Willie Who? Willie Heston, U of M’s First Football Star

Recently I came across the names of the Inaugural Class of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and everyone is a well recognized legend. Or so I thought.

That 1955 class consisted of baseball legend Ty Cobb, boxer Joe Louis, golfer Walter Hagen, longtime Red Wing coach and GM Jack Adams, U of M football coach Fielding H. Yost, and Willie Heston. Willie Heston? Who the hell was he I thought to myself.

When I looked at the Wikipedia entry on Heston I was floored. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of him, despite the fact that he carried the football for U of M at the turn of the 20th century.

If you have heard of Willie Heston, please accept my apology.

I now know that the man from Grants Pass, Oregon, the same small town where I was born was in fact a household name at one time.

Notre Dame’s legendary coach Knute Rockne named Heston “the greatest back of all time.” He told a reporter:

“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”

Now I know college football was a different game at the turn of the 20th century, but check out the following information regarding Heston and Fielding H. Yost’s mighty Wolverines.

With Heston running wild across the gridirons of the Midwest, the Michigan Wolverines had four of the most successful seasons in the history of college football. The 1901 to 1904 teams became known as the “Point-a-Minute” teams because they averaged more than a point for every minute played. In Heston’s four years as the starting left halfback, Michigan compiled an overall record of 43-0-1 and outscored its opponents 2,326 to 40 !!

Although U of M records indicate that Heston scored 72 touchdowns in his career, other reports claim 92, 93, and according to Yost 106. In the inaugural Rose Bowl game played on January 1, 1902 Heston rushed for 170 yards on 18 carries as the Wolverines devoured Stanford 49-09.

Yost observed:

“Heston could run full speed at a brick wall and just before crashing into it pivot and proceed alongside it with no diminishing of acceleration.”

Willie Heston obtained his law degree from Michigan in 1904 and later served as a judge in Detroit before going into the real estate business in Detroit. In 1953 he was inducted into the College Football Hall Fame and ten years later he died on his 85th birthday.

As time passes and the years go by, it does make one wonder if 100 years from now, sports fans will know the name Barry Sanders.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.