LAFAYETTE, Alabama — This is the definition of a sleepy Southern town. LaFayette, Alabama, is in the east-central part of the state along US Route 431 and has a population of about 2,700 people.
It’s the Chambers County seat, and besides the courthouse itself, which was once featured in the film “Mississippi Burning,” the town’s most noted attraction is likely the eight-foot-tall statue of one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century .
The statue was the first stop on the Loverro Southern Soul Tour, driving back from Florida and going on to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, then to Memphis, Nashville and Louisville.
There’s plenty to see and hear and soak up in those towns. But here in LaFayette, there’s not much more than this statue and the extraordinary legacy of the man it remembers.
Joe Louis was born in LaFayette — actually, a few miles down the road, near a place called Cusetta, which also lays claim to be the birthplace of the man who shot Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett — but in 2010 LaFayette embraced Louis as one of their own and immortalized him with the impressive Casey Downing sculpture.
Louis was the heavyweight champion for 12 years, an iconic American figure who knocked out Hitler’s champion, Max Schmeling, in one round in 1938 with the world on the brink of World War II. Before the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier 1971 bout, Louis- Schmeling was called the “Fight of the Century.”
He would go on to serve in the US Army during the war, traveling more 22,000 miles and staging 96 boxing exhibitions before two million soldiers to raise morale among the troops. For thanks, the government hit him with a six-figure tax bill when he came back to boxing, the victim of the thieving bookmaking that has often left fighters broke.
Louis built his championship boxing career in Detroit, where they have honored him with a monument known as “The Fist” — a 24-foot-long sculpture with a fisted hand suspended by a 24-foot-high pyramid framework. He died in 1981 at the age of 66, and he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
But it all began in the hills of rural Alabama.
“Red clay. You would have thought the whole world was red clay,” Louis wrote in his autobiography ‘Joe Louis: My Life” with Edna and Art Rust Jr., in 1978. “The red hills run into the mountains and the mountains run about 12 miles or so from LaFayette. A red clay road leads off another road to a town called Cusseta — and Cusseta leads to the Buckalew Mountain section — and that’s about where I was born on May 13, 1914.
“I was the seventh child of the Barrow family,” he wrote “It wasn’t much of a house we had when I was young. I guess we didn’t have a proper ‘living room.’ We lived all over the house . With eight or nine people in a couple of rooms, you just lived in it.”
They moved to Detroit when Louis was 12 years old.
That might close the book on LaFayette. But I found out it was also the birthplace of someone close to the heart of Washington Football fans — the great Dave Butz, a two-time All-Pro defensive tackle who played for the Redskins from 1975 to 1988 and was named one of the 80 Greatest Redskins of all time.
“We had 1,500 poultry and 150 head of cattle and a couple of pigs. All I had was a pair of shorts on, no socks, no shoes, no shirt. My dog would pick me up in the morning and my parents wouldn’t see me until late evening. I accused them of having the dog be my babysitter and my Mom said, ‘Dave, that dog would never leave your side.’ I was a real country boy. It took me a long time to get used to shoes and socks.”
But wait. He’s not the only Washington Redskin who was born in LaFayette. Butz’s teammate, Michael Williams, was a tight end drafted by Washington in the fifth round in 1982 who played three seasons for the team. Both men were on the Washington roster for Super Bowl XVII.
I don’t know if Elias Sports Bureau has a statistic for players coming from a town of 2,700 people playing in the NFL for the same team at the same time. But I’ve got to think it’s rare.
Williams was big man — 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. He caught three passes for 14 yards in six games in 1982 and appeared in eight more games over the next two years.
He wasn’t exactly a high-profile Redskin. But Butz said he remembered him.
“He was a very strong competitor, played the game the way it was supposed to be played,” he said. But Butz said he had no clue they were both from LaFayette.
If you’re looking for Michael Williams’ memories of LaFayette and playing in Washington, you won’t read them here. I generally track people down, but Williams has pretty much disappeared from public view since he left football. A star player at Alabama A&M, Williams was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998. But no one at the school had a clue where he is or how to get in touch with him.
I made contact with several relatives to reach out to him, which they did, and got no response. I can only assume that Michael Williams doesn’t want to talk to me. I find that hard to believe.
I mean, how can we get the Dave Butz-Michael Williams Redskins Super Bowl teammates statue campaign underway in LaFayette if we can’t find the guy?
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.