Once a 'Willie'


Former Northwestern mascot denied payback on December 1

By Tom Kirvan

Legendary sportscaster Bob Ufer, the late voice of “Meee-chigan” football, often described an Ohio State sellout as “10,000 alumni and 74,000 truck drivers.”

In other words, a rough crowd.

Attorney Bob Forrest, who for the past two years has been tasked with helping collect tax revenue for the coffers of the City of Detroit, would attest to Ufer’s description of Buckeye fans. He nearly had the bruises to prove it.

A 1971 graduate of Northwestern University, Forrest played a key role for the Wildcats during his senior year, parading around the sidelines for the football and basketball squads as the inimitable “Willie the Wildcat,” the beloved mascot for the Big Ten school.

The purple-and-while clad mascot, which “came to life” in 1947, according to Northwestern Athletic Department officials, wrote a new chapter in his history book December 1 when he appeared at the Big Ten Football Championship Game in Indianapolis, site of the conference showdown between Northwestern and sixth-ranked Ohio State.

It was his first appearance at the Big Ten title game, which was won last year by the Buckeyes, the second time OSU has claimed the championship trophy since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011.

“I tried to get tickets, but they sold out Northwestern’s allotment in a hurry,” Forrest said during game week in a phone interview. “I’ll have to be content to watch it on TV.”

It’s probably safer that way, he acknowledged. The last time he went to a game pitting Northwestern and Ohio State, Forrest discovered the hard way that Buckeye fans take “their football very seriously.”

It was the fall of 1970 when an upstart Northwestern team invaded Columbus to do battle with an unbeaten Ohio State team coached by Woody Hayes and led by star quarterback Rex Kern. Northwestern, coached by Alex Agase, was sparked by All-American running back Mike Adamle, who would later enjoy a successful career in the NFL and in sports broadcasting.

“Ohio State was loaded that season with star players like Rex Kern and Jim Otis, but we gave them a very good game before wilting in the 80-degree heat during the second half,” Forrest said of the 24-10 loss on Halloween afternoon.

In the aftermath of the gridiron setback, Forrest – a.k.a. “Willie the Wildcat” – got a first-hand taste of Ohio State hospitality.

“On our way back to the car, I got accosted by some unruly Ohio State fans,” Forrest related, wincing at the thought. “Fortunately, I escaped in one piece. Winning the game apparently wasn’t quite enough for them.”

His outfit – and the “Wildcat” persona – apparently offered little in the way of protection.

“As Willie, I wore white pants and a purple sweater, while the head was made up of chicken wire with faded purple velvet on top of paper mache,” Forrest explained. “It was pretty primitive back then, nothing like the full body suit of today.”

Forrest can thank his college roommate, Larry Findeiss, for becoming part of Northwestern athletic lore.

“He talked me into becoming Willie after a couple of beers,” Forrest said with a laugh, noting that Findeiss was head of the cheerleading squad at the time and later became a Navy fighter pilot. “He could be very convincing.”

Once football season was over, Forrest took his Willie talents to the hardwood, where he did his best to spur on the Northwestern basketball team, a squad that finished last in the Big Ten.

“I got to be part of the cheerleading pyramid and also took half-court shots from a mini-trampoline at halftime, sinking a couple during the season,” Forrest said with a sense of Wildcat pride. “It was fun.”

From there, Forrest would head to law school at Georgetown University, where he was an editor of the law review his second and third years. Following graduation from Georgetown, Forrest served as a judicial clerk to a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C. He then spent six years working for the U.S. Department of Justice before embarking on a career in private practice specializing in tax litigation.

For the past two years, Forrest has served as income tax counsel for the City of Detroit, coordinating tax collection litigation efforts for the municipality. It’s a high stakes job for a city determined to make sure that Detroit businesses – including several major law firms – pay their rightful tax share.

“We’re staying very busy trying to collect from the medical marijuana places in the city,” said Forrest, who several years ago authored “Detroit Deceit,” a legal mystery. “We also were after the funeral homes before they became ‘news’ in recent weeks.”

But on December 1, Forrest decided to step back and kick back, watching Northwestern’s bid for a Big Ten championship in the comforts of his TV room.

“We had to play a perfect game to win, but as a Northwestern fan, I was happy to just enjoy the experience,” said Forrest in the aftermath of Ohio State’s 45-24 victory.  “We play a high level and exciting brand of football. Better yet, win or lose, we don’t lose our head.”



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