Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reeling in the (extra) years: Willie and Wilson and the boys

As we speak (or read or blog), the runaway winner for the Big Ten Player of the Year is a young man who wasn’t even attending a Big Ten school 12 months earlier, or even six months ago.
Wisconsin “senior” quarterback Russell Wilson has lit the conference on fire with his passing and running skills, and to think, just this past spring, he was thinking about his senior year. At North Carolina State in Raleigh.
Yet here he is, in Madison, leading the Badgers (clearly the best all-around team in the Big 10 Conference) to a possible BCS championship game. He is, in effect, a one-year rental by the Badgers; or what baseball would term as a one-year free agent contract. Wilson will use his success to enter the NFL Draft, with a stronger bargaining position, as well as an option to continue his baseball career.
He is using Wisconsin to turn pro. And there is nothing illegal, according to NCAA rules, about it (since senior transfers, possibly having “graduated” do NOT have to sit out a season). It’s one of those quirks that shows the hypocrisy of the collegiate rules.
How Wilson went from Raleigh to Madison is fairly interesting. He is a two-sport star (football and baseball) and his role in the latter sport has caused this entire affair.
His worth on the field is NOT in dispute. But how he came to be in Madison could be. As a Wolfpack quarterback, Wilson completed almost 58 percent of his passes in a three-year career (1,364 of 2,360 passes) for 8,545 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. He also ran for 1,089 yards on 372 carries and scored 17 touchdowns.
But Wilson, 22, a native of Richmond, Va., is also a member of the Colorado Rockies baseball organization, having spent last spring (and short summer) as a second baseman for the Asheville Tourists on the Class A rookie level.
When it came time for spring football practice, Wilson was unavailable and the Wolfpack coach, Tom O’Brien, who is labeled as a no-nonsense kind of guy, wanted a commitment from Wilson – football OR baseball. O’Brien needed to know how to proceed in the spring in terms of grooming the 2011 starting quarterback. When Wilson would not commit, O’Brien, the school and Wilson “mutually” agreed to give him his release from his scholarship … and placed this top “prospect” on the free agent agent … for other colleges.
Wisconsin, having seen its multi-year starter Scott Tolzien graduate, offered Wilson a spot on its roster and the rest, thus far, is conference history. Since it was his senior year, and final year of eligibility, Wilson could walk in immediately and play. It was the best of all worlds for Wilson and the Badgers – not necessarily for Wisconsin’s opponents (of which Michigan is NOT one of them unless both schools reach the Big 10 Championship Game).
While Wilson’s case is not illegal, or even immoral, it does make a statement about the condition of NCAA football where a school can basically “rent” a player for one season without a tinge of loyalty or affiliation to ONE particular institution.
The NCAA changed its rule about senior eligibility a long time ago, and well before that, altered its overall eligibility limitations. But it was NOT an uncommon practice – long, long ago – to have football players perform at multiple colleges, including … the University of Michigan.
In fact, the Wolverines’ first big start, on a national stage, came via that route.
William Martin “Willie” Heston was an unusual man, to say the least. He was born (and died on the same date – Sept. 9, 1878-1963), in Galesburg, Ill., the son of a tenant farmer.
When he was 4, Heston’s family moved to a farm in the coal mining town of Rippey, Ia., located at the Raccoon River. While living there, Heston almost died on two occasions – once from whooping cough and another when he fell into the Raccoon and had to be rescued by his sister.
When Heston was 9, the family was moved to a ranch in southwestern Kansas and he was forced to leave school in order to herd cattle and assist raising money for his family. Just before his 16th birthday, the Heston clan relocated in Grants Pass, Ore., in southwest Oregon, near the California border. There he dug ditches that supplied water to the area mines and chopped wood to sell to the local for fireplaces.
All this time, Heston was not in any formalized level of schooling, but, according to history, the local principal, Prof. Champ Price, met Heston and “suggested” he attend Grants Pass High School, starting in 1895.
Heston’s athletic ability, particularly as a runner, was quickly established, as well as his intellect, graduating in 1898 as co-valedictorian of his class. His original plans were to become a schoolteacher and he enrolled at San Jose State Normal School (today known as San Jose State University) in northern California.
Jesse Woods, the football coach at the time, saw Heston run and suggested he try out for the football team – a sport Heston had not played before. Heston was a natural athlete; he immediately became the Spartans’ star player, scoring more touchdowns in his first year than any other on the squad.
In 1899, Heston was the Spartan team captain and led the group to a fine season, losing only to the University of California. The following year, he helped SJS to an undefeated regular season, tying Chico State 6-6 in the championship game. The two teams, wishing to settle the title on the field, agreed to hold a rematch three weeks later, which San Jose State easily won 46-0 … with the help of the Stanford University coach who came to lead the match during the run-up.
