This spring, Mississippi State baseball player Jake Mangum was dubbed “the mayor of Starkville” as a sign of affection by Bulldog fans.
But 30 years ago, it was another Bulldog star who held that title, literally.
Billy Stacy, a football All-American at MSU in the late 1950s and mayor of Starkville from 1985-89, died Tuesday at age 83 after an extended illness.
“Billy was one of the most talented athletes to ever come through here,” said Charlie Weatherly, a teammate of Stacy’s from 1955-58. “He was an outstanding football player, one of the best defensive backs we ever had and maybe the best passer to ever come here, too. He was a great track athlete, too. But more than all of that, he was a great guy. He stood for all the right things. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend.”
By modern standards, Stacy’s statistics at MSU don’t leap off the page. They do reflect the era in which he starred, a time when yards and touchdowns were few and hard-earned. In his three years as the Bulldogs’ quarterback, he ran for more yards (1,232) than he passed for (1,100). He ran for seven touchdowns and passed for 10 and was selected as a second-team All-American in 1957, leading MSU to a 6-2-1 record, good enough for a third-place tie in the SEC and a 14th ranking in the final AP poll that season.
It was Stacy’s skills as a defensive back that captured NFL scouts’ attention. The NFL’s Chicago Cardinals (soon to relocate to St. Louis) made him the third overall pick in the 1959 NFL Draft and moved him to safety.
Until Houston’s J.J. Watt pulled off the feat in 2014, Stacy was the last NFL player to have a receiving touchdown, return an interception for a touchdown and return a fumble for a touchdown in the same season. He made the Pro Bowl in 1962, but injuries forced him to retire in 1963 after his fifth season.
Stacy was named to the Mississippi State Sports Hall of Fame in 1970 and inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.
Born in Drew and raised in Winona, Stacy returned to Starkville after retiring from the NFL.
“I think he considered Starkville his home from the time he came to college here,” said Bobby Tomlinson, Stacy’s son-in-law. “He met his wife, Peggy, when they were students at State and, aside from some time in Jackson, he lived almost all of his adult life here. It was home.”
Stacy served as a field representative for five-term U.S. Congressman David Bowen before running for office himself, winning election as Starkville’s mayor in 1985.
Although he served just one term, Tomlinson said Stacy enjoyed the work.
“I do think he liked being mayor,” Tomlinson said. “He was very proud of Starkville and wanted to see the city prosper.”
“His time as a local and national football hero fostered that rapport as athletics became recognized to be an integral to what was so special about living in a college town,” current mayor Lynn Spruill added. “Starkville loved its hometown hero and he will be missed.”
Never looking back
After leaving office, Stacy served as director of Mississippi Sheriff’s Boys Ranch in Lowndes County until his retirement, Tomlinson said.
Weatherly said the passage of time, along with Stacy’s reticence to talk about his athletic prowess, has made his exploits forgotten among younger generations of Bulldog fans.
“He wasn’t just a great player at Mississippi State, he was a great player in the NFL, too,” Weatherly noted.
As a receiver, Weatherly was often Stacy’s favorite, though still seldom-used, target at a time when passing was still considered something of a trick play. Stacy threw just 182 passes in his three years as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback.
Weatherly recalls one play in particular that attests to Stacy passing skills.
“In 1957, we went over to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama and we came up with this trick play,” Weatherly said. “Billy took the snap and just as the end was about to cream him, he let go a pass and the ball hit my hands on the dead run. He had to jump up three or four feet in the air, kind of like one of those old Harry Gilmer passes, just to get the ball out, 35 yards on a straight line that hit me square in the hands. All I had to do was run the last 20 years for the touchdown. Billy did all the work.”
That play helped State beat Alabama 25-13. The Bulldogs did not beat the Tide again for 23 years.
After his NFL playing days, Stacy never looked back, Tomlinson said.
“He never did much boasting about his playing career,” Tomlinson said. “He didn’t keep a lot of memorabilia. The only thing he had in the living room was a helmet he wore when he played with the Cardinals. He also had a Cardinals ring. That was about all.”
It was his family — Peggy, his wife of 61 years, son and two daughters — that Stacy treasured most.
“His family, that was what he was the most proud of,” Tomlinson said. “He didn’t talk about football unless you brought it up, but he was always talking about his family. That was what he built his life around.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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