“We feel that in Jim Braxton we have one of the finest all around running backs in the state of Pennsylvania. We see him as a logical successor to Garrett Ford at tailback.” Those were the words of former West Virginia Head Football Coach Jim Carlen in February of 1967 when Connellsville star Jim Braxton committed to West Virginia.
The legend of Jim Braxton began on the sandlots of Connellsville and carried him to the National Football League.
Braxton was active in sports from his grade school days, playing Booster League football with the Tri-Town team and Little League baseball for Dr. William F. Colvin. In the summer he was a first baseman and one of the leading hitters for the Milton L. Bishop American Legion baseball team, coached by Buzz Barnhart and Herman Welsh.
He also excelled at basketball and track, first at Dunbar High School and then at Connellsville High School after Dunbar and Connellsville merged in 1966. He set records in the high jump, discus and shot-put and he was so good at baseball that he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967. But football was the sport that led Braxton to greatness.
Braxton played four years of football under Stan McLaughlin, three at Dunbar Township High School and one at Connellsville Area. He played a little at Dunbar as a freshman in 1963 and also handled the kickoff chores on a club that finished 5-4. His sophomore campaign saw him start at right halfback as the Mules went 8-1. In 1965, the final year of Dunbar High School, Braxton was a key figure as the Mules posted a 9-0 record, but were denied a WPIAL playoff spot because of Gardner points.
In 1966, the first year of the merger, Connellsville had an outstanding 9-1 record. His junior season at Dunbar, Braxton tallied 77 points for the Mules. In his senior campaign at Connellsville he accounted for 78 points and was second only to Larry Piazzi of Norwin in both district and Foothills Conference scoring.
His senior year he racked up 1,485 yards gained by all methods. Switching to fullback he carried the ball 154 times for 794 yards gained from scrimmage, an average of 5.15 yards per carry. In addition, he caught 14 passes for 279 more yards and returned six kickoffs for 186 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run at Jeannette. He completed nine of 14 pass attempts out of the fullback option for 180 yards and three touchdowns, and returned two punts 46 yards.
Braxton’s scoring included nine touchdowns, 18 extra points kicked, and two field goals, both of which won games. He kicked three-pointers that clipped Greensburg and the never-to-be-forgotten 9-7 win over Uniontown.
Braxton climaxed his senior year by being named to the All-Foothills Conference first team, second team fullback on the UPI all-state team, All WPIAL team selection, and the most valuable back in the Foothills Conference.
He was the lone bright spot in Pennsylvania’s 45-14 loss to Texas in the Big 33 football game. He rushed for 55 yards on 15 carries and scored on a one-yard plunge. He also caught three passes for 62 yards.
Years later at a banquet Braxton spoke about what awards meant in his life.
“First you have to please yourself,” Braxton said “You please yourself and your parents and that will be the reward you can get. I enjoy life, I enjoy football, but most of all, I enjoy people. I came from a small town of 800 people where you can get to know all the people.”
Knowing people and helping people became a central theme in Braxton’s life.
Braxton’s sifted through college offers that included Pitt and Penn State when he graduated from Connellsville in 1967 and settled on West Virginia.
At West Virginia University he was the team’s second leading rusher (272 yards) in his sophomore season in 1968. In his junior season, he rushed for a team best 843 yards and helped the team become Peach Bowl champions. He also was talented as a kicker and booted three field goals in the game. As a senior, he converted to tight end, catching 27 passes for 565 yards and eight touchdowns and that was good enough for first team All-American honors. All told, Braxton accumulated 1,462 yards rushing and 906 yards receiving in a brilliant Mountaineer career.
“You name it and he could do it – running, blocking, passing and kicking,” said former WVU Coach Bobby Bowden.
“Jim was probably the smartest player I ever coached,” added Jim Carlen, who recruited Braxton to WVU before leaving to take the Texas Tech coaching job after the 1969 season.
Drafted in the third round by the Buffalo Bills in the 1971 NFL Draft, he was needed not as the leading rusher, but the blocking weapon for star running back O. J. Simpson.
Braxton didn’t mind shunning the limelight and taking on the blocking role for Simpson. Standing 6-1 and weighing nearly 250 pounds Braxton excelled at his task.
“I enjoy blocking as much as I do running or catching the ball,” he said in a 1978 interview. “I’ve been a blocker ever since high school and I enjoy doing it. It’s just something that’s going to show up. Everybody has a part to play on a team. That’s just my part.”
Braxton’s career took off in 1972, his sophomore season in the league, when he rushed for 453 yards on 116 attempts with 5 touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 232 yards and a score.
The following season, Braxton rushed for 494 yards on 108 attempts with 4 touchdowns, while only catching 6 passes for 101 yards. In 1974, Braxton became a premiere runner alongside Simpson, rushing for 543 yards on 146 carries with 4 touchdowns.
In his 1975 season he rushed for 823 yards and nine touchdowns, which he considered his best season. He also caught 26 passes for 282 yards and 4 touchdowns. His nine rushing touchdowns were 8th in the league, and his 13 all-purpose scores were 5th.
In the 1976 season he ended it with a knee injury and rushed for 372 yards and a touchdown during the 1977 season. He played half of the 1978 season with the Bills, rushing for 73 yards, and then finished out his NFL career in the second half of the 1978 season with the Miami Dolphins, rushing for 48 yards and two touchdowns.
For his career, Braxton rushed for 2,890 yards on 741 attempts with 25 touchdowns. His receiving totals were 1,473 yards on 144 receptions with 6 touchdowns, for 31 career all-purpose touchdowns.
After his playing career, Braxton, nicknamed “Bubby,” was involved in many community and civic organizations while serving as a manager of the Hilltop complexes in Buffalo. Also a member of the NAACP, Braxton was an articulate man who always found time for children.
Braxton died on July 28, 1986 due to cancer, at the age of 37. He died at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, where he was undergoing treatment. He was survived by his wife, Pam, and two sons.
Three years after his death in 1989, West Virginia University celebrated Braxton’s life by naming one of the Towers dormitories in his honor, and established an endowed scholarship in his name for deserving African-American West Virginia students.
He was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.