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Remembering Clemson's ‘Brer Hare'

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Billy Hair
Billy Hair, pictured during his days as a Walterboro Wildcat, was born in St, Matthews and later starred at Clemson

C.J. Spiller remains fresh in the minds of Clemson fans as he returns this weekend to have his jersey retired.

Perhaps, not so fresh is the memory of a former star Tiger tailback with T&D ties that still holds one record that even Spiller couldn't break.

Billy Hair was perhaps the most explosive running back in Clemson football history and a legend around the Lowcountry. The name is recognized by many, and sometimes, still bantered around in barbershops and taprooms across the state some 60 years later.

For football fans in Colleton County, he may be the best of all time. At Clemson, he's a Hall of Famer.

Inside the T&D Region, Hair might just be the one that got away. Yes, had his father not received word of an impending job transfer from the S.C. Highway Department in 1943, local football lore may have changed forever.

Kid from the crossroads

Born William Willis Hair in St. Mathews in 1930, the future football phenom moved to the small Edisto River hamlet known as Canadys as a child after his father, John Dalton Hair, was transferred there for his new job.

Growing up, Billy sometimes ran to school, a practice not uncommon for kids in the earlier part of the 1900s, but consider the location. Hair attended school in Walterboro, about 10 miles from his parent's home. The fleet-footed youngster eventually tried out for Walterboro High's football team, defying his mother's wishes in the process.

He made the varsity as a freshman and led the once-lowly Walterboro Wildcats to a 20-7 record over his final three seasons. He led the team in rushing, passing and punting and scored 35 touchdowns out of Walterboro's vaunted single-wing offense during the 20-7 run. Hair was even offered a professional baseball contract by the Cleveland Indians and was also a basketball star at WHS.

George Daily was Hair's high school football coach, and he had nothing but praise for his former player in a 1987 interview with the Summerville Journal Scene.

"He and Red Grange had a lot in common," Daily recalled. "I think he was born to carry the football, both he and Red Grange.

"He was magic - He never got full credit for his ability."

Eventually, Hair would get his credit. During his senior season at Walterboro, the triple-threat player was as highly recruited as any player in the country. He had more than 30 major scholarship offers.

One particular recruiting visit stands above the rest, an in-home visit with Clemson head coach Frank Howard, Wake Forest head coach Peahead Walker, and the legendary Bear Bryant, who was then head coach at Kentucky.

"I remember one time when Coach Howard, Bear Bryant and Peahead Walker all ended up in the house at the same time," Hair recalled in '81. "They all sat around and swapped stories. For a little crossroads town like Canadys, it was something to have three great coaches together like that."

Hair also entertained the notion of attending the University of Tennessee, which coveted his services enough to sponsor a recruiting trip to, of all places, Havana, Cuba, in an attempt to woo the young prospect into Volunteer Orange. But a meeting with the Volunteers' legendary leader Gen. Robert Neyland on a later recruiting visit soured Hair on heading to Knoxville.

After being led into Neyland's office, Hair addressed Neyland as "coach."

"He said, ‘Son, let's get one thing straight. The boys around here call me General.' That just didn't set right with me, so I didn't sign'," Hair told The Post and Courier.

Ultimately though, it was Lucille Hair who made the final recruiting decisions. She wanted her son to go to Clemson.

Clemson it would be, even if Howard did stumble on Lucille's dinner table request during the infamous three-coach recruiting visit.

"My grandmother called him out," said Robbie Hair, Billy's oldest son. "My grandmother said, ‘Coach Howard, do you want to lead us in grace?' Supposedly, he stuttered all over himself before he did, and I think the story goes that it was Bear Bryant who said, ‘Frank, that's the first time I've ever seen you at a loss for words.' I think my grandmother had it in her mind the whole time that Daddy was going to go to Clemson. She just wanted to test (Howard) a little bit."

‘Brer Hare'

As great as Spiller was during his four years at Clemson, he couldn't surpass Billy Hair, at least not in one statistical category.

Hair's sophomore season at Clemson in 1950 (NCAA regulations prevented freshmen from playing in those days) still stands at 7.39 yards per carry. Spiller averaged 7.27 yards per rush during his freshman season in 2006 and would go on to rewrite several lines in the Tigers' record books, but the elusive mark for yards per rush in a single season still belongs to Hair.

