By Dr. Ken 


Even hard core football fans of the 1960’s would be hard pressed to immediately answer the question, “Who was William Asbury?” Certainly some Pittsburgh Steelers fans might recall the name but even devoted followers of the Kent State Golden Flashes would be searching their memories to link it to an exact time and place. If given a hint, “Think 1960’s, Kent State running back,” they might come up with Don “The Human Hammer” Fitzgerald and Don “The Human Bowling Ball” Nottingham but without a memorable nickname or seemingly significant professional career, “Willie Asbury” would no doubt leave them guessing. I remember Willie Asbury well, Bill as he was referred to in high school and the name he preferred, and his introduction as a man to remember came to me as we sat around a dorm room one evening, licking pre-season camp practice wounds. One of our new wingbacks, a transfer from Kent State said very matter-of-factly, “These practices are tough but did you know we had a guy at our Kent State camp that died?” Collectively, three or four of us piped up at the same time and rather alarmingly asked, “Died, what the heck are you talking about?” We were told about the introduction of new head coach Leo Strang to the Flashes’ program as they opened the first day of training camp in 1964 and were informed that one of the players, a Cincinnati high school alumnus as was our transfer informant, had “dropped over during the first runs and was taken to the hospital. I’m pretty sure he died and then came back, they revived him.” Holy smokes, we could not imagine what had occurred but it riveted our attention upon our own physical conditioning and frankly, sat over some of us like a dark cloud until two-a-days were completed and a more reasonable practice schedule was instituted.


In 1960, Cincinnati’s Princeton High School played its inaugural varsity football season and team Most Valuable Player William Asbury earned Honorable Mention All State honors. He took his excellent academic record and football skills to Kent State University. He showed the potential to be a key to Kent State’s future success as a sophomore and fulfilled that promise in his junior year of 1963, leading the team in rushing. His 6’, 228 pound frame and his running back experience was that of a fullback, also his high school position, but his speed and ability to catch the football made him a dangerous and versatile performer. With Coach Strang installing his Wing T with unbalanced line offense, Asbury was assigned the tailback position and expected to lead the offense after an outstanding spring ball performance. During the first day of running drills, Bill collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. It was neither the severity of the drills nor his lack of physical conditioning that began the Strang era with a near catastrophe. As a member of the Kent State track team, Asbury was in fact, superbly conditioned but he had the coincidental and horrible bad fortune to suffer from acute renal (kidney) failure on the field, during the team’s timed mile run test! It took two days of life saving treatment and testing in Akron City Hospital before a complete and accurate diagnosis was made but the rumors of his demise or permanent debilitation had already circulated through the campus and among his teammates. With his own kidneys shut down, “artificial kidneys” were utilized to maintain body function and forestall potential death and he lost fifty-eight pounds in the five weeks his own kidneys were non-functional. 



Always as outstanding in the classroom as he was on the football field, Bill was first released from the hospital on October 10th, and finally able to return to the campus months later, for the start of winter quarter. His existence revolved around physical therapy and studying and then he began an arduous regimen of weight training and running, determined to gain medical clearance and reclaim his place in the starting lineup.  Prior to final exams, Bill learned that the Mid America Conference Commissioner had approved the equivalent of a medical redshirt year and he would be eligible to play when the 1965 season began. He vowed “to make up for the games I missed last season” and believed he was not suffering any ill effects from the medical ordeal he had been through. Asbury related that “I had a great fifth year at Kent State in 1965…I was able to garner Honorable Mention Academic and All America honors under coach Leo Strang.” He also believed that coming back from his near-death experience, performing as the MAC’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player, and becoming a solid 230 pounds prepared him well for his time in the NFL.



Drafted in the fourth round by the new Atlanta Falcons, he was cut during training camp and picked up by the Steelers who had been in contact with him during his final season at Kent State. He appeared in every game of the ’66 season and was versatile, modestly describing himself as “a slow Eric Dickerson type. I ran more erect, but was oblivious to punishment.”  A dependable back and teammate, Bill’s professional highlight was the seventy-three yard run against the Bears that stood as the NFL’s longest run from scrimmage during the 1967 season. Asbury’s 1968 season, his third in the National Football League, would be his last. With Chuck Noll coming in as a new coach to replace Bill Austin, there was a belief that he could “play in the league but did not seek out another team,” choosing instead to get on with his life’s work. The tenacity and drive that was tested and reinforced by battling back from his kidney ailment, high intelligence and solid academic credentials, opened a number of doors immediately.

Bill Asbury carries against the Cardinals in 1967


With too many stories now filling the news about professional football players consistently in legal, social and financial trouble and a 2009 statistic revealing that “78% of professional football players are bankrupt or in significant financial difficulty” within two years of their retirement, William Asbury serves as a prime example of utilizing one’s intelligence and football skills as a vehicle for positive personal and societal change. Though his professional football career may have been modest when compared to the stars of the day, his post-football success was far from that. As an honors student, he armed himself with Kent State degrees, a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and returning to campus after his pro career, a M.A. in Sociology. He worked for the Sanford Rose executive search firm, honing his skills and knowledge of equal employment opportunity and procedures.


This led to valuable and productive work for the City of Akron Human Relations Commission, an administrative position with Kent State University, and eventually to a twenty-seven year stay at Penn State University. He served as Vice President for Student Affairs, Executive Assistant to the President, and Assistant to the Provost and Affirmative Action Officer. The William W. Asbury Award is still given annually to outstanding leaders of Penn State student organizations. Not one to “just sit,” Bill has continued to serve as Chairman of The International Board of Directors for The Golden Key International Honour Society, a collegiate student honors organization. By any measure, despite a lack of name recognition, William Asbury represents all that a college football scholarship is supposed to give to a young athlete willing to trade his talent for a college education. When the possibility of paying college athletes is mentioned, my first comment is always a reminder that “they are being paid, they are receiving an opportunity to earn a degree and have a full, rewarding life, an opportunity that fewer families can afford in this day and age.” With more young football players entering college specifically to do no more than play football with the intention of becoming a professional athlete, Asbury serves as a reminder of what college athletics and a coveted “full ride” scholarship should be about.