Remembering The Ultimate Workhorse

June 28th, 2012

As many of Joe’s regular readers know, Joe is a two-headed monster: one grew up in the cornfields of southern Illinois, the other in the wilds of Sopranos country in New Jersey.

For the Joe of the cornfields, when he grew up, college football (at the time) was little more than a bore. All that damned wishbone offense. Joe was allergic to the wishbone as in high school, as a safety, that offense simply buffaloed him.

With the exception watching Notre Dame game replays early on Sunday mornings (Lindsey Nelson, anyone?) featuring Jerome Heavens, Joe’s Saturday afternoons were limited to watching Nebraska hero Johnny Rodgers and Oklahoma icon Billy Sims slice through helpless defenses and seeing wildman Ohio State chieftain Woody Hayes deck a sideline cameraman.

More importantly to Joe, those cloudy, gray, cold Saturday afternoons in the fall brought NFL Films into Joe’s home, which was must-see TV for Joe. He’d watch NFL Films’ Game of the Week and other NFL Films highlight shows before he’d watch the boring Big Ten (and some people think the Big Ten is boring now, ha!).

This was long before the NFL Network, long before BSPN, hell, before cable. So for millions like Joe, NFL Films was the weekly window into the NFL. It was where Joe first heard (and saw) the likes of Jim Plunkett, Rocky Blier, Mick Tinglehoff, Doug Plank and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.

It seems Warren McCarty of the was enamoured with NFL Films  from his Texas outpost as Joe was. It was there, McCarty writes, that he fell in love with the ultimate workhorse running back, James Wilder of the Bucs.

McKay realized that after a dismal 2-14 campaign in 1983, he needed to ride the best player on his roster. To say that Wilder was the focal point of the offense might be an understatement…he was the offense. Wilder ran for 1,544 yards that year on an amazing 407 carries. That was a single-season NFL record, which has only been surpassed twice (Larry Johnson now holds the record with his 416 carries in KC in 2006). On September 30, 1984 he carried the ball 43 times against the Packers, which is the 2nd most carries in a single game in NFL history.

Okay, so the Bucs fed Wilder the ball a lot, you saw him a few times on the Sunday pre-game shows and liked their unis, but they went 6-10 that year and went on to stink for another decade. Big deal. Golf clap, right? Wrong.

In 1984, Wilder also led the Bucs in receiving with 85 catches. That’s not a type-o. He had 85 catches to go with those 407 carries. 492 times the Buccaneers put the ball in Wilder’s hands, hoping for something positive, and the end result was 2,229 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. 45% of the Bucs offensive plays ended up in his hands. That’s a lot of collisions, and a lot of pounding. No other player in the history of the NFL has touched the ball more in one season than James Wilder did that year.

One can only wonder exactly what Wilder would have done on a decent team with the overall talent he had.

While no NFL coach with a conscience will ever feed a running back that many times again, Wilder, in many respects, is the type of running backs teams are still seeking.

8 Responses to “Remembering The Ultimate Workhorse”

  1. BigBear Says:


    Great post. It’s always fun to look back at the history. Though it may not be pretty it is our history as Bucs fans.

    Wilder is at the least the best offensive player to ever put on a Buccaneers uniform and he showed why in that season. He still hold the records for most rushing yards in team history, second most rushing TDs, most carries, and most catches in team history. Had that team had more talent Wilder may have played healthy all through the later 80s and been a household name and beyond.

  2. OAR Says:

    I really enjoyed watching Wilder back in 84 and 85! Unfortunately, the team, as a whole, wasn’t very good…and that’s putting it nicely!

    Also, it’s a shame to hear his son is having problems and is in jail.

  3. gracelivin Says:

    As a devoted Buc’s fan since their first day of existance, I can saw without reservation that James Wilder is my all time favorite buc. Not only did he carry the team but he was also a very nice person. In ’84 he not only carried the team as this article explains but was also voted by his peers as the hardest hitter in the NFL. It was something to behold him blasting defenders and seeing safties and corners veer away from his fury. We need more players like Wilder. I also remember the first time I saw him w/o the pads, at a school function the Buc players attended, I remarked to a friend, I thought these were supposed to be Buc’s players but who is that “Mr Olympia” looking dude in the the shorts & tank top, then he was introduced… There is a buc who needs to be on the ring of honor.

  4. Eric Says:

    I remember being at the game where McKay let the jets score so Wilder could try and break the single season yards from scrimmage record.

    Pitched the ball to James, whole jet team in pursuit. He still very nearly broke one.

    Best running back we ever had. Not much of a big talker, let his play do the talking.

    Nice to remember him, good work Joe.

  5. Joe Says:

    Glad Joe could help. 🙂

  6. Jack Burton Mercer Says:

    One of my all time favorites. Also belongs in the krewe/ring of honor, or whatever it is called.

  7. Miguel Grande Says:

    Great job, Joe. I grew up in Bristol, Ct. and left before ESPN started. My early Buc memories were of Rickey Bell, Jerry Eckwood and of course, James Wilder.

    Wilder is a shoe in for the Ring of Honor.

    I am a constant critic of Buccaneer history but I have nothing but props for Wilder.

  8. Gus Says:

    Wilder was a fullback until Ricky Bell got sick and Jerry Eckwood and Melvin Carver were ineffective. He was a great player and John McKay, in his final season in 1984, reverted to student body left and right with Wilder (the Bucs had cut ties with Doug Williams after the 1982 season, leaving the team without a QB). He was a great pass receiver, and the Jets game referenced above was the final game of the 1984 season where the Bucs performed their version of the “Gator Flop” letting Freeman McNeil score (I think) late so they could get the ball back. Wilder ran back kicks that day, as it was the total yards record he was after.