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LITTLE ST. MARY'S BIG STAR THE AUTHOR WAITED 50 YEARS TO MEET HIS BOYHOOD IDOL, HERMAN WEDEMEYER

Oct. 28, 1996
Oct. 28, 1996

Table of Contents
Oct. 28, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

LITTLE ST. MARY'S BIG STAR THE AUTHOR WAITED 50 YEARS TO MEET HIS BOYHOOD IDOL, HERMAN WEDEMEYER

Last fall, for a reason that struck some of my more
sophisticated friends as either grossly sentimental or just
plain silly, I went to see a football game in Moraga, Calif.,
across the bay from my San Francisco home, between St. Mary's
College and UC Davis. This was hardly a big game in the accepted
sense of that overworked expression, since neither of these
otherwise admirable institutions plays a Division I-A college
schedule. But I enjoy watching football at this smaller level,
Division I-AA, possibly because the players, far removed as they
are from the enormous hovering shadow of the NFL, seem to be
having more fun, experiencing more of what the college game was
meant to be. Still I wasn't in Moraga that afternoon to register
my support, heartfelt though it may be, for small-time college
football.

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 1996 issue Original Layout

No, I was there to meet, for the first time, my boyhood idol,
"Squirmin' Herman" Wedemeyer. I had been promised an
introduction by my friend Frank Carillo, a popular San Francisco
jeweler who had played briefly with Wedemeyer at St. Mary's
after World War II. It was a meeting for which I had been
waiting the better part of a half century.

Wedemeyer--or Wedey, as he was affectionately called by the
press and fans--was making a rare visit to the Bay Area from his
Honolulu home to be honored in a pregame ceremony with other
surviving members of the Whiz Kids, St. Mary's football team of
1945. Now, this was a team that not only played a major college
schedule but also finished the season ranked seventh in the
nation and came close to upsetting powerful Oklahoma A&M (now
Oklahoma State) in the 1946 Sugar Bowl.

Regrettably, the Whiz Kids, now mostly in their seventies,
looked more like escapees from a nearby retirement settlement as
they stood on the field before the St. Mary's-Davis game. The
public address announcer, presumably an undergraduate,
introduced them by position, each Kid stepping forward as his
name was called. The predominantly young crowd of about 5,000 in
the pastoral little stadium seemed profoundly indifferent to
these nostalgic proceedings. To that generation of football
fans, the silver-thatched Whiz Kids might as easily have been
Roman legionnaires or combatants in the second Battle of Bull
Run. But to Frank and me, the name of each geezer induced yelps
of recognition; the years peeled away before us as we sat there
contentedly munching our hot dogs.

Then came Wedey's turn. There he stood, a human rainbow wearing
tan slacks and a lavender sweater that set off his white hair
and nut-brown skin. The P.A. person nervously cleared his
throat, agonizing no doubt over the juxtaposition of this
teutonic name and the distinctly Polynesian gentleman below.
"Next," he finally announced, "Herman Wedemeyer, end."

End? End? Frank and I stared at each other in disbelief. How
could anyone, even a callow undergraduate with no sense of
history, mistake for a lineman the triple-threat genius
described by Grantland Rice, sportswriting's dean, as the best
player in the country in 1945, superior even to Army's immortal
Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard? "A great all-around back should
be able to run, pass, block, tackle and kick," Rice wrote at the
time. And Herman Wedemeyer "is the only back I've seen in many
years who could handle all these various assignments with poise
and grace thrown in....His reflexes are far quicker than
anything I've seen on a football team in many, many years." Rice
called Wedemeyer the Hawaiian Centipede in tribute to his
multifaceted game.

As Frank and I muttered angrily over the P.A. gaffe, Wedey,
unflappable as always, stepped briskly forward and waved
energetically to the blase crowd. Frank and I, virtually
isolated in our enthusiasm, rose to our feet and bellowed, as we
hadn't in almost 50 years, "Wedey! Wedey! Wedey!"

