shattering forearm), Williamson was told by head coach Red Hickey to “stop hammering [his] receivers,” and the nickname stuck.
“What people didn’t understand about me was that I had a plan,” he explained. “As a defensive back, nobody knows your name. Fans know the guy who runs the ball, throws the ball, and catches the ball. I knew that I had to prove that I was something different, something special. This name that I got, ‘The Hammer,’ they were going to know that. I utilize it even today.”
Moving to the fledgling American Football League the following season, he ultimately found a home with the powerhouse Kansas City Chiefs under Hall of Fame head coach Hank Stram. While in Kansas City, Williamson won an AFL Championship and took part in Super Bowl I.
He knew it was time to start on the next phase of his career after he could not physically do the things that he wanted to do on the field and began to focus on life after football.
“When I played in San Francisco, I had a job in the off season with a construction company and I figured that would be my ‘in’ to being an architect,” he explained. “It was a liberal city, a liberal state, and I was sure that is what I wanted to do. Those 9-5 days though, that wasn’t for me. I was sitting at home one day watching TV and a show called Julia with Diahann Carroll was on. She had a different boyfriend every week. I thought to myself, I’m better looking than all those guys, so I packed up a U-Haul trailor and moved downtown Hollywood, met the producers of the show, and signed a three-year contract.”
Just like that, the Hollywood phase of Williamson’s life began. He went on to star in the film version of M*A*S*H and alongside fellow football great Jim Brown in “Three the Hard Way,” “Take a Hard Ride,” “One Down, Two To Go,” “Original Gangstas” and “On the Edge.” Now, at 78, the unlikely Hollywood star is still going strong, still acting and still living the life of “The Hammer.”
“I can go anywhere in the world, walk down any street, and folks might not know I played football, but they know I’m ;The Hammer,'” he said.