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“Wee Willie” versus the “Cardiac Kids” 

By Malamute, updated 4 February 2005

 They say you can run, but you can’t hide. There’s one exception. Not only could “Wee Willie” run, but he could hide. Seemingly, he would disappear into the line, as if he were inside a wormhole, then reappear somewhere else in the Universe. There weren’t many blacks playing college football in the late 1950’s. But those who did made the most of it. The one I’m writing about played quarterback at USC.

Since I matriculated at Washington, I guess I shouldn’t be reminiscing about a quarterback who wore the Cardinal and the Gold. But before Washington fans flame me, let me set the stage. Back in those days, our conference was at war with the Big Ten, taking one pounding after another in the Rose Bowl. Desperate to get even, we AAWU fans formed a brotherly alliance after the old Pacific Coast Conference imploded, which left our five “pathetic” teams matched against the powerful Big Ten. Now that wasn’t fair. Also, the “cow colleges” had done us in, so we thought, and we were mad as hell.

Now let me set the scene. It was 1959, a beautiful day in mid-October, and the unbeaten Huskies were playing the seventh-ranked Trojans at home. I doffed my lab apron—the smell of chemicals about me—attached my slide rule to my belt in its leather “scabbard,” and left Bagley Hall to watch the game, a game that pitted “Wee Willie” versus the “Cardiac Kids.”

Jim Owens led the Huskies and Don Clark coached Southern California. The late John McKay, an assistant coach under Clark, assumed the head coaching job at USC a year later. 

Owens' team was called the “Cardiac Kids” because of its comeback wins. In the minds of many old-timers, some of the names associated with this team are legendary. How about Chuck Allen, Barry Bullard, George Fleming, Lee Folkins, Kurt Gegner, Ray Jackson, Joe Jones, Bill Kinnune, John Meyers, Roy McKasson, Don McKeta, Bob Schloredt, and Jim Skaggs? Just typing those names gives me the chills.

In those days, they played two ways, offense and defense. Bob Schloredt played cornerback as well as quarterback; he could run, pass and kick. The game I witnessed could easily have been billed: “'The One-eyed Quarterback'” versus “'Wee Willie.'” (I believe it was a fireworks accident that cost Schloredt an eye when he was a kid growing up in Gresham, Oregon).

I was barely seated before the McKeever twins (Marlin and Mike (photo left), along with Ron Mix, opened a mammoth hole in the Husky line, one you could taxi a Boeing 707 through.  I can still hear the murmur of the large crowd, spreading from one end of the stadium to the other, as fans down the line saw the gaping hole. Then looking like Traveler, a swift back shot the gap, galloped for thirty yards, and brought a loud, collective groan from the spectators.

My binoculars focused back on the Trojan quarterback, I saw a wide smile spread across his young face. In part, I came to see him play that day, having never seen a mobile quarterback of his likes before. I’ve been partial to mobility at that position ever since.

As you may have guessed, I came to watch Willie Wood (5-9, 170), who was one of the first black quarterbacks—if not the first—to play in our conference (PCC, AAWU, Pac-8, Pac-10).

At quarterback, Willie Wood—who co-captained the Trojans—was impossible to defend. As slippery as a wet you-know-what, he made the others players look like they were standing still. Running mostly, he threw short passes to keep the defense honest. After he’d get the ball, he’d scoot right or left along the line, looking for the smallest of openings to attack—or maybe he’d hand the ball off or would drop back to throw a quick pass. His athleticism was amazing, much like Kobe Bryant’s.

Wood put on quite a show that afternoon, adding lightning to the thundering herd. But the Dawgs had an answer for him in Bob Schloredt.

Down 14-0, the Huskies rallied to take a 15-14 lead over Southern Cal with nine minutes to play. In this effort, Schloredt ran five yards for the Huskies’ final touchdown, and then ran for the two points. But Willie Wood was not to be outdone. After a 42-yard run by Jerry Traynham, Wood returned the favor, disappearing into the line, ending up in the end zone.

It was the only game the “Cardiac Kids” lost in the 1959 season, losing a heart stopper, 22-15. The Trojans lost to UCLA and Notre Dame in their last two games. USC (8-2-0), UCLA (5-4-1) and Washington (9-1-0) tied for the conference championship. Based on prior commitments, Oregon (8-2-0) was still eligible to go to the Rose Bowl; USC was ineligible due to its NCAA probation. The Rose Bowl committee selected the Huskies, based on its better overall record.

The Huskies went on to beat Wisconsin, a 10-point favorite, 44-8. It was a pivotal game in the Rose Bowl competition against the Big Ten, a watershed moment in Husky history, as well as in Pac-10 history. The “Cardiac Kids” will always be remembered for that game.

As Emmett Watson wrote recently, this is a team “that played from the heart.”

Dick Rockne, in his book, “Bow Down to Washington,” quotes George Myers (Seattle Times), “In one prodigious, unforeseeable swoop, Jim Owens’ ‘3-year-olds’ wiped out 13 years of Pacific Coast embarrassment and 36 years of Husky anguish.”

I’ll always remember the game against Wisconsin. But etched in my memory for that season, I’ve reserved a place for the incomparable Willie Wood.

Wood went on to play defensive back for the Green Bay Packers. He was too small to play quarterback at that level, and he didn’t have the arm. Overlooked in the 1960 draft, it took a letter writing campaign on his behalf for him to latch on with the Packers.

With Bart Starr firmly established at quarterback, Wood sat on the bench most of the 1960 season. Recognizing his exceptional talent, Vince Lombardi inserted Wood into the staring lineup in 1961, using him as a defensive back. He excelled at returning punts, leading the league in that category in 1961.

During his illustrious career, Willie Wood won All Pro honors five times and appeared in eight Pro Bowls. In 1989, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Afterward (bits and pieces):
  • The 1959 “Cardiac Kids” had several black players as well: Among them were Ray Jackson, George Flemming and Joe Jones.
  • Eleven years after Willie Wood played for SC, Jimmy Jones quarterbacked the Trojans. The Trojans and their all black backfield, consisting of Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis, and fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, traveled to Dixieland on September 12, 1970 and thrashed Alabama, 42-21. Not only was Sam Cunningham a powerful runner, but he was the first player in college football to go over the top during a goal line stand. Later, former Bear Bryant assistant coach Jerry Claiborne noted, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.”

  • One of the teams that Jimmy Jones led was also called the “Cardiac Kids.”

  • I wish to thank Chris Hart for his comments and review. 

  • Occasionally I unsheathe my scabbard and use my Versalog slide rule to keep in practice. Living in California, well, you never know. 

  • Rockne, Dick, “Bow Down to Washington,” The Strode Publishers, Huntsville Alabama, 1975.
  • Watson, Emmett, “Remembering a team that played 'from the heart',” Seattle Times, October 26, 1999.

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