RIP: Wee Willie Heidelburg, a 143-pound giant

Willie Heidelburg, a tiny, kind, mild-mannered man who never sought the spotlight but flitted into it nonetheless in October 1970, has died. Heidelburg, an assistant coach at Belhaven, was the only African American on the field on Oct. 17, 1970, when he scored two touchdowns to help Southern Miss defeat fourth-ranked Ole Miss 30-14 in surely the biggest upset in Mississippi football history.

Belhaven head coach Joe Thrasher played for Heidelburg at Belhaven before returning to the school as head coach.

“I would have run through a wall for that man,” Thrasher said. “Our guys now would do the same. This is a hard, hard day for us. Willie was a man of stoic humility. Everybody here loved him. His passion for football was only exceeded by his faith in the Lord. He is going to be missed and cannot be replaced.”

What follows is a column I wrote for The Clarion-Ledger about “Wee Willie” at the state high school basketball tournament in 2010.

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

The dapper, little man with the wire rim glasses is as much a fixture at the MHSAA/Cellular South State Championships as the funnel cakes, the bouncing balls and the squeaky sneakers.

Wee Willie Heidelburg

You’ll find him seated at the scorer’s table directly behind the possession arrows. Game after game, year after year, Willie Heidelburg keeps the official scorebook at the Big House. He hasn’t missed one in 13 years. Barring something unexpected, he’ll have recorded more than 500 consecutive state tourney games before this year’s event ends.

That’s a lot of history for a man who made plenty himself. Forty years ago this coming fall, he was known as “Wee Willie” Heidelburg when he flitted his 143 pounds into the end zone twice to help Southern Miss stun Ole Miss 30-14 in what remains the biggest, most unbelievable upset in Mississippi football history.

Wee Willie was like a black dot on an ivory domino, the only black player on the field for either team that day. His performance foreshadowed sweeping changes in Deep South football. On this, the last day of Black History Month, it seems appropriate to ask the question: Was Heidelburg aware of the ramifications back then as a 20-year-old junior?

“Oh no,” Heidelburg says. “I knew that was a special victory. I knew we had done something big. But, as for me, I was just playing ball. I certainly wasn’t thinking about making history.”

But he did. He carried the ball three times that day, scored twice.

If you ever run into Hamp Cook, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer and an offensive line coach on that USM team, ask him about Heidelburg’s two touchdown runs.

“I couldn’t wait to get back and watch Willie’s runs on film and see how well my guys blocked for him,” Cook once told me. “Hell, we didn’t block anybody. Willie just dodged them all.”

‘Never gets old’

At 60, Heidelburg remains as trim as he was in his playing days. He spent 25 years as a teacher and coach at Murrah, the last 11 as a coach at Belhaven.

He recorded the first six games of the State Tournament on Friday, the first one beginning at 9 a.m., the last ending around 10 p.m.

Of his official scorekeeper duties, Heidelburg says, “It never gets old to me. Here’s the thing, if I wasn’t here working, I’d be here watching anyway. I just love the games.”

There is, as I suspected, a story behind Heidelburg’s basketball scorekeeping, and he laughs as he tells it.

“When I was a junior in high school at Jefferson High in Purvis, I played football for Harry Breland (later the Oak Grove baseball coaching legend),” Heidelburg says. “Well, Coach Breland also coached basketball. He asked me why I didn’t play basketball. He said, that, quick as I was, I’d make a great point guard.

“So Coach Breland watched me play basketball one day in a gym class and he came up to me afterward and said, ‘Boy, I need somebody to keep my scorebook for me.’ That was the last I ever heard about point guard.”

Run for history

Forty years later, Heidelburg says rarely a week goes by when somebody doesn’t mention that day 40 years ago when he ran into the end zone twice and into history – not just black history, Mississippi history.

“I think about it a lot and try to make some sense of it,” Heidelburg says. “As I get older, I ask myself, ‘What really did happen that day? What was the impact?’ ”

I can give him one family’s view. My dad, Ace Cleveland, was the USM sports information director at the time. He had grown up on a dairy farm on the southern end of Hattiesburg. He was the sixth of six children who all worked that dairy farm along with some black helpers. At a very early age, I noticed that the black help always came to the back door. They never came to the front door as all other visitors. They always came around to the back.

