First USM African-American scholarship athlete dies

Courtesy photo Willie Heidelburg
Courtesy photo
Willie Heidelburg

Former Southern Miss football player Willie Heidelburg died Tuesday at age 63 in Jackson.

Heidelburg was the first African-American to receive a scholarship and playing time for USM and paved the way toward the school integrating its athletic programs.  He first saw action in 1970 and immediately proved to be a playmaker for USM’s offense and special teams.

His play and his role in integrating the university earned him a spot in the M-Club Sports Hall of Fame. He finished his two-year stay at Southern Miss with 6 total touchdowns.

“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.”

Prior to joining USM’s football team, Heidelburg earned honorable mention All-American honors while playing for Pearl River Junior College. He is also a member of the Pearl River CC Sports Hall of Fame.

He was in his 40th year as a coach at the time of his death.  He spent 25 years coaching at Murrah High School and the last 15 years coaching for Belhaven University where he served as the running backs and receivers coach.

His legacy will never be forgotten at Southern Miss as he made long strides for the university both on and off the field.