This past Monday, I was honored to eulogize Willie Heidelburg, my friend and a man I have long admired. What follows are bits and pieces from that eulogy…
Willie Heidelburg was humble. He was caring. He was thoughtful. He was loyal. He loved young people and cared deeply about those he taught and coached at Murrah High School and then Belhaven University. Above all else – and this goes back to his days as tiny halfback at Pearl River Junior College and then Southern Miss – Willie was courageous. “Wee Willie,” as we called him, was a 5-foot-6-inch,143-pound bundle of courage.
Yes, it takes courage to run the football through giants who outweigh you by far more than 100 pounds. But it requires a greater moral courage to break down barriers to be the first at anything. Willie was the first African American football player at any of the three historically white major college football programs. Before that, he was one of the first three black football players at Pearl River in Poplarville.
Willie was a football pioneer. He paved the way for future generations. He showed white and black Mississippians they could play together, work together and be better off for it. David Earl Johnson, a fine defensive end, was his teammate at both Pearl River and USM. They went to high school in the same town, David Earl to all-white Purvis High, Willie to all-black Jefferson High. Then they met at Pearl River. Naturally, there was curiosity on both sides. In many ways, this was a great experiment. Nobody knew what to expect.
David Earl was a tough country boy and couldn’t wait to get a good lick in on Willie to see how he would react. David Earl laughed when he told me about it: “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.”
Pearl River was winless the year before David Earl and Willie got there. They won five games as freshmen and then went undefeated as sophomores. Wee Willie was the star. There were times when opponents couldn’t touch him, much less tackle him. He was as quick as a hiccup.
Then the two of them went to Southern Miss, where they helped engineer the greatest upset in Mississippi football history. The date was Oct. 17, 1970. Willie Heidelburg was the only black player on the field when USM, a 50-point underdog, beat the great Archie Manning and undefeated Ole Miss 30-14. Willie touched the ball three times that day. He scored two touchdowns.
Hamp Cook, who recruited Willie, was USM’s offensive line coach. Cook said he couldn’t wait to get back to his office and watch how well his line had blocked on Willie’s two touchdown runs. And then he got back and watched the film. Said Hamp Cook, “Hell, we didn’t block anybody. Willie just dodged them all.”
Anybody who was around back then knows that Willie endured much more than a few hard licks. He was like a black dot on an ivory domino. There were people who didn’t want him to be where he was, wanted him to fail and let him know it. He endured racial slurs, late hits and worse.
But Willie persevered. He paved the way. Ole Miss signed Gentle Ben Williams the next year.
And if you watched Ole Miss defeat LSU this past Saturday, you saw blacks and whites, working together, and pulling off another stunning upset 44 years to the week later after Willie scored his two touchdowns against Ole Miss. Now, we don’t think anything about the fact we watched blacks and whites working together for a common cause.
It’s no big deal now, nor should it be. But it was a huge, huge deal in 1970. Somebody had to be first. Somebody had to show the way. Somebody had to have the courage to be that guy. That tiny, huge-hearted guy was Wee Willie Heidelburg, may he rest in the peace he has earned and so richly deserves.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.