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Wilson, George (1901-1963): The Greatest Husky
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George Wilson played football at the University of Washington from 1923 to 1925. He ran, passed, caught passes, punted, and played linebacker on defense, a 60-minute player. In 1925 his teammates selected Wilson as the Flaherty Award as the team's most inspirational player. During his three years with the Huskies they won 28 games, lost three, were tied three times, and went to the Rose Bowl twice. Wilson was named by Grantland Rice (1880-1954) to the 1925 All-American backfield along with Illinois’ Red Grange (1903-1991) and Stanford’s Ernie Nevers (1903-1976). Wilson had a brief fling in the struggling world of pro football in the late 1920s before his life began a downhill slide. He was a longshoreman in 1963 when he died alone and broke. Many have called George Wilson the University of Washington’s best football player ever.
Everett High's Champion Team
George Wilson was born in Everett, Washington, on September 6, 1901. As a freshman he was a starting guard on an undefeated Everett High Seagulls football team, coached by former University of Washington football player Enoch Bagshaw (d. 1930). Wilson was shifted to halfback and the team continued undefeated in 1918 and 1919. The 1919 team played Scott High of Toledo, Ohio, which resulted in a tie and both schools claimed the national high-school championship. By October 1920, the Everett Seagulls knew they had something very special. This was an era of freelance sports promotions and high schools were not immune.
Bagshaw offered East High School of Salt Lake City $2,500 to play Everett High on Thanksgiving Day in Everett. As a warm-up, Everett beat the University of Washington freshman team 20 to 0, St. Martin’s College 19-0, and Long Beach High of California 28 to 0. Next they took on The Dalles High School, Oregon’s high-school champions. Everett and Wilson won 90 to 7 to claim the Washington-Oregon interstate championship. On Thanksgiving Day, 1920, Everett demolished Salt Lake’s East High 67 to 0. Now several eastern teams wanted to challenge Everett to a national championship game.
East Technical High of Cleveland, Ohio, signed on to play in Everett on January 1, 1921. Everett won 16 to 7 and was acknowledged as the national champions. Enoch Bagshaw was selected to be the new coach at the University of Washington. Seven Everett players eventually joined Bagshaw at Washington, including the team’s star halfback, George Wilson. Dick Rockne, in his book Bow Down To Washington, relates a story told by Torchy Torrence (1899-1990), a big-time Washington supporter. Following high-school graduation, four Everett players boarded a train heading east to attend Purdue. In Torchy’s words “I went down to Portland and got ‘em off the train and brought ‘em back” (Rockne). Wilson was one of the four.
A Triple Threat at UW
Wilson played in the era of 60-minute players. Only injury or exhaustion would send a player to the sideline. Bagshaw’s Washington teams ran from a short punt formation where the tailback, Wilson, handled the ball almost every play. He ran with speed and power. Jack Keene was quoted in Steve Rudman and Karen Chave’s fine history of Washington football, 100 Years of Husky Football. Keene was statistician of Washington football for 50 years and saw all the great ones. In Keene’s words, “Wilson was fast and quick and because those guys played without the kind of equipment later developed, he got battered a lot. But he was utterly fearless. There has never been anybody else like him” (Chave and Rudman). One of Wilson’s teammates, Harold Patten, recalled “I remember one time he knocked five men clear off their feet with that stiff-arm” (Chave and Rudman).
In his career at Washington, George Wilson set the school all-time record by scoring 37 touchdowns. As tailback he was also the team’s passer, throwing for touchdowns and, on occasion, was called upon to receive a pass. The first time he was called on to punt, the ball traveled 55 yards from scrimmage. Wilson was a true triple threat.
On top of this, the hard-hitting Wilson played linebacker and led the defense, along with teammate Elmer Tesreau. During Wilson’s 34-game career at Washington, the Husky’s defense produced 18 shutouts and gave up 10 or more points only five times. As a linebacker Wilson dished out punishment play after play. On offense he handled the ball most every play. Opposing defenses keyed on Wilson and tried to punish him. Wilson’s game was an uninterrupted series of violent collisions.
In 1923, Wilson’s sophomore year, Washington played the USC Trojans for the first time. It was the first sellout in Husky stadium and the first Washington game broadcast on the radio. Wilson ran for the first Washington touchdown. Later he returned a USC punt 72 yards to set up a Washington field goal. Washington’s 22 to 0 win was a sign of things to come. The 1923 Huskies won 10 games, losing only to the California Bears 9 to 0. For the first time in the school’s history, Washington was selected to play in the Rose Bowl. They were matched against a strong Navy team. Wilson scored Washington’s first touchdown on a 23-yard run. Late in the game he received a 25-yard pass from Fred Abel to set up a field-goal try that was two-feet wide. The game ended in a 14 to 14 tie.