His name was Fielding Harris Yost and the coach and player would begin a rapturous relationship … but not immediately. Heston earned that desired teaching degree and has accepted an education job in Oregon in 1901.
While Heston was set to be the next Mister Chips, Yost was changing addresses – from Palo Alto, Calif. to Ann Arbor, Mich., as the new head football coach at Michigan. One of the first communiqués Yost sent was to Heston, asking the young man to move east and further his education at U-M. Originally, Heston declined the offer but was eventually persuaded and enrolled in the Michigan Law School in August of 1901.
From 1901-04, Heston, as a left halfback, became the first great player for the Wolverine program and, perhaps, the greatest player in the nation. Those Michigan teams were THE most successful in school history – known as the “Point-a-Minute” squads for that very reason, averaging at least a point for every minutes of game action. The 1901 team alone outscored its opponents 555-0 in going 11-0 on the season.
In 1902, Michigan was 11-0 (outscoring the opposition 644-12), in 1903, the team was 11-0-1 (with a point differential of 565-6; the six being the infamous “Little Brown Jug” game against Minnesota) and Heston’s final year saw the 1904 U-M team go 10-0 and outscored everyone 577-22. 
And for four years, Heston was THE star. He scored on his first snap from scrimmage as a defender in the second half against Albion College. See Albion’s tendency to hurl long lateral passes to the halfbacks, so when it came time for him to play, Heston, only 5-8, but a strong 185 pounds, blew through the defensive line and simply grabbed the ball from the quarterback’s hands, just as it was to be thrown, and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
He later wrote his greatest thrill in football was that initial touchdown for Michigan.
Heston possessed “halfback’s” speed, not sprinter’s speed. One of his Michigan classmates was Archie Hahn, the 1904 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meters, and Heston regularly defeated Hahn in 40-yard sprints (the distance used to measure football speed).
He was tough as nails and his ability to pivot away from tacklers was nothing less than extraordinary.
“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,” Yost explained.
In fact, the actual creation of the tailback position stemmed from Heston’s ability. Prior to 1901, left halfbacks ran one way and right halfbacks went the other. But Yost strategically placed Heston so he could maneuver and attack either side of the ball. In response, opposing coaches created schemes simply to contain Heston. Minnesota, which had used a nine-man defensive line, shifted two players off the line and backed them behind; hence the creation of “linebackers.”
And Heston was a defensive standout, as well as the main cog in the “Point-a-Minute” offense.
“He was one of the greatest defensive backs, one of the hardest, surest tacklers that ever lived,” Yost said later in life.
Sadly, the official record books do not reflect Heston’s greatness to the history of Michigan football. According to the 2002 publication, “NCAA Football’s Finest,” researchers for the NCAA Statistics Service could only verify 17 of Heston’s games (out of 36), accounting for 72 touchdowns, 360 career points (when a “touch”down only meant five points), 2339 career yards rushing and an 8.4 per gain average.
Yost, in a 1925 letter to the sportswriter Grantland Rice, claimed Heston had 106 touchdowns. Other figures have been floated out there but nothing verifiable.
In a 1903 game against the Chicago Maroons, Michigan had 267 yards rushing, with Heston running for 237 of them.
“Michigan called Heston’s signal. Maybe it was the only one they had,” wrote the immortal Ring Lardner about the performance.
In the initial Rose Bowl, played on January 1, 1902, Heston ran for 170 yards on 18 carries, as Michigan defeated Stanford 49-0. Heston held the record for most rushing yards in a Rose Bowl game for 59 years.
So inspired by Heston and his cohorts, U-M student Louis Ebel, riding the train back to Ann Arbor, wrote the song that has become synonymous with the University of Michigan – “The Victors.”
All of the NCAA figures would place Heston firmly either at the top or in the top 20 in almost all U-M categories. Yet he isn’t there … officially.
However, Heston did earn several established honors – first-team Walter Camp All-American in 1903-04, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, and chosen by the Football Writers Association of America as its all-time team halfback for the first 50 years of college football.
After his collegiate days were FINALLY over, Heston played some professional football, in 1906 for the Canton Bulldogs, but a broken leg on Thanksgiving Day ended his pro days. He was head coach for Drake University in 1905 and North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which is now known as North Carolina State University (a six-degree tie to Russell Wilson) in 1906.
Heston later practiced law and served as a Michigan state court judge.
The NCAA loves to show itself as some sort of beacon of purity, labeling ALL involved in sports as “student-athletes.” Russell Wilson is a pro athlete-in-waiting; being a student has little to do with it. Heston played more football to advance his education since the professional angle was not as viable as it is today.
It’s simply an oddity to see how Wisconsin is challenging for a national title with its rental. But there is history, going back to the 1900s in that regard.

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