It was Oct. 8, 1950. Billy Grimes has plenty of reason to smile and laugh as he recalls that day. Packer fans shivering in their seats at old City Stadium needed something to cheer about and it was Grimes who put on a one-man show. Leaving frantic New York Yank defenders in his wake all afternoon, Grimes piled up 226 all-purpose yards. He rushed for a then team-record 167 yards on 10 carries. The former Oklahoma State standout also sparkled as a receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner.
It was a performance that signaled an outstanding season for Grimes as he accounted for a total of 1,896 all-purpose yards, a Packer and then-NFL record. He set a team single-season record by averaging 19.1 yards on 29 punt returns. He also returned 26 kickoffs for 600 yards (a 23.1- yard average), rushed for a team-high 480 yards (including a dazzling 73-yard touchdown) and caught 17 passes for another 261 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown that stood as a Packer record for 45 years until Robert Brooks finally broke it in 1995 on a 99-yard scoring strike from Brett Favre against the Bears.
Grimes recalled his stunning 96-yard touchdown catch against the 49ers in San Francisco on Dec. 10, 1950. "The field was about ankle deep in sand and mud because it had rained about six weeks out there," said Grimes. "Everybody was coming across the field and I cut back. Well, they couldn't stop and I wound up going all the way."
Although he only played in Green Bay for three seasons, Grimes' impact on his team was immediate and pronounced. He had a flair for the dramatic, dodging and weaving his way to big plays - and into the Packer record books. Though he was an extremely versatile performer, Grimes truly excelled as a kick returner.
"Back then, you played everything," Grimes recalled. "We were on the kickoff team, the punting team, the kickoff return team and the punt return team. Then you played offense. The only thing I didn't do was play defense. You didn't think about it back then. There weren't any specialists, except quarterbacks. You just played anywhere they put you."
Though he wasn't a "specialist," Grimes was truly a special kick returner and he loved it. "Oh, yeah," he chuckled. "And I had one of the best blockers in the world – Tony Canadeo. He was one of the toughest, hard-hitting gentlemen that I have ever known."
Besides teaming up with Canadeo on punt and kickoff returns, the two often shared the offensive backfield.
"He (Canadeo) could run. He could kick. He could pass. He could do it all and he could block," Grimes said. "I've seen him block some of them big ends that come charging in there like Ed Sprinkle (Bears) and some that out-weighed him by quite a few pounds. They didn't get to the quarterback because they had to go through Tony and he didn't let 'em!"
In only his second game with the Packers, Grimes signaled that he was a force to be reckoned with. As Green Bay played host to the Washington Redskins at State Fair Park, Grimes fielded a punt and raced 85 yards to a touchdown in the Packers' 35-21 victory. Just seven days later, against the Bears in Green Bay, Grimes scampered 68 yards to pay dirt in a thrilling 31-21 upset triumph.
‘Rude awakening' in LA
Ironically, it was the Bears who held the second round rights to Grimes when he entered the 1949 NFL college player draft. Why didn't he end up with Chicago? Again comes the belly laugh. "Well, money!" Grimes said. "(Chicago Bears owner) George Halas was pretty tight-fisted. I got a little more bonus, more than double bonus and over a thousand dollars more in salary."
The winning offer - $7,500 - for Grimes' services that first year came from the Los Angeles Dons of the rival All-America Football Conference. The future for Grimes looked bright. He got decent money and a chance to play in the California sunshine.
"I was naïve enough to think that there weren't any problems," said Grimes. "So, I took my wife and two kids and we moved out there. I got them set up in an apartment. But after two weeks of training camp, I realized that they'd cut you if you didn't make the team. I'd say, ‘Where's so-and-so?' and they'd say, ‘He's gone!' I thought everyone who signed up was on the team. It was a rude awakening and the season hadn't started yet."
Although Grimes put together a respectable season by rushing 83 times for 429 yards and four touchdowns, the Dons were no great shakes.
"We were overshadowed, more or less, by San Francisco and the Cleveland Browns. Paul Brown had built up a powerhouse and he won all those championships."
To make things even worse, the All-American Conference was in serious financial trouble and, when the '49 season ended, the league folded.
Grimes suddenly found himself looking for work – but it didn't take long to find it. The Packers made him their first selection in the dispersal draft.
