Two Who Died Young

Two Lombardi era Packers who died young shared January 14 as their birthdays: defensive tackle Ron Kostelnik and kick returner Travis Williams. They offered a true contrast, though. Kostelnik, whom I’ve written of before, was steady and reliable both on and off the field until his premature death at age 53; Williams was a blaze of brilliance on the field and a sad case off of it.

When Travis Williams died in 1991 at the age of 45, his former roommate Ken Bowman said, “For a brief flash, he was one of the best. He was without peer during that time with his speed and size.” The 6’1” 210-pound Williams reportedly ran a 9.3 100 in college and had run second to Olympian Henry Carr at the Compton relays and third to Bob Hayes and John Moon at an AAU meet in New Brunswick, N.J.

However, the Roadrunner’s career can be boiled down to a handful of games. Drafted out of Arizona State in the fourth round in 1967, Williams nearly didn’t make the Packers because of ball security issues. He wasn’t used as a kick returner until week seven against the Cardinals when his fourth quarter 93-yard kick return touchdown gave the Packers the game’s lead. Two weeks later against the Browns, he returned two kicks for touchdowns in the first quarter. Then in week 13, his third quarter 104-yard return against the Rams tied the game. In the first playoff game against the Rams, Travis scored twice from scrimmage, but then played little in the NFL title game and the Super Bowl.

In 1968, he averaged just 1.9 yards per carry as a runner and 21 yards per kick return. He had a better year in 1969, but his two big moments, a 96-yard kick return touchdown and an 81-yard punt return touchdown, both came in the same game against the 1-13 Steelers. Two years later, he was with the Rams, and a year after that, a knee injury ended his career. The subsequent plummet to alcoholism, homelessness and early death was precipitous and is well known.

Essentially, Williams had five great games with Green Bay. Even with his franchise record five kick return touchdowns, he is second in career kick return average in team annals to Dave Hampton.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom cards in Topps styles.

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