Walker Gillette was a college football Phenom. He was invited and played in three college All-Star games. He was mentioned in numerous national magazines that covered college football plus was named an All-American as a wide receiver out of the University of Richmond, and also was the Southern Conference Player-of-the-Year.
He was then taken by the San Diego Chargers with the 15th pick in the first-round of the 1970 NFL draft. This was the very first season in which all of the American Football League franchises were officially a part of the NFL as one huge league. And Gillette would became a part of the new union.
Gillette joined the Giants in 1974, the first year that highly sought-after defensive guru Bill Arnsparger was named head coach. While the defensive units improved for the Giants during Arnsparger’s time with players such as Brad Van Pelt, Brian Hughes, George Martin, John Mendenhall, Harry Carson and Clyde Powers, the offense was ranked in the bottom seven clubs all three years.
In his first year with the Giants, the team sported the lower case “ny” design used today with the single red stripe. Then in his second season, New York used the altered “NY” helmet design commonly called the disco helmet which featured a single red center stripe grouped with two white stripes. And in his third season with the Giants, the club went to the “GIANTS” helmet decal design and kept the three stripe set-up.
Walker Gillette is now retired and lives in Franklin, Virginia. Big Blue View was able to get with him to reflect on some of the “Wilderness Years” teams, his college accomplishments and what he did after he hung up his cleats.
BBV: You were a very gifted athlete at Southampton High School in Norfolk, Virginia including a stellar track career. What inspired you to stay with football?
GILLETTE: At Southampton in Courtland, Virginia, I played football, basketball and ran track. I loved running track, but team sports are more fun because you depend on all your teammates to win. I was good at pole vault, high jump, high and low hurdles, the 440, and mile relay, fair at basketball, but football is another story. Our football offense ran a split-T backfield with a big line and just ran over everybody. I played one of the tight ends and blocked. We never passed the ball until the second half of every game.
BBV: The game of football is in your genetics as your dad Jim played in the NFL and won an NFL Championship with the Cleveland Rams in 1945. Was football always first-and-foremost in your family while growing up, or did your dad let you be a kid and decide to play the game on your own?
GILLETTE: I was just like any kid growing up on a farm. My dad never pushed me to play football and I never knew how good he was until I was in college. He was a running back. My dad really wanted me to play baseball but the game was just too slow for me.
BBV: Why did you choose the University of Richmond?
GILLETTE: I wanted to go to the University of Virginia where my father went, but they didn’t want me. The University of Richmond gave me a full scholarship. I could not have gone to college without a scholarship.
BBV: You played quite a bit as a sophomore, and then your senior year you busted out for 1,090 yards with 11 TDs. Was this because you had finally jelled as a receiver, or that Charlie Richards was now the QB having taken over for Buster O’Brien?
GILLETTE: Richmond was just completing the longest losing streak in college football history when I was a freshman. Then came a new head coach in Frank Jones and he turned the program around. My QB my junior year was Buster O’Brien and we beat Division I undefeated Ohio University in the 1968 Tangerine Bowl and then AP ranked us 25th in the country. I caught everything that was thrown at me, but we didn’t pass as much in 1967, passed a bit more in 1968, and passed a lot in 1969 even on first down. I used to love third-and-10 because I knew we had to pass to get a first down.
BBV: It seemed like every magazine who covered college football had you mentioned after you were named All-American and Southern Conference Player-of-the-Year such as “Time Magazine”, “Look” and the “The Sporting News.” Do you still have any of those old publications and what did your dad say to you about all the publicity you were getting?
GILLETTE: I have all those publications and I was the very first consensus All-American player at Richmond and made First-Team on five lists. In 1969, I was the Southern Conference Athlete-of-the-Year for competing in both football and track. I can’t remember what my dad said at the time.
BBV: Name all of the college All-Star and bowl games you played in, and how did you do in each especially the Tangerine Bowl game in which you gained 242 yards on only 20 receptions?
GILLETTE: 1968 Tangerine Bowl, 1969 Hula Bowl, 1969 North-South Shrine Bowl and 1969 College All-Star Game. Was MVP of the Tangerine Bowl.
BBV: The Chargers selected you at number 15 in the first-round in the 1970 NFL draft. This was the first season in which all of the AFL teams were merged with all of the NFL clubs. Was there much talk about the merger in your rookie season and was it the opinion of the Chargers that they could compete with the established NFL clubs?
GILLETTE: My rookie season with the Chargers was not good. The veterans were all on strike in 1970 and I started all six preseason games and was their leading receiver. When the vets came back right before the first regular season game, I didn’t play again until the 14th game other than punt and kickoff special teams.
