Many consider Willie Fleming one of the greatest running backs in Canadian Football League history. Known as ‘Willie The Wisp’ for the way he made would-be tacklers miss with his sheer speed and remarkable agility, Willie played eight seasons for the BC Lions from 1959-66 and rewrote the Lions record book in that time.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Willie grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He attended the University of Iowa on an athletic scholarship from 1957-59 and starred on the Hawkeyes football team. He led the team in scoring in 1958 and scored two touchdowns in the 1959 Rose Bowl as his Hawkeyes defeated the University of Minnesota, who coincidentally had at quarterback Fleming’s future BC Lions teammate Joe Kapp.
Willie burst onto the BC sports scene in 1959 and quickly established himself as the most dynamic rusher in the BC Lions’ short history to that point, electrifying the Empire Stadium faithful every time he touched the football. The Lions’ first true game breaker finished the season with 774 yards rushing, impressively averaging 7.0 yards per carry. He also caught 26 passes for 517 yards. And he scored eight touchdowns—three rushing, five receiving.
In 1960, Willie became the first BC Lion to break the 1000 yard rushing mark in a single season (he would break 1,000 yards three times), running for 1,051 yards on 125 carries, an amazing 8.4 yards per carry. That year Willie also set the Lions club record for most points scored in a single game with 25 (four touchdowns and a single extra point) against Saskatchewan on October 29th, 1960. Willie’s four touchdowns are also still tied with several other Lions for most touchdowns scored in a single game.
On September 24, 1962, Willie helped the Lions to a 27-24 win over Winnipeg and had just one reception, but what a catch it was, still considered one of the greatest in Lions and CFL history. On the Lions four-yard line Joe Kapp threw to Fleming who caught the ball without breaking stride and sprinted untouched to the end zone on a pass and run play that covered 106 yards, one of the longest in league history. Willie matched this 106-yard reception a year later in a game against Calgary. Both remain BC Lions club records to this day.
In a 1963 game against Winnipeg, Willie set the Lions club record for most combined rushing and passing yards in a single game with an amazing 328 total yards. This game is a perfect representation of Willie’s 1963 season, which truly was one for the ages. Nearly 60 years later the numbers still are eye-popping. He rushed 127 times for 1,234 yards in 16 games averaging a superb 9.7 yards per carry. He also caught 28 passes for 639 yards, averaging 22.8 yard per catch. He scored 12 touchdowns on the season. Province columnist Ed Willes said in 2013 that “you could make the case…that the Fleming of ’63 was the greatest back in CFL history.” No arguments here.
On October 17th, 1964, Willie produced one of the most remarkable performances of his career. In a 24-14 victory over Edmonton he scored two touchdowns, rushed for 186 yards, and compiled 106 yards receiving at Clarke Stadium in Edmonton. It sounds like a pretty standard Willie Fleming scoreline, but what distinguished it was one of those touchdowns was a CFL record 109-yard run, still to this day the longest touchdown run from scrimmage in league history. From their own one-yard line, Kapp gave the ball to Willie and after blocks from Tom Hinton and Leo Holland he dashed and danced past all defenders in what reporters called “a dazzling display of speed and deception.
Then just over one month later, Willie earned a sense of redemption for a moment from 1963 that haunts Lions fans to this day. That year in the Lions first-ever Grey Cup appearance, in front of a home crowd no less at Empire Stadium, Willie was knocked out of the game injured by a late hit on the sideline by Hamilton’s Angelo Mosca as the Tiger-Cats went on to win 21-10. A sign of Willie’s widespread popularity at that time was that Mosca instantly became one of the biggest villains in Canadian sport and even he admitted he made his career off that one questionable hit on the Lions star.
The 1964 Grey Cup was a rematch of the Lions and Tiger-Cats, this time at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium and this time Willie and his teammates powered BC to its first-ever Grey Cup championship winning 34-24. In the second quarter Willie broke the game wide open scampering 47 yards for a touchdown, sweet revenge as one of the Hamilton defenders he deked out of his shorts was Mosca. It was one of Willie’s six carries in the game for 68 rushing yards. He also added 33 yards on two pass receptions. Lions fans, long thirsty for Grey Cup glory, finally had their first taste and a lot of the reason for it was thanks to Willie.
By the time Willie retired in 1966, he had been named a CFL All-Star once and a Western All-Star three times. He was also named the most popular BC Lions player three times.
As of 2022, Willie still stands as the fifth all-time leading scorer in club history with 523 points and second all-time for non-kickers behind only the great Geroy Simon. He ranks second all-time in touchdowns scored with 87 (38 rushing, 48 receiving, 1 kick return) again behind only Geroy. Willie still stands as the Lions all-time leading career rushing leader with 6,125 yards. And perhaps most remarkably, Willie still owns the Lions five longest runs from scrimmage in club history—yes, all top five: 109 yards vs Edmonton in 1964 (still a CFL record), 98 yards vs Edmonton in 1960, and then 97 yards vs Calgary in 1962, Calgary in 1963, and Winnipeg also in 1963. It illustrates better than any other stat just how fast, how elusive, how agile, and how Willie could accelerate like no other.
There is one more stat for Willie though that stands out above any other. To this day, he holds the CFL record for career rushing average with 7.1 yards per carry.
“I’ll always be proud of that rushing average,” he told the Vancouver Sun’s Lyndon Little upon his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1982, just the third BC Lion to be inducted. “That’s what it’s all about. It shows how effectively you could move the ball.”
In 2008, Vancouver Sun sportswriter Gary Kingston ranked BC’s top 10 male and female athletes of all time, as well as the top 10 male or female athletes to star in BC but born elsewhere. Harry came in at #9 all-time on the former list, while Willie ranked #3 in the latter list.
Willie was also voted to the BC Lions All-Time Dream Team at the running back position in 2003 on the club’s 50th anniversary. In 2006, he was voted as one of the CFL’s Top 50 players of the league’s modern era by TSN. His number 15 jersey was retired by the BC Lions, one of only 10 players in club history to be so honoured.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
To read more on the career of Willie Fleming, please see the February 2022 Curator’s Corner article here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/harry-jerome-willie-fleming-the-fastest-runs-in-the-west-black-history-month-feature/