Remembering the late, great Shorty Mac
(The late, great Shorty McWilliams of Meridian will be the newest member of Mississippi State’s Ring of Honor at Davis-Wade Stadium. What follows is a column I wrote from the great man’s funeral in 1997.)
The game was played in 1943. You and I can only wish we had been there. Dick Smith, then the sports editor of The Meridian Star, was.
“Meridian High was playing at Tupelo for the Big Eight Conference championship,” Smith said. “First seven times Shorty McWilliams touched the ball, he scored. Short runs, long runs, kick returns. Every time, he scored.
“The eighth time he touched it, he ran all the way down the field 70-something yards before he grabbed at the back of his leg,” Smith continued. “He went down on the 2-yard line with a pulled hamstring. Never went back in the game. By then, Meridian didn’t need him.”
But as a football player, Thomas “Shorty” McWilliams nearly was. Let’s put it this way. The Southeastern Conference is 64 years old. One man has made All-SEC four times in football: Mississippi State’s Shorty Mac.
Smith calls him “without a doubt, the greatest athlete Mississippi has ever produced.”
No doubt, Smith will get a lot of flak about that statement, but take this advice before you join the argument: Have plenty of ammunition with which to make your point. Smith has. And he doesn’t have to look it up.
“Everybody knows or should know about his football, but he could do anything,” Smith said. “The first week of that year he spent at Army, they put Shorty in the boxing ring with the Army heavyweight champion. Here Shorty was just a plebe, and he beat the crap out of that poor guy. Army had itself a new champion.”
`No money, no cars and a lot of fun’
Smith was talking shortly before the Friday funeral for McWilliams, who died Thursday in Meridian at the age of 70. Smith was one of many old-timers telling colorful stories about a colorful man. Meridian may never have seen another funeral like it. People lined up outside St. Patrick’s Catholic Church for more than two hours waiting to pay last respects.
Cookie Epperson (MSU Class of ’48) was among them. Epperson was one of McWilliams’ best friends. They roomed together for three years at State, where Epperson was the team manager. “We were like brothers. We had no money, no cars and a whole lot of fun,” Epperson said. “We hitchhiked everywhere we went.”
Epperson loves to tell the story about the time McWilliams, the All-America football star and big man on campus, was enjoying a hot shower when a couple of his pals put an opossum in the shower with him. Shorty Mac had no fear of the biggest and baddest linebackers, but he didn’t like critters.
“He flew out of that shower and didn’t bother to grab his clothes or a towel,” Epperson said, laughing. “He ran right past all the secretaries and on outside. He never ran faster.”
Epperson recalls a game with Auburn Shorty Mac’s freshman season. McWilliams ran back a punt for a touchdown. An Auburn player returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Auburn kicked off, Shorty Mac caught it, and you can guess the rest. Touchdown, State.
Epperson was spotting for a radio announcer in the press box and forgot the microphone. Says Epperson, laughing again, “I hollered, `Would you look at that! There that SOB goes again.’ Everybody in Mississippi heard it.”
As good a friend as he was a player
People also talked Friday of McWilliams’ warmth, generosity and loyalty.
“He had a heart as big as he was,” Epperson said. “He’d do anything for anybody at any time.”
“Nobody ever had a more loyal friend than Thomas `Shorty’ McWilliams,” Smith said, his eyes misting. “He was as good as it gets.”
That’s a huge compliment, but 40 years ago Smith paid McWilliams a bigger one. Smith’s wife, Wanda, was pregnant after suffering five miscarriages. Doctors put her to bed for the last 6 1/2 months of pregnancy. Every day, says Dick Smith, Shorty Mac visited with an encouraging word.
Forty years ago, the Smiths had their only son and named him Thomas.
Shorty Mac is one of the nearly 300 Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers featured in the new book Mississippi’s Greatest Athletes. You can find it at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame or at fine bookstores across the state. Call 601 982-8264 for details.