I was 12 years old when Herman Wedemeyer made his mainland
football debut in St. Mary's season opener, against Cal, on
Sept. 25, 1943, in Berkeley. He was already something of a
legend in Hawaii, where he had set scoring and ground-gaining
records at Honolulu's St. Louis College, which despite its name
was a high school. Despite some tantalizing preseason publicity,
he remained a mystery to Bay Area fans, most of whom had never
heard of a Hawaiian who could do anything but swim, surf, strum
the ukulele and dance the hula. As ardent a sports fan as I was
then, I don't think I was even aware that they played football
in the islands. Hawaii for me was pretty much Duke Kahanamoku
and Hilo Hattie, the popular singer who often appeared with
Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians.

And Wedemeyer, at only 5'10" and 164 pounds, was hardly an
imposing physical specimen. On first seeing him, Kathleen
Phelan, the wife of St. Mary's coach, Jimmy Phelan, inquired of
her husband, "Is this what you're staking your reputation on?"
But as we all would soon learn, this particular Hawaiian could
play.

Of course 1943 was wartime, and most of the best football
players, college and professional, were performing for service
teams, of which there was an abundance in the Bay Area. Service
football was a godsend for young fans like me, who at long last
were given the chance to see players--Elroy Hirsch, Buddy Young,
Bruce Smith--we had only read about or heard described on the
radio. Some of the college programs also benefited from having
military training units on campus, to which stars from other
schools had been shipped. Cal was one of these fortunate few. In
1943, for example, its roster was bolstered by some military
transfers from despised rival Stanford, which had discontinued
football for the war's duration. Ultimately, however, the
transfers were of little help as Cal went 4-6 that season. But
to undermanned St. Mary's, obliged by the wartime diminution of
talent to play freshmen such as Wedemeyer and 4-F's, the heavily
favored Cal Bears might as well have been the Chicago Bears.

Enter Wedey.

I should say here that back then I was a much more devoted
follower of Cal, my future alma mater, than I am now. No matter
how bad the Bears team--and there were some stinkers in those
days--my loyalty never flagged. The sound of the school band
warming up on a Saturday morning sent chills through me as I
listened from the window of my family's apartment, a few blocks
from the campus. And I was out there cheering on a succession of
losers at Memorial Stadium every Saturday from a seat in the
Traffic Boy section at the south end zone. (In return for
helping direct traffic before games, we got in free.) But to my
amazement, on that particular September day 53 years ago, my
focus was not on the Bears but on the antics--and I can think of
no better word to describe what Wedey was doing--of an opposing
player. I had no shortage of heroes as a youngster, but the
Hawaiian Hurricane swiftly rose to the top of my list.

In the second quarter, with Cal leading 7-0 and apparently on a
roll, Wedemeyer, playing safety and standing on St. Mary's
30-yard line, watched a punt bounce past him to the St. Mary's
24. His nonchalance lulled Bears defenders into momentarily
relaxing their vigilance. Then, with those reflexes that would
so impress Rice, he unexpectedly scooped up the bouncing ball
and sped off, dodging tacklers with what sportswriters would
predictably call his "hula hips." Stunned Bears were sprawled
all over the turf as Wedey snaked his way downfield, until,
finally, he had only one man to beat, Cal halfback Art Honegger.
Honegger seemed to have him penned in on the sideline 24 yards
from the Cal goal. Penned in? Hardly! In one deft motion, Wedey
lateraled back to a trailing teammate, John Ryan, and then took
Honegger out with a crushing block. Ryan scored easily to
complete an amazing 76-yard play.

The crowd was captivated. This was a new kind of football. But
there would be more. Just before the half, Wedey leaped high to
make a one-handed interception--like a centerfielder, it was
said--of a Bill Joslyn pass on the Cal 45, and once again he
danced goalward. Apparently trapped again, he faked a lateral
and slipped past a host of hoodwinked defenders before he was
brought down on the Cal 16. From there he passed to Tom Pearson
for the touchdown. Cal eventually won, 27-12, but who knew or
even much cared because Wedemeyer captured all the headlines the
next day. "It was St. Mary's Honolulu barefoot boy who stole the
show," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle sports editor, Bill
Leiser. Wedemeyer, of course, was no more barefoot than Leiser,
but the Hawaiian gags were inescapable.

St. Mary's won only two of seven games in that abbreviated
wartime season, but Squirmin' Herman was the Pacific Coast's
football sensation. As a freshman he played in the annual
East-West Shrine All-Star Game at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium
on Jan. 1, 1944. Surrounded by senior stars on both squads, he
again stole the show, throwing two touchdown passes, one a
65-yarder, in a 13-13 tie. His performance, wrote football
historian Maxwell Stiles, "wiped out everything that everyone
else was able to do throughout a rain-swept afternoon." And
"everyone else" included future NFL stars Bob (Hunchy)
Hoernschmeyer and Pete Pihos.

