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Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

From football stardom, 'Wildcat' quickly faded to obscurity

  • George Wilson, a football player for the University of Washington from 1923 to 1925, is a member of the Husky Hall of Fame. A medallion dedicated to h...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    George Wilson, a football player for the University of Washington from 1923 to 1925, is a member of the Husky Hall of Fame. A medallion dedicated to him hangs in the Hall of Fame at the Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle.

  • George Wilson's induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame is recognized by this trophy. Wilson, who played for the University of Washington in the 192...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    George Wilson's induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame is recognized by this trophy. Wilson, who played for the University of Washington in the 1920s, was in the Rose Bowl in 1924 and 1926.

  • George Wilson's induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame is recognized by this trophy. Wilson, who played for the University of Washington in the 192...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    George Wilson's induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame is recognized by this trophy. Wilson, who played for the University of Washington in the 1920s, was in the Rose Bowl in 1924 and 1926.

  • The University of Washington football jersey worn by George Wilson in the 1920s. The jersey and other memorabilia associated with Wilson are displayed...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    The University of Washington football jersey worn by George Wilson in the 1920s. The jersey and other memorabilia associated with Wilson are displayed at the Husky Hall of Fame in the Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle.

  • The section in "100 Years of Husky Football" devoted to George Wilson, the Player of the Century for the first 50 years.

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    The section in "100 Years of Husky Football" devoted to George Wilson, the Player of the Century for the first 50 years.

