The rise of ‘The Wildcat,’ Everett’s first sports superstar

First of two parts.

Perhaps it was appropriate the way George Wilson died: near the water, by all accounts alone, his death shrouded in mystery.

These would be the elements that would define the legend of Everett’s first sports superstar, who preceded by generations the world of brash-mouthed, chest-pumping heroes who would come to define sports in this country in the 21st century.

At a time when sports were but a simple distraction for a financially booming society that was struggling with things like Prohibition and gangsters, George Wilson personified the phrase about still waters running deep.

He was known to say little, but his words carried a heavy impact. He mostly let his play do the talking, and at times it screamed to be noticed. He thrived in athletic arenas but came to be lost without them.

Had George Wilson been playing football in the early part of the 21st century instead of the one that preceded it, he may not have had any choice but to spend his entire life in the spotlight. Instead, Everett’s first superstar came and quietly went, disappearing from the public eye and eventually leaving this world a nearly forgotten man.

Forty-eight years ago today, George “The Wildcat” Wilson died near San Francisco Bay, his post-athletic career leading him as far from the spotlight as one could possibly imagine. And yet his legend still reverberates from his hometown of Everett down to Montlake, where he remains one of the most prolific players in the history of the University of Washington football program, and farther south to Pasadena, where he is still remembered as one of the greatest players in Rose Bowl history.

And yet, for all the memories, his story has been shrouded in mystery, his name mostly worn away by time. While players from his generation such as Red Grange and Ernie Nevers continue to be included among the greatest names in football history, Wilson’s celebrity is mostly limited to this part of the country. Writers such as Everett historian Larry O’Donnell, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer scribe J Michael Kenyon and UW historian Steve Rudman have attempted with some success to track his life, while archives from The Herald and the UW have also provided pieces of his legend.

Using all these sources as research, The Herald attempted to piece together one of the forgotten sports legacies of the past century.

This is the story of George “The Wildcat” Wilson.

• • •

Nearly a century before there was the Wildcat formation, there was The Wildcat.

The kid who unearthed his skills on the playfields of Everett and would go on to shock the football world by becoming the only man capable of upstaging Red Grange undoubtedly earned his nickname because of a combination of speed and tenacity on the gridiron.

Born in Arkansas in 1901, Wilson entered a family that included brother Abe, one year his senior. The Wilsons soon moved to Everett and added two more boys and two girls. The principal at Everett’s Washington School talked young George into playing football, and Wilson would go on to follow in his brother Abe’s footsteps as a star at Everett High School. Young George was a starting guard as a freshman on the Seagulls’ unbeaten 1917 team. The following year, he became the starting halfback and an immediate star on teams coached by the legendary Enoch Bagshaw.

Bagshaw and Wilson led EHS to unbeaten seasons in 1918 and 1919, the latter producing a co-national championship after the Seagulls played a Toledo, Ohio, high school to a scoreless tie.

Looking to further test his team against national powers, Bagshaw reportedly paid a Utah high school $2,500 to play Everett on Thanksgiving Day in 1920, Wilson’s senior year. The Seagulls won that game 67-0. That same year, the group that came to be known as “Baggy’s Boys” hammered the Oregon state champions 90-7, beat a high school out of Long Beach, Calif., 28-0, defeated St. Martin’s College 19-0, and stomped on the University of Washington freshman team, 20-0.

By the end of that season, Everett was generally regarded as having one of the best high school football teams in the country. Bagshaw set up a national championship game with Ohio powerhouse East Technical of Cleveland on New Years Day, and Wilson led the Seagulls to a 16-7 win that would anoint them national champs.

Having already established himself as a legendary sports figure in Everett, Wilson took his talents south after Bagshaw was named head coach at the University of Washington, where Abe Wilson already played football. It was there that George Wilson began making a name for himself outside the state, eventually assuring that the name Wildcat Wilson would carry weight up and down the West Coast — and, by his senior year, making a name for himself as a national star.

• • •

With his dark eyes set on a square-jawed face, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Wilson had the look of an athlete. Photos nearly a century old show a confident young man with unlimited possibilities.

His early days as a Husky football player only accentuated the belief that The Wildcat was going places. Using a stiff-arm tactic that often left opponents crumpled to the grass, Wilson established himself as an immediate star at UW.

During a three-year career that spanned the 1923, ‘24 and ‘25 seasons, Wilson used his running legs, passing arm, receiving hands, kicking leg and tackling ability as a starting linebacker to carry the Huskies to a 24-3-3 record and two Rose Bowl appearances. He rarely came off the field and was almost always the most dominant player on it.