Then, like so many sports heroes in the war years, Wedey was
gone. A skiing accident washed him out of the Naval V-5 Air
Training Program, so he joined the merchant marine and served
all of 1944 ferrying troops and supplies across the South
Pacific. When the war ended he returned in time for the 1945
football season, about 10 pounds heavier and bearing the weight
of sky-high expectations--which he promptly exceeded.

This time he brought with him some football pals from the
islands, most notably a tiny (150-pound) scatback named Charles
(Spike) Cordeiro, who would artfully complement Wedey in St.
Mary's backfield. The Gaels of 1945 were undersized, the line
averaging just over 190 pounds, the backs barely 170 (the
Berkeley High School varsity, to which I aspired, was
considerably bigger), but they compensated for their physical
shortcomings with what Wedey himself called "magic."

They tossed the ball around as if it were an activated grenade,
lateraling as many as three or four times on a single play. They
threw double passes. They used double and even triple reverses.
They ran immensely complicated plays out of both the Notre Dame
box and the newly-popular T formation. They didn't merely beat
opponents, they bamboozled them. And Wedey was the head
magician. In the opener against Cal, his 45-yard coffin-corner
punt was so accurate that it brushed the goal line flag, giving
Cal the ball, according to the rules of the time, on the
one-inch line. St. Mary's won, 20-13, in a "stunning upset."

No one, not even Oklahoma A&M's single wing tailback, Bob
Fenimore, matched Wedey for versatility. Wedey averaged 4.2
yards per carry; threw for 1,040 yards; averaged 18 yards
receiving; intercepted nine passes; punted for an average of
40.1 yards; and returned 14 punts for 193 yards and eight
kickoffs for 147 yards. He accounted for 15 touchdowns, running
and passing, in eight games, and he kicked 17 extra points. The
Gaels won seven games in a row before losing their final
regular-season game in the closing minutes to UCLA, 13-7. Wedey
was a consensus All-America selection, and he finished fourth in
the voting for the Heisman Trophy, which was won by Army's
Blanchard. Leiser, junking the hula humor, now hailed Wedemeyer
as "the greatest player in any position of any year in any part
of the country."

In the Sugar Bowl, the tiny Gaels weren't given much of a shot
against powerful A&M, but Wedey kept them in the game for at
least the first 30 minutes. St. Mary's even scored first when
Wedey, taking a lateral from Cordeiro on a fake end run, tossed
a 47-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Dennis O'Connor. Then,
just before the half, he broke loose on one of his twirling
runs, gaining 26 yards before pitching to guard Carl DeSalvo to
complete a 44-yard touchdown play. And it was Wedey's block that
freed the excited lineman. Plays like this, we younger boys
concluded, simply demonstrated our hero's modesty and
unselfishness. Imagine lateraling the ball off to a guard when
you could as easily have scored!

At halftime A&M had only a 14-13 lead, and Wedey and the Whiz
Kids had the big crowd in their pockets. In the end the much
bigger and far deeper Cowboys won, 33-13. But Wedey had once
more stolen the show.

It is difficult now, so many years later, to describe the impact
this little team and its big star had on schoolboy football in
the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Virtually every high
school running back wanted to wear Wedey's number 11. Everyone
wanted white shoelaces on his football shoes, just like Wedey's.
Laterals, ordinarily punishable by instant benching, were
suddenly all the rage. Berkeley High, where I began, steadfastly
held to a conservative power game, but San Leandro High, to the
south, where I transferred when I was a senior, embraced the St.
Mary's offense. We, too, throve on tossing the ball around,
backward and forward, and on all those tricky reverses and
double passes.

Hopelessly caught up in all the excitement of the time, I, a
nonstarter, once intercepted a pass (a rarity) and, in returning
it, attempted a lateral. But it was intercepted by the very
player who had thrown the pass I'd intercepted, and he very
nearly scored. This, in the opinion of my coach, Joe (Tip)
O'Neill, was carrying the St. Mary's stuff too far.

