Little Red Wilson: ’The tiny sorrel-topped lad’ from Jefferson
By BRANDON HURLEY
**EDITOR’S NOTE: The timeline of Red Wilson’s life was composed thanks to the help of the U of M Bentley Historical Library, Doug Reider, and the Jefferson Bee and Herald archives.
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A detailed account of Don Wilson’s life would make a perfect Hollywood script.
A small, feisty Midwestern boy that became folklore across the state.
It’s an underdog story by near perfect definition. Wilson was undersized, and overlooked even in the 1920s. He overcame childhood injuries and starred on the high school football team, later playing for Michigan, all while growing up in a small Iowa town. He’s every American’s hero – the lovable afterthought who made it to the big time.
In fact, it sounds eerily similar to the legendary story of Rudy, the hardworking, undersized boy who walked on to the Notre Dame football team, later becoming part of Hollywood lore.
Wilson’s unlikely journey is even more remarkable, he truly was the Rudy before “Rudy.” It took place at the start of the Great Depression – he epitomized the never-say-die attitude.
The former Jefferson High School Ramblers’ determination, grit, and defiance of insurmountable odds to not only make a blue blood college program, but to play a significant role is astounding.
Wilson’s story is one of the more lesser known tales in the entire state, let alone the county, but it’s every bit as spectacular. He deserves a spot on the “Mount Rushmore” of Greene County athletes, that’s for sure.
The 1926 graduate, who stood 5’7 and not even 130 pounds at graduation, starred for the University of Michigan football team near the tail end of his senior year in 1929.
His unpredictable impact was so profound it even spurred the Michigan coach to pen a letter gushing over him in the Saturday Evening Post.
The little running back drew praise from everyone who came in contact with him.
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Donald “Red” Wilson was born Sept. 10, 1908 to Mabel and E.L. (Ned) Wilson in Jefferson.
Long before he set foot on the Ann Arbor, Michigan campus, by way of hitch hiking and train hopping, he endured a roller coaster ride through childhood and his young adult life. The redhead was undersized and lacked any physically imposing attributes for most of his life.
A bone disease triggered a severe foot injury when he was 12, which required the red-haired boy to use crutches before finally undergoing surgery in 1922. Dr. Stemier provided a turning point in his life as he removed a portion of the diseased bone from Wilson’s heel, allowing him to once again walk.
Not even a full three years later and Wilson was excelling and dazzling the Jefferson faithful as a star on the Rambler football team, albeit still undersized and a bit overlooked.
By his senior year, Wilson was listed as only 122 pounds and anywhere from 5’5” to 5’7”. He was small, even by 1925 standards, but boy, could he run.
He was named captain of the football team and they rode his legs often. He ripped off a legendary 90-yard touchdown run against Boone. The Herald recalls his dad, E.L. sprinting down the sideline to keep up with the speedy Wilson. The run would become something of folklore. The Boone News-Republican referred to Wilson as “The Red Grange of the Jefferson team.”
The next week pitted Jefferson against Carroll, a powerhouse at the time, in a Thanksgiving day game. The contest drew 3,000 fans and was hotly anticipated. Though the Ramblers lost, Wilson picked off a pass and Jefferson held it’s own, losing 6-0, allowing a last second touchdown.
The headline read “Jefferson plays best game of entire year – lucky break nets touchdown for visitors.”
The Tigers were a great team that year, and the local sports writer dubbed Carroll as the best high school team he had ever seen in action.
The nickname “Speedy” grew quickly in Jefferson, but Wilson sure didn’t endure a swift rise following graduation.
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Wilson’s small stature did little to impact his bravery and perhaps, his false sense of confidence. Let’s be honest, Jefferson wasn’t exactly a football hot bed at that time and the country was just a few years away from the Great Depression.
But, Wilson had it in his mind he was going to leave the Midwest and pursue a college football career in Michigan.
“Donald was not a very big guy. For some reason, his goal was to attend and play football for the University of Michigan,” noted Greene County historian Doug Reider said.
The legendary Fielding Yost, who won six national championships at Michigan, was the head coach in 1926, and Wilson badly wanted to play for him. Except, the Wolverines didn’t offer him a scholarship, and they certainly didn’t invite him to play for the team. Wilson essentially showed up to the Michigan door steps ready to play.
