Football star Heidelberg recognized
Published 7:00 am Friday, October 9, 2015
Imagine pulling up to a college football game you are about to play in and seeing your number on a dummy hanging from a noose in the late 1960s in southern Mississippi. That was reality for Willie Heidelberg.
One of Heidelberg’s sisters, Janice Stevens, lives in California and recalls fondly how determined and humble Heidelberg was to get an education.
“When I think about Willie, I think about him being a man of his word. If he said it, then he’s gonna do it, and you can consider it done,” Stevens said. “He said even though there are a lot of things happening at college, like people getting up when he sits down, he said he was going to school for his education, that’s what he made up his mind to do and he wasn’t going to let other people affect him.”
Balancing collegiate football and a full course-load can be a trying experience. For Heidelberg, being the first black football player to play NCAA Division I football in the state of Mississippi brought out a lot of hatred towards him.
According to his sister Janice, Heidelberg battled unrelenting racism while leading the University of Southern Mississippi past the No. 4 ranked football team in the country—the Archie Manning-led Ole Miss Rebels. For these reasons Heidelberg was recently announced as an inductee of the 2016 Class of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
He died on Oct. 15, 2013 from a heart attack. Purvis Middle School Principal Frank Bunnell said he read Heidelberg’s obituary in the newspaper and wondered why Heidelberg wasn’t a household name. He assigned his 7th graders to do a research project about Heidelberg because he said the man had a huge impact on the state of Mississippi and needed to be recognized. The kids talked to many of Heidelberg’s former coaches. Now 9th graders at Purvis High school, they began the nomination process in 2013. They submitted an application by May of 2014 recommending Heidelberg for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
The Lumberton native, known as “Wee” Willie Heidelberg because he stood 5 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds, graduated from John Jefferson High School in Purvis. Jefferson was the black high school before schools were integrated.
After excelling as a running back in high school, Heidelberg went on to attend Pearl River Community College in 1968 and 1969 where he was the first black football player. In 1969 he led the team to a 9-0 record and a MACJC State Championship. He rushed 140 times for 910 yards that year said Stan Caldwell, director of sports information for PRCC.
It was when he transferred to USM in 1970 that he gained widespread fame for his role in the Golden Eagles’ enormous 30-14 upset over Heisman hopeful Manning and Ole Miss in 1970.
Rick Cleveland, who was a freshman at USM and was assistant sports editor of the Hattiesburg American, covered the game in Oxford. Cleveland said he had three carries for 38 yards and scored on two, 11 yard touchdown runs.
“At the time they just thought they needed to use him sparingly so he wouldn’t get hurt. Willie showed courage on two fronts breaking the color barrier and simply playing Division I football at 140 pounds. He faced both physical danger in the sport and racism,” Cleveland said.
Hamp Cook, who was the offensive line coach at USM, told Cleveland he couldn’t wait to see how well his line blocked on Willie’s two touchdowns. When Cook actually saw the film Cleveland recalled Cook said “We didn’t block anybody. Willie just dodged them all.” Cleveland said it could have been touch football and they wouldn’t have gotten him down on his two touchdown runs.
When Cleveland talked to Heidelberg after the Ole Miss game, he said Heidelberg was just happy to play Division I football and to receive an education.
“To remain so humble all these years is remarkable to me to achieve what he achieved. It was the mark of a true gentleman,” Cleveland said.
Michael Tatum, who played football in high school and at PRCC with Heidelberg, spoke to Purvis Middle School about the racial adversity they faced. Tatum recalled they were in the lunchroom at PRCC and a guy spilled a milkshake on Willie intentionally where Willie just got up cleaned himself and walked away.
Tina Holder, one of Heidelberg’s youngest sisters, still lives in his native Lumberton. She recalled a story about how her brother came back to his dorm at USM and saw the letters “KKK” carved into his door. He took an ink pen and wrote “King Kennedy King,” she said. King standing for civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy standing for President John F. Kennedy, also a proponent of civil rights.
Holder echoed her sister’s sentiments of Heidelberg’s determination saying “he was a very quiet person, but had great character and if he said he was going to do something, he would follow through on it.”
Often, people still tell Holder how much they looked up to Heidelberg in Lumberton.
After his playing days were done, Heidelberg spent 1973-1998 as a teacher and coach at Murrah High School in Jackson. In 1998, he became an assistant football coach at Belhaven College until his death. He was 63.
He will be inducted into the 2016 Class of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame on July 30, 2016 at the Jackson Convention Complex.