Didn’t seem right to me, and I asked my daddy about it. He said it was “Papa’s rules,” meaning my grandfather, a good man in so many ways but a product of upbringing and the times.

Years later, when the Southern Miss football team returned to Hattiesburg from Oxford after stunning Ole Miss, an impromptu victory celebration ensued in front of the athletic dormitory. Dad served as the emcee and called the heroes to the makeshift stage one by one for huge cheers: Ray Guy, Craig Logan, Hugh Eggersman, Rickey Donegan … and Wee Willie Heidelburg, who got the biggest cheers of all.

When Willie walked up, Dad picked him up, bear-hugged him and planted a big kiss on his forehead.

I’ll never forget the moment, and I vividly do remember wishing that Papa had lived to see it.

10 thoughts on “RIP: Wee Willie Heidelburg, a 143-pound giant”

  1. Wow ,these were exciting days for our family as well. We didn’t realize that history was being made. We just knew he loved the game and we loved seeing him play. I am really missing him now, RIP brother.

  2. ON THAT SATURDAY MY FAMILY HAD COME TO VISIT ME AT THE STATE FAIR. I WAS IN MY SECOND YEAR OF COACHING AT MURRAH. MY DAD AND I FOUND SOMEONE LISTENING TO THE GAME IN ONE OF THE LIVESTOCK BARNS AND WE SAT DOWN ON A BALE OF HAY TO LISTEN, HE BEING A BIG OLE MISS FAN AND I AN L S U FAN EVEN THOUGH I GRADUATED FROM SOUTHERN MISS BUT, THAT DAY I WAS FOR SOUTHERN MISS.
    SEVERAL YEARS LATER I WAS TO MEET WILLIE HEIDELBURG IN PERSON WHEN COACH BOB STEVENS HIRED HIM AT MURRAH. AFTERWARDS EVERY DAY WAS A PLEASANT MEMORY. HE AND I SPENT THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS TOGETHER ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD AND TRACK. HE WAS WHAT EVERY YOUNG MAN SHOULD ASPIRE TO BE. I WILL MISS WILLIE. I LOOKED FOR HIM THIS PAST SUNDAY WHEN WE SAID GOODBYE TO MY FRIEND, COUSIN, AND FELLOW COACH, DOUG CLANTON.
    COACH DENSON (HILL) TOLD ME THAT THEY HAD PLAYED IN KENTUCKY THE NIGHT BEFORE AND THAT PREVENTED HIM FROM BEING THERE. I AM PROUD TO SAY THAT I KNEW A LEGEND AND HE WAS TEN FEET TALL.

    1. My father coached with coach heidleburg for many years at murrah. He was a mild mannered well versed coach. He taught me how to shoot basketball in the gym and taught me ping pong which we played often in the coaches office. Murrah has had great staffs and my father and willie were a part if them. May god bless coach heidleburg and his family, he will be missed, a true legend

  3. Coach Heidelberg never had to speak to get his point across, all it took was a look. He coached me at Belhaven from 05-09. I remember one time it started to storm at practice and Coach Heidelberg noticed the lightning. He didn’t pay about being in lightning, so once he felt it was close he jogged to the locker room to get out the storm. I was the only player to follow him because the head coach didn’t tell the team to go in yet. He was a man of God and always stayed positive. May he rest in peace and I thank God for blessing me with his presence

  4. This wonderful man was like a father to me. We always joked about it and even told people he was. I love this story and I thank you for publishing it. He had truly taken a large piece of, my heart with him.

  5. The “Wee Willie” stuff here seems as revisionist and silly as it is irrelevant. I don’t believe anybody called him Wee anything, at least not publicly, and not in any publication during his playing days. I followed his football career, and when there was anything written about him, it talked about Willie Heidelberg, period. A man who stood out competing against the best. He utterly stunned Ole Miss with those remarkable carries in 1970. How Southern won, on the legs of Willie Heidelberg, was all anybody could talk about.

  6. Willie Heidelberg coached me when I played for Murrah High School from 1994 to 1998. I can honestly say he was one of the best coaches on the field and it was an honor to play for him. He will truly be missed.

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