  • George Wilson

    Photo Courtesy of Larry O'Donnell

    George Wilson

Second of two parts. Click here to read part 1.
Having established himself as the greatest football player to come out of Everett, and going on to become the University of Washington's first football star, George "Wildcat" Wilson quietly left college without a diploma and found the real world to be more challenging than the gridiron.
The soft-spoken star ended up accepting $500 to play on a team that would challenge former University of Illinois legend Red Grange and his traveling squad of all-stars, a group that would help shape the National Football League into what it is today. Wilson and the Los Angeles Tigers faced Grange in front of 75,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum, and although Grange's Chicago Bears won the game 17-7, the main attraction was overshadowed by the man known simply as Wildcat.
As Grange himself wrote in his autobiography, Wilson was "easily the star of the game" while rushing for 123 yards on 26 carries.
Wilson apparently signed with an NFL team called the Akron Professionals in 1926, but that franchise went bankrupt before he played a game. Grange's American Football League named him owner of a team known as the Wildcats, and Wilson went on a brief tour that included another head-to-head matchup with the former All-America runner from Illinois. Wilson again stole the show when playing on the same field as Grange.
As a designated team owner, Wilson had limited success. One man he tried desperately to sign but couldn't get into the fold was a tall, menacing runner from USC named Marion Morrison. Nicknamed "The Duke," Morrison passed up a chance to play pro football and instead went into acting, a trade that served Morrison well after he changed his name to John Wayne.
In 1927, with NFL salaries beginning to rise, Wilson signed with a team known as the Providence Steam Roller for $500 per game. He ended up playing three seasons, along with his older brother, Abe, and was twice among the league leaders in touchdowns. In 1928, his second year in the league, Wilson helped lead the Steam Roller to an NFL title.
But 1929 would be his final year of professional football. The reasons have not stood the test of time. Perhaps injuries caught up with him. Or maybe a pair of teammates turned him on to a new passion in a different kind of arena. What seems clear even decades later is that Wilson didn't manage his finances well, forcing him into a series of jobs away from the gridiron.
While with the Steam Roller, Wilson played with a former Olympic gold medalist wrestler named John Spellman as well as a man named Gus Sonnenberg, who went on to win a world title in professional wrestling in 1929. Whether those two men influenced Wilson is not known, but he eventually joined the wrestling circuit.
Under names such as The Wildcat and Bone Crusher, Wilson worked as a professional wrestler in his late 20s and early 30s. That career took him across the country, to Canada, and even to Australia, where he wrestled professionally but later learned he was not allowed to take his earnings out of the country. He eventually returned to the U.S. broke.
In September 1931, Wilson headlined a wrestling card at what was then known as New Everett Arena. He faced former Canadian champion Rocky Brooks.
The following year, while living in Seattle, Wilson married an Everett woman named Kathreen Flyzik. The 1932 marriage lasted just three years, and rumor had it that by that time Wilson had fallen in with a bad crowd.
• • •
Once centered in whatever spotlight was afforded football stars in the 1920s, Wilson had all but fallen off the proverbial map by the mid-1930s. Short-lived careers in professional football and professional wrestling were behind him, but Wilson briefly returned to the headlines in 1936 when he told a California newspaper he had been offered money to play while at UW.
The Husky legend said the school offered him a large sum of money -- around $10,000, he claimed -- while UW's players were holding out on the 1926 Rose Bowl. The accusation was never backed with documentation, nor did it lead to any known investigation into the Husky football program, but it most certainly created a chasm between Wilson and the school. One former teammate wrote an open letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper lambasting Wilson.
Royal Brougham of the Post-Intelligencer, one of the most esteemed columnists on the West Coast, took Wilson to task in print.
"A punch-drunk wrestler who found himself fading from the limelight babbled a fantastic tale to a reporter," Brougham wrote, "and stabbed a knife into his Alma Mater."
Brougham went on to add: "The most popular athlete of his generation, he threw away his brilliant opportunities, and, against the advice of his friends, became a tramp athlete."
The remaining years of Wilson's life are mostly a mystery. Friends and family members later dropped hints that the former superstar battled alcoholism most of his adult life.
What is known is that he moved to Texas to work in the oil fields sometime around the time of his UW pay-for-play scandal, but he quietly returned to his hometown of Everett shortly thereafter. Wilson worked in the Everett shipyards during the late 1930s and the years of World War II. He spent time as a greeter at the Washington Athletic Club.
Still alone and estranged from his alma mater, Wilson found out in 1951 that he had been inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame. Around that time, Wilson was living in San Francisco, where he would spend the final years of his life. He worked on the docks near the bay, living alone and drifting farther and farther from the limelight.
• • •
Wilson's one final flirtation with fame came around this time of year, the Christmas season, in 1959. With the Huskies on the verge of playing in just their third Rose Bowl since that magical 1925 season, Brougham tracked down Wilson in San Francisco and invited him to attend the game. The ensuing years had allowed wounds to heal, and both the P-I columnist and the UW football program were willing to welcome back an aging star.
Wilson, 59 years old, met the team before the Rose Bowl game against Wisconsin on Jan. 1, 1960, and was apparently overcome by the players' attention.
After that meeting, he told Brougham: "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."
Less than four years later, as the Huskies prepared for another Rose Bowl appearance, this time against Illinois, word arrived that Wilson had died of a heart attack in San Francisco on Dec. 27, 1963.
Years later, Seattle P-I scribe J Michael Kenyon described Wilson's final days.
"At the time of his death, he lived alone in a hotel room at 640 Eddy Street and had been working for the State Steamship Co. as a cargo checker for some five years," Kenyon wrote. "He was measuring cargo on Pier 15 when he was stricken about 3:25 p.m. in mid-afternoon of the 27th. He was taken to the Harbor Emergency Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival."
Wilson's death was met with a fraction of the press coverage afforded to sports legends by today's media. The Herald ran an Associated Press story on the inside pages of its sports section, and most publications included only two or three paragraphs on his passing. A few days later, Brougham chimed in with an obituary.
"George Wilson was quietly buried in Everett this past week," the P-I columnist wrote. "The splendidly gifted All-American died just before the Rose Bowl game, an event in which he had distinguished himself so brilliantly as a Washington halfback 40 years ago. Another man of steel, his heart suddenly stopped ticking as he worked on the San Francisco docks."
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bill Leiser eulogized The Wildcat more succinctly, writing: "Wilson has to be the greatest single Rose Bowl player of all time."
Forty-eight years ago this week, Everett's first superstar quietly left this world without the fanfare typically given a legendary sports hero.
He's been gone for nearly five decades, but by no means has The Wildcat been forgotten. In 2010, he was part of the first class inducted into the newly created Snohomish County Sports Hall of Fame.
For a brief time, George Wilson was a star among stars. But he was always something else.
He was, like the rest of us, human.
One of the best
In 2005, The Herald put together a list of the top 50 athletes in Snohomish County history, and former Everett High School football star George Wilson ranked fifth. Here is a recap of the top 10 athletes on that list:
1. Earl Averill, Snohomish (baseball)
2. Rosalynn Sumners, Edmonds (figure skating)
3. Chris Chandler, Everett (football)
4. Anne Quast Sander, Marysville (golf)
5. George Wilson, Everett (football)
6. Earl Torgeson, Snohomish (baseball)
7. Chris Henderson, Everett (soccer)
8. Jo Metzger, Everett (basketball)
9. Curt Marsh, Snohomish (football)
10. Jack Nichols, Everett (basketball)




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