In the 1924 season Washington’s defense, led by Wilson, gave up only 24 points and shut out six opponents. Washington tied California but lost to the Oregon Ducks when Wilson, punting from the end zone, hit the crossbar of his own goal post. Oregon recovered for a touchdown and a 7 to 3 win and Washington’s only loss. Yes, the goal posts were on the goal line in that era. Washington’s final record for the season was 8-1-1.
Wilson was a senior in 1925. After beating Willamette College 108 to 0, the Huskies played their first game ever east of the Rockies and tied the Nebraska Cornhuskers 6 to 6. Washington continued to roll, scoring 480 points and leading the nation in scoring for the second time in thee years.
The big game was against Glenn "Pop" Warner’s (1871-1954) Stanford Indian team and their great All-American, Ernie Nevers. Washington scored first on a 26-yard pass from Wilson to George Guttormsen, a former Everett High teammate In the third quarter, Stanford was driving for the tying touchdown with a first down at the Washington nine-yard line. It was a classic showdown, tailback Nevers against linebacker Wilson. Nevers carried the ball three times, reaching the Washington four. Everyone in the stadium knew the game was in the balance. Ray Eckman recalled the scene “You could hear a pin drop. You could hear the signals being called all over the stadium” (Rockne). Nevers carried again. and was held to no gain. The Stanford All-American was hit so violently by Wilson and Tesreau that he was knocked out. Nevers later returned and eventually he and Wilson left the field in exhaustion. Late in the fourth quarter, Elmer Tesreau returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown and Washington won 13 to 0.
As Bagsahw’s teams rolled up wins, some critics had referred to the Washington players as dumb. It was not clear whether they were referring to class work or football smarts. In the Seattle Post Intelligencer the day after the Stanford game, the Stanford Coach wrote his own frontpage column and addressed the issue. “Washington deserved to win today because they made no mistakes. I have seen them play this year and I saw absolutely no indication of dumbness” (Warner).
Rose Bowl: 1926
For the second time in three years, Washington was invited to the Rose Bowl. Until the mid-1930s the Rose Bowl was college football’s only bowl game. The idea was to pit the best from the West against the best of the East. However eastern champions Dartmouth, then Princeton and finally Colgate declined the invitation. Washington declined as well. The Washington players did not want to miss another Christmas at home.
Alabama’s Crimson Tide gladly accepted a Rose Bowl invitation and became the first southern team to play in a bowl game. This was the game that put the South on the football map. After taking three votes, the Washington players finally agreed to play. The stage was set for what many have called the best Rose Bowl game ever played and was once voted one of the 10 best football games ever played, period. It matched Washington’s All-American George Wilson against Alabama’s great Johnny Mack Brown (1904-1974).
In the fist quarter Wilson intercepted an Alabama pass and Washington drove for a touchdown. The key play was a Wilson 25-yard run to the Alabama one yard line. In the second quarter Wilson sprinted 26 yards from punt formation, then threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to George Guttormson. Washington’s kicker missed both extra points. The second attempt hit the crossbar and fell short. Washington led 12 to 0 at halftime.
Damon Runyon covered the game for the national press: “George Wilson, the slashing back of the Washington team, was splashing the Crimson Tide at will. Then he got hurt” (Runyon). Wilson was knocked out late in the second quarter and did not return until the fourth quarter. With Wilson on the bench, Alabama rallied to score 20 straight points. Alabama was on the move again when Wilson re-entered the game. The Huskies stopped the Crimson Tide at Washington’s 12. With Wilson leading the way, the Huskies drove down the field. Wilson hit John Cole with a 20 yard touchdown pass. It was too little, too late. Alabama won 20 to 19.
The Rose Bowl statistics confirmed the legend of George Wilson. With Wilson in the game, Washington gained 317 yards and scored 19 points. With Wilson on the sidelines for 22 minutes Washington gained only 17 yards and Alabama scored all of its 20 points. After the bitter loss, Wilson graciously told reporters “That Mack Brown was all they said of him and more” (Chave and Rudman).
After the game Damon Runyon (1884-1946) called Wilson “one of the finest players of this or any other era.” He was “a one man football team” (Chave and Rudman). Runyon should know, he saw all of the great ones of the era. Famed sports-journalist Grantland Rice picked the All-American football teams at that time. He selected Wilson for the backfield joining Red Grange of Illinois and Ernie Nevers of Stanford. The nation at last recognized the greatest player to come out of the Northwest.
Wilson played with reckless abandon against defenses stacked against him. Wilson dished out vicious hits all game long as a linebacker. Equipment of the day did not provide the protection we see today. It was muscle and bone against muscle and bone. Great players played through pain and injury. Amazingly, George Wilson played the entire 1925 Season and the Rose Bowl at less than full strength.