“I don’t know if Michigan knew he was coming,” Reider said. “Recruiting wasn’t what it is today, it pretty much didn’t exist.”
Wilson overcame a few obstacles on his way to Ann Arbor in 1926, he hitchhiked and hopped trains to get to his new home.
Things didn’t really improve after that. Wilson wasn’t far removed from his superstar days in Jefferson, but that didn’t matter to the Wolverine coaching staff. Wilson made the team, but didn’t stand a chance actually seeing the field. He rode the bench for several years.
“He did not get a sniff, they probably didn’t even know he was alive,” Reider said. “He was speedy here, but he wasn’t there.”
Nearly four full seasons passed before Wilson saw varsity action. Wilson excelled on the “B” team and caught the eye of the coaching staff. Unlike the often embellished story of Rudy, Wilson was talented. His teammates knew it, and the staff began to catch on. He just needed a chance. His small stature did little to hide his speed. He stuck with it, knowing he’d get his chance.
“Imagine the beating you’re taking in practice over those years, with no playing time,” Reider said. “Imagine how many people told him you’re nuts, you’re crazy. You’re killing yourself, why are you doing this?”
The coaching staff indeed was taking notice of Wilson’s passion for the game, as did the local papers.
“Little Red Wilson is a speed merchant with plenty of fight,” read an Ann Arbor paper in 1929. “Wilson is a midget, fast and shifty, did well on the B team. Wilson has shown flashes of brilliancy for the past two years as a member of the reserves but heretofore has been regarded as too light.”
Slowly, but surely, Wilson’s time was coming.
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Wilson’s loyalty and persistence while working his ass off eventually paid dividends.
Head coach Harry G. Kipke, who took over for Fielding Yost in 1929, noticed Wilson’s hard work midway through his senior year. He contemplated playing Red against biter rival Ohio State in the fifth game. Local reporters speculated his impending game action.
“The tiny sorrel-topped lad is one of the hardest workers on the squad and his diligence has just about persuaded Kipke to give him his first big chance,” the Michigan Daily wrote prior to the game. “Wilson is lightning fast and a good man to have in a pass defense. He is an expert at intercepting throws and should he snare one against against Ohio (State), the Buckeyes might just as well not chase him, for they’ll never catch him.”
Despite those high remarks, Wilson didn’t see action against the Buckeyes, nor did he set foot on the field against Illinois the following week.
Kipke had reached his boiling point by then – the Wolverines were toiling, suffering a three-game losing streak, sitting at 3-3.
As Michigan clung to a 14-12 lead over Harvard in the homecoming game, Kipke chose to spice things up.
The Harvard game was the moment in which the hypothetical movie would reach its climax, grabbing the viewers with an emotional but remarkable scene. Even Kipke was aware of the unlikely moment. In the letter he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933, he called Wilson “A storybook character.”
Eight minutes remained in the game and the fans were antsy, to say the least. Kipke’s pre-game speech was a bit graphic if not motivational. He threatened suicide (really) if they didn’t win.
The Hall of Fame coach compiled a legendary resume of his own. He coached the University of Michigan football from 1929-1937 and was also captain of the Michigan football team in 1923, earning All-American honors in 1922. He had a right to hold the Wolverines up to high standards.
“I told the boys that they were not only fighting for Michigan, but for a human life, as I’d narrowed my choice down to potassium cyanide or the Ambassador Bridge,” he later said in The Post.
This is as remarkable as astounding – threatening suicide if they didn’t win. Well, I suppose Kipke didn’t want to make good on his promise, so he turned to Wilson for a spark.
The home crowds were massive even back then in the late 1920s. The legendary Michigan Stadium was just two years old at the time, so crowds of 90,000 were pretty impressive.
“That stadium was a riot and I began suspecting that the water was pretty cold under that bridge in late October,” Kipke said, referencing his pregame speech.
He glanced over his players sitting on the sidelines and pegged the loyal Wilson to enter at fullback. Though Wilson made little noise that game, Michigan wound up winning and it set in motion a three week whirlwind for the Jefferson native.
