Former Golden Eagle Willie Heidelburg Passes Away
The first African-American to play in a game for Southern Miss was 63.
Oct. 15, 2013
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Former Southern Miss football standout and M-Club Sports Hall of Fame inductee Willie Heidelburg died suddenly Tuesday in Jackson, Miss. He was 63.
Heidelburg then became the first African-American football player to see action in the history of the University. And that indeed is a major moment in the athletic history of the school, and his courage and easy-going confidence were keys in helping make the transition to an integrated athletic program go smoothly. His success at Southern Miss was instrumental in forcing the other schools in the state to begin actively recruiting African-American athletes.
"Willie Heidelburg changed the fabric of college sports in the state of Mississippi and at Southern Miss," said Bill McGillis, Southern Miss Director of Athletics. "He led our football team on the field, on campus and in the classroom, and even after he graduated his accomplishments as a teacher and as a coach brought great recognition to our University. I had a chance just a few weeks ago to visit with Willie on our campus and you could see how proud he was to be a Golden Eagle and how our fans still remembered his marvelous achievements. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Heidelburg family."
He burst onto the scene with a great deal of excitement for the 1970 season as he rushed for 110 yards in 1970 on 30 carries and scored two of the biggest touchdowns in school history. He also had five pass receptions and returned 26 kickoffs for a 19.8 yard average. That 1970 season will forever be remembered for Southern Miss' 30-14 win over No. 4-ranked Ole Miss in the first game on the artificial turf at then Hemingway Stadium.
Heidelburg did his part that day for the Southerners, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown run on a counter play around the right end midway through the second quarter to tie the game at 14. Then early in the third period on the exact same play, he scored again to give Southern Miss a 23-14 edge.
The 1971 season saw Southern Miss trying to get the ball to Heidelburg in more and different ways, responding with another sensational year. He rushed 67 times for 247 yards and scored three touchdowns, caught six passes and returned 15 kickoffs for a 24.2 yard average. One of the highlights of that 1971 season was his 81-yard catch of a screen pass from Buddy Palazzo that went for a touchdown in a 31-24 win over Richmond.
Prior to attending Southern Miss, Heidelburg played at John Jefferson High School in Purvis as a halfback and safety and then moved on to Pearl River Junior College to play for Southern Miss Hall of Famer J.C. Arban. In his two years at PRC, he was incredible, earning All-state and honorable mention All-American honors and now is a member of the Pearl River CC Sports Hall of Fame.
At the time of his death, Heidelburg was in his 15th season at an assistant coach at Belhaven University, where he coached both the running backs and wide receivers during his tenure there.
Prior to arriving at Belhaven, Heidelberg served 25 years (1973-1998) as a coach and teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson. During his tenure with the Mustangs, Heidelberg coached football, track and basketball, with two years as the school's head football coach and 14 years as its head track coach.