When Wilson was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1951 his biography noted that though few fans knew it, Wilson played his entire senior season suffering from a stomach ailment, which curtailed his food intake. Other accounts state that Wilson played the season with cracked ribs and endured an attack of pneumonia. Torchy Torrance had a different take: “George went to Alaska in the summer of 1925 and earned good money with the fishing fleet. He came back with a very bad social disease.” Torrance continued: “Every now and then he would have to drop out of the game for a minute or two while he threw up” (Torrance). Wilson’s 1925 accomplishments are the more remarkable given his physical condition.
Like many football players of that, or any era, George Wilson was not a serious student. He dropped out of school following the 1925 season, just before the Rose Bowl of 1926. How was he going to make a living? Pro football was struggling in its infancy. After the 1925 college season, sports' first big promoter, Charles, "Cash and Carry" Pyle (1882-1939), signed Red Grange to a big contract to play a series of games in a barnstorming tour. The day after the Rose Bowl, the Seattle P-I reported “George Wilson was offered $1,000 to play against Red Grange at Tampa on New Years Day. Wilson turned down the offer” (Sherck). Instead Wilson chose to play in the Rose Bowl.
After the Rose Bowl game, promoters again approached Wilson and offered him $500 to play a couple of games against Grange and his traveling all-stars, now called the Chicago Bears. The first game was played in Los Angeles on January 16, 1926. The match-up of the two All-Americans, Grange and Wilson., drew a crowd of 70,000. On the opening kickoff Wilson knocked Red Grange silly. Wilson out-gained Red Grange 128 yards to 30, but the Chicago Bears won 17 to 7. Damon Runyan reported, “The Galloping Ghost of Illinois was clearly outshone” (Chave and Rudman).
Hard Times for Wildcat Wilson
Grange went on to make millions as the star attraction of the Chicago Bears of the National Football League, but he was the exception. Most players in that day needed full-time jobs to make ends meet. In 1926, George Wilson signed to play professionally with the Akron Professionals, one of 22 teams in the struggling pro league. Within a year, half the teams in the league, including Akron, were out of business.
George played in 1927 and 1928 with the Providence Steamrollers. He was listed as Wildcat Wilson on the All Pro team for 1928 selected by the Green Bay Gazette. The Depression was just ahead. Pro football would not pay big dollars until the 1950s and television. Wilson came along at the wrong time.
Wilson turned to professional wrestling to make a dollar. It was a tough life. His wife divorced him in 1935. Drink was beginning to take a toll. He joined a professional wrestling tour to Australia. When he returned to the United States, Wilson found that an Australian law prevented him from taking his earnings out of that country. He returned broke.
In 1936 Wilson told a California newspaper reporter that he had been promised money by the University of Washington to play in the 1926 Rose Bowl and had not been paid. Ex-teammates, the school, and the local Seattle press reacted with surprise and anger at the allegation. No evidence was ever produced to support Wilson’s charges and the matter was dropped.
A friend hired George to go to Texas to work in the oil fields, but when the friend died Wilson returned to the West Coast. He worked in the Everett shipyards during World War II. He was slipping in to oblivion, living alone and working as a longshoreman in San Francisco when he learned he had been selected to the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1951.
Recognized and Remembered
The 1960 Rose Bowl signaled the return of the University of Washington as a college football power. Jim Owens’s team defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 44 to 8. Royal Brougham (1894-1978) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer took the trouble to invite George Wilson into the Husky locker room celebration after the game. A P-I story included an appreciative comment from George Wilson. “Believe me, it made me feel good when some of the fellows I was introduced to said they had heard of George Wilson. You don’t know what a lift that gives to an old gray haired guy when he finds out he’s not been forgotten” (Brougham).
In addition to his All American honors in 1925 and his induction to the Hall of Fame in 1951, Wilson was named to the All-Time Pacific Coast Team in 1969. His jersey number, 33, is one of three that have been retired by the University of Washington. Time has not diminished his reputation as one of the great Washington Huskies of all time, perhaps the greatest. He should not be forgotten.
Dick Rockne, Bow Down To Washington (Huntsville: Aabama: Strode Publishers, 1975), 52,60; Torchy Torrence and Bob Karolevitz, Torchy! (Mission Hill, SD: Dakota Publishers, 1988), 58; Karen Chave and Steve Rudman, 100 Years of Husky Football (New York, NY: Professional Sports Publications, 1990), 34, 37, 50; Joe Hendrickson, Tournament of Roses (Los Angeles: Knapp Press, 1989); Glenn Warner, "Coach Warner Praises Huskies, Tells Why He Lost," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 8, 1925, p. 1; Damon Runyon, "Huskies Lose After Taking Early Lead," Ibid., January 2, 1926, p. 1; Damon Runyon, "Runyon Rates Wilson Greater Than Red Grange," Ibid., January 18, 1926, p. 1; Royal Brougham and George Wilson, "Wilson Lauds Huskies," Ibid., January 2, 1960, p. 1; George Sherck, "George Wilson Says He Will Play Pro Football," Ibid., January 1, 1926, p. 1.
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