BBV: Wide receivers taken in the first-round in today’s NFL are expected to start and play quite a bit. That was not necessarily the case in the 1970s as rookies were considered at the bottom of most things. Did it frustrate you to get minimal playing time after such a stellar college career?
GILLETTE: Yes it did! Today’s first-round picks become millionaires. I was the highest paid rookie San Diego had ever signed at $20,000.
BBV: What were the main differences between the college game and the professional game?
GILLETTE: In the pros everybody is good.
BBV: The Cardinals traded for you. How did you hear the news, and what were your first thoughts?
GILLETTE: I requested to be traded because they would not play me. I asked them, “Why did you draft me?” My career finally began in St. Louis.
BBV: The Giants then picked you from waivers. St. Louis and San Diego are not huge markets and suddenly you are going to New York City. Were you excited to playing in a larger market or did you have your doubts?
GILLETTE: The size of the market meant nothing. All I wanted to do was play.
BBV: You proved to be a pivotal pickup for the Giants especially when WR Don Hermann went down. What type of bond did you develop with QB Craig Morton?
GILLETTE: Craig always looked for me down field because he knew I would catch the ball. The first pass he threw to me went for 70-yards in the air. I didn’t know he could throw it that far.
BBV: The next season in 1975 you won the starting position in training camp. Did you feel at that point that somehow you had redeemed yourself as an NFL receiver?
GILLETTE: Being on the right team is just luck. It’s a team sport and everybody needs to be good at that level. I never played for a team that had a running game. After seven years and seven different head coaches I was ready to get on with my life.
BBV: Where did most players hang out after practices or games?
GILLETTE: Most of us had families and were busy. I don’t remember the places we use to go after games.
BBV: You played three seasons with the Giants and had three helmet designs. The 1975 season was the first (and only) year the franchise sported the new mod “NY” design which has now been called the “disco helmet.” At the time, what did you think of the new design, and why was it hated so much by the fans?
GILLETTE: I never thought about helmet logos. It didn’t matter to me as long as it kept me safe. As you must know now those suspension helmets weren’t that good and many of my former teammates got their brains raddled.
BBV: Who were some of your favorite teammates while on the Giants?
GILLETTE: I had many.
BBV: Your time in New York was some of the worst Giants teams of all time. What were the main issues?
GILLETTE: There were many issues but that is history.
BBV: Bill Arnsparger was known as a great defensive mind and the only coach you had in New York until he was fired after starting the 1976 season 0-7-0. The defensive units were always pretty good during this time period. Did Arnsparger spend any time trying to improve the offense or did he just not care about that side of the ball at all?
GILLETTE: I really don’t want to comment on any coaches’ ability.
BBV: In 2009 you found out that your college coach Frank Jones had passed away from a stroke. Where were you when you heard the news, and did you feel like a close relative had been taken from you?
GILLETTE: Coach Frank Jones was a great coach. He became a mentor for me later and the last 20-years of his life a great friend. I was very saddened of his death and spoke at his funeral.
BBV: After football you went into the brokerage investor business. What got you interested in this line of work?
GILLETTE: I needed a job! I majored in math with a minor in physics. When I got out of football there was no severance pay – nothing. I had to move and downsize my home mortgage from $484 a month to $250 a month. I got a job in marketing for 10-years calling on banks all over the country selling direct mail. Then I became a financial advisor so I didn’t have to travel. I did well and now have retired.
BBV: You were employed by Wheat First Butcher Singer for many years until they were purchased in 1997 for $471 million by First Union. After a buyout, what usually happens to the employees that were part of the original firm and how does a transition usually enhance rather than diminish?
GILLETTE: I went through many mergers. I kept all my clients and there weren’t any problems.
BBV: It seemed like there were a lot more specialists with the regional brokerages with storied histories, and then suddenly the brokerages went from specialists to generalists. Your thoughts?
GILLETTE: No thoughts.
BBV: As a testament to your college career you were inducted into the University of Richmond Hall of Fame and also the Citrus Bowl Hall of Fame. How were you notified with each, what was your reaction, and who was the first person you told?
GILLETTE: I was also inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 two months after my father died. He was also inducted into the Virginia HOF. We are the only father/son inductees.
BBV: Last year in the fourth-round, the Giants drafted QB Kyle Lauletta from your alma mater Richmond. There are similarities in that each of you had grand college careers. What advice would you give to him about life in the NFL?
GILLETTE: I wish him all the luck in the world. It was fun.
BBV: What are your fondest memories about being a New York Football Giant?
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association