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The local papers and national outlets weren’t exactly kind to Wilson when he finally saw varsity action. Dozens of recounts refer to his lack of size time and time again. The sportswriters of the 20s had a field day with the underdog.
“Wilson is a midget, fast and shifty,” read one particular article. Or how bout this little dandy, “Diminutive Don Wilson, Michigan’s mighty mite…”
Despite the utter disregard for his talents, Wilson dazzled when given the opportunity.
He sparked the Wolverine squad as they finished the year with two consecutive wins and a tie, launching them over the .500 mark.
Though he didn’t start the Minnesota game following the Harvard win, Wilson played nearly three full quarters. The Gophers were heavy favorites, led by Football Hall of Famer, Bronco Nagurski. Red entered the game for the injured Alvin Dahlem and made his presence known, carrying the ball 18 times for 61 yards. He also reeled in the play of the game.
With the Wolverines trailing 6-0 and the clock winding down, Kipke drew up a fake field goal. The play was executed to perfection, as the quarterback found a leaping Wilson for a long pass down to the two yard line, setting up the eventual game-winning touchdown. Legendary Des Moines Register sportswriter Sec Taylor recapped the impact of the unlikely hero, inserting a few subtle digs at Wilson as well.
“Red” Wilson, the elfish red head from Jefferson was given his chance in the Michigan backfield and made good,” Taylor said in 1929. “The Wolverines failed to attain a single first down until Wilson was injected into the second period and from that point on to almost the finish figured largely in their attack as well as defense. His 134 pounds of speed and wittiness was everywhere.”
The Daily Register in Ann Arbor praised Wilson for the spectacular turnaround and predicted more to come.
“Little Don Wilson, midget back, who almost single handed turned defeat into victory for the Wolverines, has probably earned a regular backfield berth, as a result of his showing,” the article said. “Wilson tried for three years to make the varsity, only now has achieved the distinction his supporters have long claimed his due.
It continued, “Doubtless Donald will play next Saturday in the final frame of his team. His friends in Jefferson are rejoicing at his continued success.”
The Wolverines played to a 0-0 tie against Iowa in the regular season finale. Though the offenses struggled, Wilson had an impact on defense. He co-starred alongside Al Dahlem, who was also not much of an imposing figure. They flew around the field, keeping the Iowa ball carriers out of the end zone.
In an otherwise lackluster season, especially for Michigan standards, Wilson sparked a late season rally, pioneering two upset victories over Harvard and Minnesota and the tie with Iowa. The Wolverines finished the year 5-3-1. Without Wilson, you could reasonably say they may have been well under .500. In three games of action, Wilson never lost. I’m sure not many Michigan athletes can say they went undefeated throughout their career, no matter how long or short it was.
That’s one heck of an accomplishment for a guy that was deemed too small from a little-known Iowa town.
His impact was put perfectly by a Chicago Tribune article following the Harvard game.
“There is romance in the career of Red Wilson as a football player,” the writer said. “When he reported as a sophomore and weighed in, he failed to disturb the bar at 130 pounds and was dismissed as too light.”
Wilson’s teammates praised him as well. His offensive line enjoyed blocking for the shifty tailback. The Jefferson native sparked the offense each time he came in from the sidelines.
“Wilson is the kind of sub who can run a tired opposing team ragged and pep up his own mates,” Howard Poe, a Michigan guard said following the comeback against Minnesota. “It’s a pleasure to open holes for a back who is going somewhere. That kid Wilson inspired us to do the things we did this afternoon.”
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Following his Michigan graduation, Wilson attended Harvard for post graduate business work. He turned that into a long career in sales, while still managing to sneak some football in.
Though no documents are clear as to when he played, Wilson kept his football career alive for a few years. He was a member of the Portland Sagamores semi-pro team, as stated by his Portland Press Herald obituary, most likely in the 1930s.
In 1930, Wilson took a job in the maintenance department of the highway commission. He later became a district representative of the North American Cement Company in Portland, Maine in 1932. A 1934 report from the Jefferson Herald stated he had a “good position with a cement company in Nashua, New Hampshire.”
His wife, formerly Marion E. Clark and Red had two kids, Bruce in 1937 and Martha in 1947, the latter who attended the University of New Hampshire.
