HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Every pregame walk the Golden Eagles take to the Rock, they’re reminded of who laid the groundwork for Southern Miss football.
However, one legend of the past is remarkably absent from those black and gold banners. “Wee” Willie Heidelburg – the first African-American to play football for one of Mississippi’s historically white Division I schools.
“Sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story,” said longtime Mississippi sportswriter Rick Cleveland. “Any way you look at it, Willie was a pioneer.”
You won’t find Heidelburg’s name in many Southern Miss record books and even if you did, chances are it’s misspelled.
Willie once telling Cleveland it doesn’t much matter to him since folks have spelled it two different ways his whole life - “Heidelburg” and “Heidelberg.”
That easygoing attitude would aid Heidelburg as he quickly became the minority during a contentious time in the Deep South.
“He had the personality for it,” said Harry Breland, one of Heidelburg’s football coaches at John Jefferson High. “He made you like him. I need to take that back - he made you love him.”
It was coach Breland who bused Heidelburg and some of his teammates from the all-black John Jefferson in Purvis down to Poplarville to try-out for Pearl River Community College.
Heidelburg was a standout with the Wildcats and after two years joined P.W. Underwood’s club in Hattiesburg. He was immediately accepted by his USM teammates, but not every member of the student body.
“Somewhere on campus somebody intentionally poured a drink or something on him and they said he just got up and cleaned himself off and walked away,” said Craig Logan, one of Heidelburg’s USM teammates in 1970.
“Once you walk off the field, it’s a different world,” said former USM quarterback Reggie Collier. “Especially back in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
In 1970, there were just a handful of Black players in the Southeastern Conference. Heidelburg was the only African-American on the field on Oct. 17 when the Southerners visited the University of Mississippi.
USM was such an underdog, there was no betting line on the game.
“We beat Southern 69-7 the year before and we just won a huge game on the road at Georgia,” said former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning. “So, Southern rolled in and they just kinda hit us on the mouth. But Willie was a little guy, he was quick and on that turf, he was even quicker.“
“Wee” Willie touched the ball just three times that day. Twice he took it to the end zone in Southern’s 30-14 win.
As he crossed that plane, the landscape of college football in Mississippi changed. Though he stood just 5-foot-5, 143 pounds – Willie was a titan.
“He had finally had a chance to show his talents,” Breland said. “Even though he was small, he played big. And I guess that’s a good way to say that sometimes big things come in small packages.”
“It showed people that blacks and whites could play and work together and both be better for it,” Cleveland said.
And so the door opened for players like Fred Cook, Hanford Dixon and Reggie Collier to walk on through.
Names that may not have made it atop the rafters if not for Willie Heidelburg.
“The unfortunate part about it is we’re mentioning his name because it’s Black History Month,” Collier said. “Willie’s name should be mentioned all the time when you talk about Southern Miss football.”
Heidelburg coached football at Murrah and Belhaven University before passing away in 2013.
Two years after his death, a group of Purvis students took a trip to Jackson to nominate Heidelburg for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2016.