Clearance for Clarence: The Noble and Vanishing History of Guys Named Clarence in the NFL
By Jason Lisk
When Clarence Shelmon announced his retirement as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator prior to last season, and Chip (Clarence) Vaughn, who had played for the Colts in 2010 and was on the Panthers’ practice squad in 2011, failed to make a roster, it marked a historic moment. For the first time since 1935, no player or coach named Clarence was involved in a NFL season.
Clarence does not seem like a common name – likely because it has all but disappeared from the general population in recent years. However, 72 different men with the name “Clarence” have played in the NFL, even if they did not always go by that name. The somewhat hidden past popularity of the name Clarence came to my attention a couple of years ago, when doing research for this post on Elite Running Backs and Value in the Passing Game. In that post, I was looking at top quarterbacks and how their passing numbers changed depending on how good the running back was. Clarence Williams showed up as a running back for Dan Fouts with the Chargers, before they traded for Chuck Muncie (rest in peace) and drafted James Brooks.
So most people would have probably seen that there were six different guys named Clarence Williams and moved on. Not me, though, as some of these random stories are what I enjoy. Are you ready for more on Clarence Williams? Some of you may not be amused, but I hope some of you will enjoy.
The first Clarence Williams was drafted by the Rams and Chargers in 1965, and played for Los Angeles. He was also known as Clancy Williams. He was a great athlete who could have played both sides of the ball but settled at cornerback, where he started for six seasons on some great defenses playing behind the Fearsome Foursome. In 1970, in both he and Bart Starr’s final season as starters, he preserved a victory at Green Bay on Bart Starr day by returning an interception 65 yards in the final minute.
The next Clarence Williams played at Prairie View A&M at a time when college football was still highly segregated in the South and the historic black colleges were producing talent at a high rate. Older Packers fans may know him as Sweeny Williams. He was drafted in the 11th round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, but never played for them. How did he get to Green Bay? Well, as it turns out, he was part of a trade of a Packer legend, as star cornerback Herb Adderley demanded a trade before the 1970 season, and young Clarence Williams was sent to Green Bay as part of the deal. He started at defensive end for 7 years in Green Bay, making him the longest tenured Clarence on our list.
The third Clarence Williams is our Charger protagonist. He was a star running back at South Carolina, but was a little guy at 5’9″ and 194 lbs. He played sparingly until he got an opportunity in 1979, and led the team with 793 rushing yards, and had a then club record 4 touchdowns in a game against Buffalo.
Clarence Williams III was the son of the first Clarence Williams, born in Los Angeles while his father was playing with the Rams. He followed his father’s footsteps to Washington State, where he played tight end and running back. He had one career catch, from Vinny Testaverde of the Browns, in a game against New England in 1993, that also featured the first two touchdown catches of Keenan McCardell’s career.
The fifth Clarence Williams to play in the NFL was better known as “Pooh Bear”. You may remember him as a promising freshman at Florida State who then battled weight problems throughout his career as a running mate with Warrick Dunn. He was undrafted and had 5 career rushing yards. The final Clarence Williams, a back out of Michigan, matched Pooh Bear with 5 career yards in 2000.
Half of the guys named “Clarence Williams” went by a different name during their careers. That’s not unusual, and probably hints at why the name has dropped in popularity. It has, though, been a source of some high quality nicknames, with “Pooh Bear” being just one of many.
It’s unlikely that we will see a revival of Clarence in the league. Perhaps a lone star Clarence will emerge, after all, we just had first round picks named Ezekiel, Barkevious, Bjoern, and Cordarrelle. The NFL, though, is just following the pattern.
When you watch It’s a Wonderful Life and see the angel Clarence, it may be tempting to think Hollywood went with an unusual name. In truth, they went with a name as common as Brian or Jeremy at the time. According to the Social Security Baby Names site, the name Clarence was a top twenty male name for much of the early part of the century, and was among the top fifty names through 1935. It last appeared in the top 200 in 1973. In 2009, dropped completely out of the top 1000 male baby names for the first time.
Who might be the next “Clarence” of the NFL, a name that might disappear a generation from now?
I’m going to go with Larry. The name Larry shot up in popularity in the 1930’s as a top twenty male name, and remained there through the Baby Boomer generation and was still in the top fifty in 1973, when players would be turning 40 now. That surge corresponded with the expansion of professional football and the American Football League, and as a result, 195 players named Larry have played in the NFL, including Hall of Famers Larry Allen, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, Larry Wilson, and Rayfield Wright. Six guys named Larry played in 2012, most notably Larry Fitzgerald and Larry Foote.
However, the name has dipped in popularity quite a bit in recent years. It was chosen about as frequently in 2006 as the name Clarence was in 1990, when several of the players drafted in the last few Clarence-less drafts would have been born. It’s possible that by 2030, the name Larry will also be extinct in the NFL.
[photo via sdshof.com, npr.com, nolefan.org, amazon.com]