Wilson was later a sales rep for Alpha Portland Cement Company and the family lived in Claremont, New Hampshire (for an estimated 20 years) until the family moved to New London, Conn. a year prior to his death.
His father, E.L. died in Nov. of 1947.
Wilson was later diagnosed with cancer and his life ended prematurely on Jan. 18, 1962 at the age of 53.
For a short period in the 1920s, he was the envy of certainly all of Greene County. His legacy, though not always mentioned among the greats, deserves to be told.
Wilson earns high praise from Hall of Fame coach in letter
An excerpt from Take your eye off that ball, Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 11, 1933
Former Michigan coach Harry G. Kipke penned an open letter in honor of Red Wilson’s remarkable career in 1933. Kipke compiled a legendary resume of his own as well. He coached the University of Michigan football team from 1929-1937 and was also captain of the Michigan football team in 1923, earning All-American honors in 1922. The former Wolverine replaced the legendary Fielding Yost in 1929, who Wilson came to Michigan to play for.
Kipke tallied a 46-26-4 career record and led the Wolverines to outright or shared Big Ten Conference titles from 1930-1933, winning back-to-back national championships (1932-33). He became a well regarded coach in the 30s. He’s now a member of the National Football Hall of Fame and the Michigan Hall-of-Famer. The fact that Wilson stuck in Kipke’s mind several years later speaks volumes of his character and unique talents.
Below is an excerpt from his piece written in November of 1933. It’s lifted from a reproduction from the Jefferson Bee…
((ITALICS)) ‘“A running game isn’t so alarming, but a successful passing game fills me with a greater dread than a pink toothbrush. The most uncomfortable moments of my sanity and pious life were the last eight minutes of the Harvard game in 1929. It was my first year as head coach at Michigan and after winning three games, we lost three in a row. Before the Harvard battle, I told the boys that they were not only fighting for Michigan, but for a human life, as I’d narrowed my choice down to potassium cyanide or the Ambassador Bridge (!!!!!). There were 90,000 people jammed in the stands that afternoon and at the end of the 52 minutes, the Wolverines were leading 14-12. I still refer to the final part of that struggle as the “last eight hours of the Harvard game.” Barry Wood started throwing passes and twice he carried the Crimson club almost the length of the field. I’ve often wondered whether Harvard ever did that well in signal practice. The crowd was in a perfect frenzy and 90,000 raving maniacs can raise quite a turmoil. That stadium was a riot and I began suspecting that the water was pretty cold under that bridge in late October.
As Wood maneuvered his mates toward our goal the second time, I looked over the warriors huddled around and suddenly motioned to “Red” Wilson. Red was a storybook character. The first on the field and the last off for four years. Here he sat in the fading days of his senior year, without ever having been in a game. The official program gave Red’s weight as 135 pounds, but he must’ve been palming cannon balls.
“Red,” I asked, “Can you play full back?”
“Me,” said Wilson nervously, “I can play anything.”
“Will you know where to line up when we get the ball?”
He looked intently into my face for a minute and then said, “You aren’t kidding me, coach?”
I shook my head – in fact, I shook all over, for just then my knees smote each other violently as Wood completed another one of those six or eight yard passes.
“You go in at fullback,” I said. “Remember, no pass is ever completed behind a Michigan fullback.”
And so little Red Wilson sprinted out and a 210-pounder trotted wonderingly to the sidelines. A 135-pound fullback isn’t very formidable to back up a line and combat a power attack, but I wasn’t afraid of a running game as I was of the passing.
Red actually did play so well that the game ended 14-12 and I started him the next Saturday at halfback.
The aftermath of that situation is simply delightful too. Monday, Red phoned and said his aunt was en route to Iowa and the train stopped for 10 minutes in Ann Arbor, would I give him some time off?
Would I? I’d have given him the depot and the whole New York Central System.
Later, he came on the field and someone asked casually whether he’d seen his aunt, and he blurted out, “Say, coach, I told her I played fullback against Harvard and she wouldn’t believe it. Will you write her a letter? She said her little nephew never played fullback against Harvard, as they were all great big giants.”
Unfortunately, I never struck up a correspondence with Red’s aunt, and so I hope she reads the football articles in The Post.