I was shocked this morning to learn of the death of Coach Willie Heidelberg, our Assistant Football Coach. Coach Heidelberg was found deceased at home this morning, of an apparent heart attack.
Coach Heidelberg has been a part of the Belhaven Football staff longer than any other coach, joining Belhaven as the program began 16 years ago. He is a Mississippi sports legend, having played football at Pearl River Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi.
It is hard to imagine Belhaven football without Willie. He’s been there since the beginning, and has been a voice of significance in the life of every Belhaven football player. I always knew we could lean on Willie because he honored the Lord in everything he did as he cared for our players – he was a winner every single day.
Many of you knew Willie, but may have not known about his significant history in the sports and racial reconciliation history of Mississippi. He was small, but he cast a very long shadow.
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.
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.
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.