The Tigers' triple-threat back was inducted into the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983, although his journey toward legend status in the Upstate nearly didn't happen. Hair struggled with academics during his freshman year and battled confidence issues.

A pairing with longtime Clemson backfield coach Covington "Goat" McMillan proved to be the solution. Hair started the 1950 season second on the depth chart at tailback before finally breaking through during the fourth game of the season, then the Tigers' traditional showdown with instate rival South Carolina. Clemson, then 3-0 on the season and trailing 7-0 with 1:30 left to play in the first half, was looking for a spark and found it in the sophomore from Walterboro High School. Hair caught a 55-yard touchdown pass to end the half, and Clemson went on to play the Gamecocks to a 14-14 tie that eventually preserved the Tigers' undefeated season.

The Billy Hair Era was off and running - and throwing - and catching - and punting.

Hair averaged over 200 yards of total offense over his next five games and scored five touchdowns (two rushing, three passing) in a 53-20 rout of Duquesne. He also averaged 34.1 yards per punt.

Clemson's 9-0-1 record earned the Tigers a berth to the Orange Bowl and date with the Miami Hurricanes.

The Tigers, a heavy underdog, went on to win 15-14, at the time the single biggest victory in the program's history. Clemson fans everywhere had their sophomore sensation to thank. Hair came off the bench to throw a pair of touchdown passes. For the game, he accounted for 226 of the team's 330 total yards.

Statistically, the 1951 season was Hair's best. Then the full-time starter at tailback and conductor of the Tigers' version of the single-wing, Hair etched his name into Tiger lore with 1,702 yards of total offense and 14 touchdowns, good for best in the Southern Conference and third in the nation.

Hair headed into the 1952 season a lock to earn All-American honors and a full-fledged candidate for the Heisman Trophy. A print campaign for the latter was already under way, as Clemson sent out a comic strip promoting its star back. The piece, entitled "Brer Hare is still around," depicted the Tigers' star back as having the speed of rabbit or hare.

Unfortunately for Hair, neither All-American honors nor a trip to the Heisman banquet were in the cards. Hair was injured in the sixth game of the season against Boston College, tearing cartilage in his knee to go along with already lingering shoulder problems. The setback ended Hair's college career, and Clemson limped to a 4-5 record.

Even with concerns of the injury, the Green Bay Packers selected Hair in the second round of the 1952 draft, but the once dynamic back never could find his old form in two seasons.

Life after football

Hair returned south after his unsuccessful run in Green Bay and tried his hand at coaching high school football and baseball.

The coach tag didn't stick, and Hair eventually went to work near his childhood home, settling in Summerville and working as an engineer.

The elder Hair spent much of his free time enjoying the outdoors. Billy was an avid gardener, hunter and fisherman, enjoying the nearby waters of the Edisto to its fullest by taking out boats he crafted by hand on day-long floats.

He also enjoyed golf, developing a passion for the game while in college.

Still, Billy's days of football glory lingered. The former star was often recognized in public by Clemson and WHS fans, who were often star-struck at the sight of their idol. Greg said that while his father was proud of his football career, he wasn't one to offer up old war stories. It didn't fit his father's personality.

Billy Hair's last public appearance came in Walterboro in 2002, when he was inducted into the Colleton County Football Hall of Fame. Less than a year later, Hair was dead, taken by the symptoms of lymphoma and heart problems that followed. He died August 23, 2003.

A legacy in green

Billy Hair is gone, but his legacy lives on.

The surname conjures up a lasting image in Summerville as well.

Buford Blanton remembers Hair well. Blanton was on the opposing side in the 1947 showdown between WHS and Summerville High and played against Hair on the college level as well, while attending The Citadel.

He recalls the '47 game against the Wildcats vividly. The Green Wave came in undefeated and unscored upon - that is, until meeting up with Walterboro's dynamic tailback.

"What I remember about Billy more than anything else is my junior year we played Walterboro and we were undefeated and unscored on," Blanton said. "Billy was the first back to score on us that year, and it was like a defeat, really. We ended up winning the ballgame 12-6, but without a doubt, Billy was the best high school football player I ever played against. He could throw it, he could run and he could punt, plus he was one of the greatest guys I've ever known in my life. I played against him in college too, and back in those days The Citadel played Tulane and Georgia Tech and Clemson in the old Southern Conference. I played against six or seven All-Americans at The Citadel, and I would put Billy right there with them."

 

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