That was even the case when Wilson went head-to-head with Stanford star Ernie Nevers, whom The Wildcat outplayed in a battle during the 1923 season, and in later years when Wilson stole the spotlight from Grange in the professional ranks. The trio would be linked for much of their playing careers, all three of them comprising the All-America first-team backfield in 1925.

Wilson’s UW days were the stuff of legends. His Huskies once scored 108 points in a game — a shutout victory, no less — and the two-way player was known to pick up ball carriers and slam them to the ground for effect. Wearing a No. 33 jersey, Wilson used his stiff-arm to blast through opponents and create a buzz up and down the West Coast. He scored an eye-popping 10 touchdowns in 12 games in 1923, then added 14 in each of his final two seasons at UW.

Yet his exploits were always overshadowed by Stanford’s Nevers and the most notable player of his generation: University of Illinois star Harold “Red” Grange.

Then came the Rose Bowl that followed the 1925 season, a game in which Wilson simply had no equal.

Legend has it that Wilson stopped attending classes after the 1925 regular season, and it appeared his collegiate career was over when the Huskies voted to turn down an invitation to the Rose Bowl. Eventually, deciding that the game was more important than spending the holidays with family, the Huskies agreed to make the long trip to Pasadena.

That game, which was played on New Year’s Day 1926, would carry Wilson’s reputation well into the 20th century. It was a performance that left Los Angeles columnist Maxwell Stiles, years later, gushing: “The game he played against Alabama in the Rose Bowl was the finest individual effort I ever saw.”

• • •

Facing a mighty Alabama team in Pasadena, Wilson upstaged Crimson Tide star Johnny Mack Brown by intercepting a pass, breaking off a 25-yard run from scrimmage to set up a touchdown, running another 36 yards out of punt formation and completing a 20-yard touchdown pass — all before halftime.

But after the Huskies built a comfortable lead, an injury forced Wilson to come out of the game just before halftime. Alabama rallied to score 20 unanswered points before Wilson put himself back into the game in the fourth quarter and promptly threw another touchdown pass.

Alabama went on to win the game 20-19, but it was Wilson who stole the headlines. His 134 rushing yards and two touchdown passes left fans and sports reporters buzzing. Longtime New York sportswriter Damon Runyan, who attended the game, called Wilson “one of the finest players of this or any other era.”

That capped off what was widely regarded as the greatest football career of that era. Only later would it come out that Wilson played his senior season with a mysterious stomach ailment that sometimes forced him to come out of games so he could retch on the sidelines. At least one teammate surmised that Wilson probably contracted a disease while working on Alaskan fishing boats, a summer job Wilson held between his junior and senior years at UW. There were rumors that he’d played the 1925 season with a broken rib, and another that he had contracted pneumonia somewhere along the line.

By the time his UW career was over, Wilson had scored 38 touchdowns in three seasons — a school record that, remarkably, still belongs to him nearly 85 years after his final game at the school. His No. 33 jersey is one of just three that have been retired in the illustrious history of the Huskies’ football program.

But with few professional opportunities, and a less-than-sparkling academic resume, Wilson found an uncertain future awaiting him when his UW career ended.

A league founded in 1920 as the American Professional Football Conference and later renamed the National Football League was in its infancy, and salaries were just beginning to bloom.

The struggling NFL had recently gotten a jolt when a rival league known as the American Football League paid Grange, the former Illinois star, a salary of $100,000 — other players earned about $100 — to compete against NFL teams and boost gate receipts throughout the country. The two leagues eventually merged, forming the early structure of the NFL we know today.

All the league needed was a player who might be able to rival Grange.

By 1927, at a rate of $500 per game, the NFL found that man in Wildcat Wilson.

In part 2: Wilson becomes a success in the young NFL, before his football career comes to a mysterious end.

In the rafters

George Wilson is one of just three University of Washington football players who have had their jersey number retired:

• 2 Chuck Carroll

• 33 George Wilson

• 44 Rollie Kirkby

Scoring machine

A look at the all-time leaders in career touchdowns in University of Washington history:

• 1. George Wilson (1923-25), 38

• 2. Joe Steele (1976-79), 37

• 3. Hugh McElhenny (1949-51), 35

• 4. Napoleon Kaufman (1991-94), 34

• 5. Chuck Carroll (1926-28), 32

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