"Bullet" Billy Patterson
HHS Class of 1935
Photo Courtesy: Texas Sports HOF
Photo Courtesy: Baylor HOF
Photo Courtesy: Joe Patterson, III
Joseph William "Billy" Patterson, Jr. was born in Hillsboro on August 28, 1918. He was the first of three children of Martha and J.W. “Joe” Patterson. He graduated from Hillsboro High School as valedictorian of his class in 1935 at the age of 16.
There are not many statistics available for Billy Patterson’s high school career, but whatever he did got the attention of many colleges. An article from the September 25, 1940 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette written about Patterson stated that he began his high school career an end, but Coach Holley McLemore needed a passer. The move from end to quarterback changed his future. In his early career he was known as a defensive player. Due to his efforts, Billy was selected to play in the Texas High School Coaches’ Association All-Star Game in Dallas in 1935. He and Dave O’Brien were the two quarterback/halfbacks on the first Coach’s All-Star. Billy chose to attend Baylor University on an athletic scholarship, where he lettered in football, baseball, and track. The 2009 Baylor University Media Guide had a great quote from legendary TCU coach Leo “Dutch” Meyer about Patterson. “In all my years of coaching, I guess the boy I wanted most and didn’t get was Billy Patterson.”
In an article from November 2006 titled “Bullet Bill of Baylor,” author Bernie McCarty states: “This writer ranks Baylor’s “Bullet” Bill Patterson as the most underrated back in Southwest Conference history.” Billy Patterson was a quarterback that was ahead of his time. In an era of football where the forward pass was foreign, Patterson excelled. An article from the 1938 Dallas Morning News said of Patterson: “Mechanically the best all-around back in the league was Bullet Billy Patterson of Baylor (And this was the year that Davey O’Brien of TCU won the Heisman Trophy). He was a great kicker and brilliant passer without the protection to compare with that given O’Brien. He was the most dangerous broken-field runner on his club, a sterling safety man and, although lacking in heft, he was one of the season’s outstanding defensive backs, either against air raids or running plays. Doesn’t the record speak for itself? Sixty minutes of play in fifteen consecutive games, going back to 1937.” Patterson was an “Iron Man” while at Baylor, and there were few passers that were comparable to “Bullet” Billy Patterson. He was considered to be one of the “Three Great Passers” of the era; the other two: Sammy Baugh (NFL Hall of Famer) and Davey O’Brien (Heisman Trophy Winner).
Patterson was selected All-Southwest Conference in football in 1937 and All-Southwest Conference and All-American in 1938. He was invited to play in the East-West Shrine game in San Francisco in 1939, and was named the game’s most valuable player. While at Baylor Patterson also played baseball (1937 & 1938) and ran on the cross country team (1937). Billy completed his Bachelor’s Degree in 1939.
After his playing career at Baylor ended, Patterson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (later known as the Steelers) in the third round of the 1939 NFL Draft. He played for the Chicago Cardinals (later the Bears) in 1939 and returned to the Steelers in 1940. He played quarterback, halfback and punted. During his NFL career, Patterson played against the likes of Davey O’Brien, Whizzer White, and Sammy Baugh. While playing in the NFL, Billy attended Law School at Baylor. He completed his law degree in 1942.
After his NFL playing career and completion of his law degree, Patterson entered the Navy in 1942. He later served as an officer in the Naval Reserve for four years. He was on the aircraft carrier the Gambier Bay, sunk by the Japanese in the Pacific campaign. Patterson turned down a Purple Heart after saving a fellow shipmate during the sinking. Billy continued playing football while in the Navy with the Georgia Pre-Flight School Skycrackers coached by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Below is an excerpt from the April 11, 1945 Pampa Daily News in Pampa, Texas
“Lieutenant Joseph W. Patterson (Billy Patterson to football fans of the Southwest) is the unusual combination of lawyer, professional gridder and naval officer who survived the sinking of the Gambier Bay in the battle of the Philippines last October. Lieutenant Patterson now is in the physical training department at the naval air technical training center here. He is a soft-spoken Texan from Hillsboro and established quite a reputation for himself in football as a member of the Baylor University team in 1937 and 1938 when he was selected All-Southwest conference halfback. Following graduation in 1939 he entered law school and continued his football fortunes with the Chicago Bears in the National professional league. The next year he played with Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1942 Patterson received his law degree and joined the Navy, where he again donned his football helmet after a year lay-off to play for the Georgia pre-flight team. After a short tour of duty at the Naval Air Station at St. Louis he shipped out on the Gambier Bay and right into the middle of the Pacific War. The story can be picked up again last October off the Philippines where the Gambier Bay was part of an American naval force. A potent Japanese force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers had been engaged and apparently driven off but during the night they returned unexpectedly and attacked. The Gambier Bay was damaged by shellfire and forced them to drop behind the other American naval units, where it was encircled by ships of the Jap fleet and literally blasted out of the water. With the order to abandon ship, Lieutenant Patterson jumped off the flight deck into the sea. There were a number of rafts about, but they were mostly occupied by wounded men while the uninjured stayed in the water hanging onto the sides. After 40 to 50 hours, the survivors were pulled out of the water by rescue ships and taken ashore to Leyte. For his part in this engagement, Lieutenant Patterson wears the newly authorized Philippine liberation ribbon with one star. On his Pacific theater ribbon Patterson has three stars for the Marshalls, Marianas, and Palau engagements. Right now, Lieutenant Patterson is happy to be at Norman, where he can resume family life, become acquainted with his three-month-old daughter and do his swimming in a pool.”
Billy played through high school career, college career, and one NFL season without injuries preventing him from playing. He made it through the first three games in his 2nd season of NFL play before sustaining a concussion at Detroit against the mighty Lions. Patterson said that his father often thought his son would be “sissified.” This was dispelled as Billy played almost 10 full seasons of football without missing a game. At a time in history when Lou Gehrig had completed his 2,130 consecutive game streak….Patterson was the “Iron Man” of the gridiron, completing his own streak.
Patterson was inducted into the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in 1987, the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame in 1988, the Baylor Letterman’s Hall of Fame in 1963, and the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. Patterson also served as the youngest president of the Baylor Ex-students Association and serviced two separate terms on the Baylor University Board of Trustees.
In 1942 Billy married Betty Burkhart of Alamo. After the war, they moved to McAllen, where he began a distinguished career in the practice of law. Mr. Patterson was active in the community and with civic affairs. He served three years as president of the Rio Grande Council of Boy Scouts of America, was president of the Lions Club and was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Mr. Patterson was also active the First Baptist Church where he served on the Board of Deacons, and taught an adult Sunday school class. Billy and Betty had three children: Diane Marburger, J.W. “Joe” Patterson III, and Debbie Davis. Billy Patterson passed away on July 10, 1998 at the age of 79.
Honors & Awards
Baylor 1930's All-Decade Team
All Southwest Conference (1937 & 1938)
East–West Shrine Game MVP (1939)
Baylor Hall of Fame member (1963)
Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame (1987)
Texas High School Football Hall of Fame member (1988)
Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame (1995)