“Wee Willie” Heidelburg was USM’s 143-pound giant
This is the last of a six-part series about the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016.
JACKSON — Forty-six years have passed since Wee Willie Heidelburg jitterbugged into the end zone twice to help 50-point underdog Southern Miss defeat undefeated Ole Miss and Archie Manning 30-14 on the then-brand new Astroturf at Oxford.
Young football fans today could scarcely imagine the scene that day. The crowd was all-white. The cheerleaders were all-white. The bands were all-white. The coaching staffs were all white. The players were all Caucasian, as well, except for one tiny player named Heidelburg, who stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds. It was not for nothing that he was known as Wee Willie.
Heidelburg, who died in October, 2013 at the age of 63, had to be the most unassuming hero ever. Asked four decades later what he was thinking about that long-ago day in Oxford, Heidelburg smiled and answered, “I was just playing ball. I sure wasn’t thinking about making history or anything like that.”
But make history he did. He was the first African-American football player at either of the state’s three historically white NCAA Division I football schools to make a huge impact. He showed white and black Mississippians they could play together, work together and be better off for it. Many would follow, but somebody had to be first. In this case, the first made a huge and lasting impression.
Heidelburg touched the ball three times that day and scored twice, both on 11 yard runs. His two touchdowns — coupled with the amazing punting of Ray Guy — allowed USM to pull off the biggest upset in Mississippi football history, one that triggered major changes. Ole Miss signed future All-American Ben Williams, breaking the color line at Ole Miss, three months later.
USM had signed Heidelburg out of Pearl River Junior College, where Willie was one the first three African American players there. Breaking barriers was nothing new for him. His humble nature and kindness endeared him to his white teammates. And it didn’t hurt that he scored touchdowns. Lots of them.
David Earl Johnson was his teammate both at Pearl River and USM. Johnson had never known Heidelburg before Pearl River even though they grew up in the same town. Johnson was a tough country boy and couldn’t wait to get a good lick in on Heidelburg to see how he would react. Johnson laughed when he told about it at Heidelburg’s memorial service: “It took us three days before anybody could hem Willie up enough to get a good lick on him. And when we finally did, he just bounced right up, smiling.”
Heidelburg took that quickness to USM and put it on display that day in Oxford. He scored both of his touchdowns on 11-yard reverse runs. Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Hamp Cook, the USM offensive line coach at the time, says he couldn’t wait to watch the game on film and see how well his linemen had blocked. Said Cook, laughing, “Hell, we didn’t block anybody. Willie just dodged them all.”
There were no professional offers for a 143-pound back, no matter how quick and fast he was.
So Heidelburg turned to coaching, for 30 years in the Jackson Public Schools system and then as the running backs coach at Belhaven University where he was working at the time of his death.
He was a quiet, deeply religious man beloved by those who played for him. His funeral was attended by hundreds, both black and white. Among the speakers was Belhaven head football coach Joe Thrasher, who played for Heidelburg at Belhaven and later became his boss there.
Said Thrasher: “I would have run through a wall for that man when I played for him. Our guys now would do the same. . . .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.”
Ben Williams, Ole Miss’ first black football star, and Mississippi State’s Frank Dowsing have preceded Heidelburg, who died in 2013, into the Hall of Fame. All are so deserving. Somebody had to be first. They were, showing the way for the multitudes of great African American athletes who have followed.
To purchase tickets to the BancorpSouth Induction Weekend festivities, call 601 982-8264 or click here and follow the links.
Read Rick Cleveland’s Mississippi Today column about Gov. William Winter winning The Rube Award for his lifetime contributions to Mississippi sports.
The first five of the series:
• Wesley Walls.