"All I know is I got a letter from Green Bay that I had been picked by them to play," said Grimes. "I didn't realize that I was the first pick from the pool. Back then, you didn't have the publicity like you have on the draft nowadays."
Thus it was that the soft-spoken boy from County Line, Okla. found himself on a plane from Chicago to Green Bay in 1950.
"It was kind of like a college town, like Stillwater (Okla.) where I played my college ball," said Grimes. "It wasn't a big metropolis like L.A. or Chicago."
Most of all, it was home.
"One thing about it, when you go to Green Bay, you don't become a part of a team. You become part of a family," he added. "Green Bay, the Packers, the town, the community, the state – you're part of one heck of a big family. Regardless of whether you're good, bad or whatever – unless you really mess up, you're part of the family. We enjoy going back up their for Alumni Weekend. We've been going up the past 8 or nine years and I've taken all of my five grandsons, my brother, my three sons, and my wife at various times."
Top return specialist
On paper, the Packers seemed to have plenty of talent. Besides Canadeo and Grimes, there was a sprinkling of outstanding names like fullback Ted Fritsch, quarterbacks Tobin Rote and Paul Christman, receiver Bob Mann and halfback Bob Forte. But new Head Coach Gene Ronzani had inherited a team in disarray after the 1949 squad under Curly Lambeau posted a dismal 2-10 record. Lambeau left to coach the Chicago Cardinals and it was up to Ronzani and his staff to pick up the pieces.
Though they would add other stars like receiver Billy Howton and defensive back Bobby Dillon, the Packers limped to 3-9 seasons in '50 and '51 before improving slightly to 6-6 in Grimes' final year.
"We had a very fine team," Grimes offered. "They made some good player choices but we didn't have the coaching that we needed." Looking back on his career, did Grimes ever feel cheated – that, if only he would have come along nine years later, he might have been part of the Packer dynasty under Vince Lombardi?
"No," came the quick reply. "I'll quote a gentleman that I thought very highly of, Johnny "Blood" McNally. We were up there for Alumni Weekend, standing there on the sidelines and I asked him, ‘Would you trade your place in time for these boys' place nowadays?' He was a big, tall, dignified, very stately gentleman. He looked down at me and said, ‘Son, I had more fun than the law allowed then. I don't know what I'd do now!'"
Grimes, who with his wife, Pat, makes his home in Oklahoma City, says he still follows the Packers closely. He was bitterly disappointed to watch the wheels come off in the last two games at the end of the 2002 season.
"I don't know what happened or what the problem was but there was something lacking in the game against the Jets and then in the playoff against Atlanta," said Grimes. "Poor, Brett. He was having one heck of a time. I've never seen a gentleman enjoy playing football as much as he does. I wish I had enjoyed it a lot more. I would have stayed up there a lot longer. It became too much work and fighting the system, more or less. I gave up and said I wasn't coming back. They tried to trade me to San Francisco but at that time, I didn't have the money to go out there."
As a great kick returner, Grimes admits it was hard to watch all the problems Green Bay had this past season on special teams. He also recalled an ironic situation several years ago when he attended the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. On the return flight home, Grimes found himself sitting next to Desmond Howard, the Packers' MVP in Super Bowl XXXI.
"I turned to Howard and said, ‘Well, you broke it.' He looked at me kind of funny and I said, ‘You broke my record.' He didn't know me from Adam!"
Grimes' career average of 13.2 yards per punt return is second in history to that of Howard's 13.8.
Though he was finished with the Packers, Grimes wasn't quite finished with football. He got a call from the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League where he played the 1953 season and then retired for good. After a stint in the automobile business in Oklahoma with his father in the small community of Purcell, near Oklahoma City, Grimes switched to sales in the oil business where he worked for about 40 years. Today, he's still active, working as a courier for an express company out of Dallas, Texas.
Clearly, Grimes will always cherish his years with the Packers. How would he like Green Bay fans to remember him?
"Well, as long as they remember me, what the hell?" he laughs. Then, turning a bit more serious, he adds, "I guess (I'd like them to remember me) as a punt and kickoff returner who had some fair yardage and running."
Grimes will be remembered as a shining star whose glitter ended far too quickly – except by those poor souls who found themselves grasping at the air while trying to tackle him.