As University of Washington football fans gather in the Phoenix area this week in anticipation of Saturday's Fiesta Bowl pitting their Huskies against Penn State, there will be the usual reflections on and toasts to the great UW teams and stars of the past that set the model for the 2017 team.
Inevitably, someone ticking off great bowl games of Husky past will note that it was in 1924 that UW played in its first Rose Bowl game a 14-14 tie with Navy, and returned two years later to lose to Alabama, 20-19. When that's mentioned, it's possible the name George Wilson will come up in the context of those first Rose Bowl, which came about because of his nationally recognized performance.
But it's possible not much time will be spent discussing the life and deeds of the man who might legitimately be described as UW's first football star because his career from 1923-25 that included the first two Rose Bowl appearances is shrouded in gridiron antiquity for most fans. After all, his record was established almost nine decades ago, but the curious or those hungry for a bit of history can learn about him on various websites.
I first wrote of Wilson four years ago when then-Husky star Bishop Sankey broke the school single-season rushing record and also tied Wilson's UW record for most touchdowns. There was little more than a mention of the man who set the record but since it was a tie, Wilson's name is left in the Husky record book 90-plus years on.
Those who take the time to delve into Husky history are left to ponder Wilson's story, which epitomizes the fleetingness of fame and the fickleness of fate. For less than a decade his star shone brightly on the national football stage, first as a collegian then as a highly publicized pro football player. In fact, he was so prominent a collegiate football star that he not only starred as a pro but had an entirely new professional league created partly for him. And a team in that league was named for him.
Then, unlike some of his high-visibility football peers who managed to parlay fame into later successful careers, he personally faded rapidly from the scene, doing some professional wrestling for a few years, working in the Texas oil fields, then as a longshoreman in San Francisco, dying on the dock there of a heart attack in 1963.
But in an example of the often strange links in the chain of fortune forged by fate, Wilson, at the highly publicized outset of his pro football career, set the stage for a little-noted player from Gonzaga College named Ray Flaherty to launch a professional career in which he went on to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NFL.
Wilson, nicknamed "Wildcat," was a kid from Everett who had already fashioned a name for himself as a high school player who guided his Everett team to what was acknowledged to be the nation's best high school football team two years in a row, before arriving on the UW campus.
Although the Huskies prior to Wilson's arrival had some noteworthy accomplishments, including the record of Gil Dobie, whose pre-World War I teams posted a remarkable 58-0-3 record, though performances in those early days in the West got little national visibility.
Wilson, however, brought national recognition to the Huskies. In addition to guiding UW to those Rose Bowl appearances, he was a first-team All-America selection in his senior year in an All-Star backfield that might vie for the best ever, a backfield that included "Red" Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" from Illinois, and Stanford's Ernie Nevers, plus Wilson.
Upon his graduation in 1926, Wilson was enticed to join the just-forming American Football League (not the AFL of later decades) by the league's co-founder, who had already lured Grange to join the league as his partner but wanted a name player to compete with Grange on the field.
Wilson was named the president of the league's traveling team, the Los Angeles Wildcats. The league actually paid the bills and filed the franchise ownership papers for the team known as "Wilson's Western Wildcats," actually based in Chicago because of the travel difficulty of being based in Los Angeles in those days.
Grange's traveling all-stars and Wilson's Wildcats actually met on the field once that season, in Los Angeles before a crowd of 70,000. While Grange's squad, which later became the Chicago Bears, won the game, 17-7, Wilson outgained Grange, rushing for 128 yards to 30 for grange.
Wilson stocked his team with players from the West, including two from Gonzaga College in Spokane. In addition to Flaherty, an end, he tapped Matty Bross, a halfback, to be part of the western stars' team.
Ironically, as Wilson's star would quickly fade, Flaherty, who hadn't gained much attention as a collegian at a small school removed from high-visibility opportunities, went on to make pro football his career. After his year with the Wildcats, he moved to the New York Giants, where he was an all-star end, then became head coach of the Washington Redskins, where his four trips to the NFL title game and two championships earned him acknowledgment as one of the NFL's all-time best coaches.
Choosing Flaherty for his Wildcats and thus earning credit for setting the stage for what followed is a contribution not mentioned in the sports history books, and perhaps not other than this column.
The AFL didn't last and Wilson joined the Providence Steam Rollers of the NFL, where he played for three seasons, including 1928 when Providence won the NFL championship and Wilson scored five touchdowns and had four interceptions to lead the team that year.
There is still another irony, or perhaps small-world aspect, to Wilson's story. It's that another Gonzaga College player, Houston Stockton, was guiding the Frankfort Yellowjackets (later the Philadelphia Eagles) to the NFL title in 1926 while Wilson's Wildcats were gaining attention.
Stockton's statistics as a collegian were almost as impressive as Wilson's, including a 77-0 Gonzaga victory over Wyoming in which Stockton scored six touchdowns and kicked 10 extra points.
In that era when players played both offense and defense, both Wilson and Stockton were viewed as stars on defense as well as offense and were regarded as punishing tacklers.
But Stockton's exploits got scant attention, being played out at a little school in out-of-the-way Spokane. His national recognition was limited to twice being named an honorable mention All-America.
Stockton, the grandfather of NBA Hall-of-Famer John Stockton, had joined the Steamrollers and was a teammate of Wilson's for the 1929 season before he returned home to Spokane to go into business and Wilson left football to begin his mysterious decline from fame and attention.
Wilson's years away from the limelight were interrupted only twice for reminders of what had been, once when he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame and in 1959 when he was invited home to UW, by Post-Intelligencer Sports Editor Royal Brougham, to be honored prior to the Huskies Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.