Norm Willey passed away at the age of 83-years old in Newark, Delaware on August 18, 2011. While many young Philadelphia Eagles fans may know nothing about him, he is one of the greatest defensive players in franchise history.
He was drafted by the Eagles in the 13th round of the 1950 draft. He was the 170th player picked overall. Nicknamed “Wild Man” by his teammates, Willey was known for for his reckless abandon on the field.
After a exceptional career in both football and basketball in college, Willey was later inducted into the Marshall University Athletics Hall of Fame. He quickly earned a starting job for the Eagles and intercepted a pass in his rookie year, taking it 41-yards for a touchdown. He also had a career high four fumbles recovered that year.
Willey picked off the last pass of his career in 1952 and scored the last touchdown of his career off of a fumble recovery in 1954. But Willey did more than tackle opponents. He also caught 2 passes for 50 yards in 1954.
He was named to his first Pro Bowl and lone All-Pro team that year. Willey would then make his final Pro Bowl team in 1955.
He retired after the 1957 season at 30-years old. Though he left the Eagles, he stayed in the area and dedicated his life to teaching kids both on and off the gridiron.
Teaching physical education and football, as well as being a driving instructor, Willy had a tremendous impact on Pennsville, New Jersey. The the Norm Willey Boot trophy is awarded annually to the winner of the Pennsville-Pennsgrove football game.
Willey is one of the best pass rushers in the history of the Eagles, even if the record books cannot give him the respect he deserves. The NFL did not start recording the quarterback sack statistic officially until 1982. Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas had seven sacks in one game during the 1990 season, and this is called the NFL record.
“I guess I came along too soon,” Willey once said.”I’d get two or three a game, but no one kept count. If I played today, I’d be setting records and getting rich. Back then, no one paid attention to the defense.”
Willey sacked New York Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly 17 times in one game during the 1952 season. A game that New York writers in that era said “Willey’s the greatest defensive end we have ever seen, and probably the greatest we’ll ever see.”
Giants Hall of Fame halfback Frank Gifford once wrote that Willey was “very fast and we were very slow.” Conerly left the field bleeding and limping, and Eagles coach Jim Trimble argued with the Giants chaplain, because the chaplain felt Conerly was abused too much.
Named the NFL Player of the Week for his monstrous day, Willey said the best moment was collecting $170 in incentive bonuses. Paid just $9,000 yearly, Willey was given $10 each time he hit the opposing quarterback.
It is a shame so many defensive statistics were overlooked for decades by the NFL, and it took until the 1980’s for the league to start officially recognizing important ones like sacks and tackles. If Willey’s day had been an official stat, it may sit along other notable accomplishments like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
The “Wild Man” should be in the Eagles Ring of Honor. Not just for his Pro Bowls and incredible amount of sacks, but for what he did for the surrounding community for 60 years of his life.
Rest in Peace Norman Earle Willey.