The Gaels' magic faded somewhat the next season when they
finished with a 6-2 regular-season record and then lost on a
frozen field in Houston to Georgia Tech, 41-19, at the Oil Bowl.

But Wedey still had some cards up his short sleeves. In a 33-2
win over Fordham in New York's Polo Grounds in 1946, he chased
down a Rams quick kick and then, as defenders bore down on him,
punted right back over their heads. The ball bounced out of
bounds on the Fordham five. On the next play Henry Van Giesen,
another Hawaiian, intercepted a Fordham pass and returned it for
a touchdown. Wedey's overall stats were not quite up to the
previous year's, but he did average six yards on 104 rushes, and
he threw seven touchdown passes.

He was injured for much of 1947, and his team stumbled to a
sorry 3-7 record. The Whiz Kids had finally run out of gas. And
yet Wedey signed what was then considered a lucrative two-year
contract, for $37,500, with the Los Angeles Dons of the new
All-America Football Conference. He lasted only one season
there, even though he led the league in punt returns with a
16-yard average. The Dons waived him, and he was picked up by
the Baltimore Colts, a T formation team better suited to the
quarterbacking skills of Wedey's teammate Y.A. Tittle. After one
more season, Wedey's pro football career ended.

He played some minor league baseball (he had been a
centerfielder at St. Mary's) and then, disillusioned with life
as a professional athlete and divorced from his first wife, he
returned to Hawaii. Most mainland fans lost track of him after
that, though I remember hearing that he had become a politician.
In fact, he served terms both on the Honolulu City Council and
in the state House of Representatives before a couple of heart
attacks in the early 1970s forced him to abandon his political
aspirations. Then he became an actor, playing Duke, a
plainclothes detective on the popular 1970s television series
Hawaii Five-O.

After the St. Mary's-Davis game there was a reception for the
Whiz Kids that Frank and I brazenly crashed. Frank sought out
Wedey, and the two old teammates fell into a laughing embrace.
After a few moments of reminiscing, Frank got around to
introducing me. Talking to athletes has been part of my job for
longer than I care to remember, and I attach no special feeling
to it. Meeting a boyhood idol so many years later is quite a
different experience, and at first I found it hard to say much
of anything to this charming guy who is only slightly older than
I. Wedey was more than cordial, but he also had a roomful of
alums to entertain, so I told him my wife and I would be in
Honolulu a few months later and if he had the time, maybe we
could talk then. He said that was a wonderful idea, so we
exchanged phone numbers, and he disappeared once more into the
crowd.

A few months later I met him at the Waialae Country Club in
Honolulu. He had just finished playing a round of golf (at 72 he
often shoots his age) and was once again in rainbow raiment. We
sat in the clubhouse before a window that overlooked lush green
fairways extending to the crashing surf. It was a typically
gorgeous day on Oahu--warm and with a gentle sea breeze taming
the humidity. He ordered us a couple of beers and settled back,
mildly curious as to why, after all these years, I wanted to
talk about his glory years at St. Mary's. I told him, slightly
embarrassed, of my childhood admiration and then realized that
the passing years had pretty well closed the gap in our
respective ages. It occurred to me that at the time I was
canonizing him, he and I were both merely boys.

Wedey still has a touch of the actor in him, and some of the
politician. His diction is flawless, his words meticulously
chosen. He is Olivier in the body of a surfer.

"I am a walking United Nations," he began. "Mostly German and
Hawaiian, but also part Irish, English and Chinese. My
grandfather was a German seaman who sailed here, met a local
girl and, under the influence of moonlight, music and balmy
breezes, fell in love, married and stayed on. My father, William
Wedemeyer, was a crane operator at Pearl Harbor the day of the
Japanese bombing. He had been quite an athlete until he
mutilated a foot jumping off a train when he was in his 20s. And
my grandfather had been a wrestler in Germany, so you can see I
had quite an athletic background.

"I was born on the Big Island [Hawaii] in an area so remote that
we had no paved roads. We used cornstalks for goalposts, and we
played a type of touch football with as many as 30 on a side.
Let me tell you, you learned to dodge with that many people
trying to catch you. And we threw the ball around all the time.
According to our rules, you could pass the ball forward or
backward whenever you pleased. It was chaotic. But I took that
style of play with me to St. Mary's." Wedey was raised a
Catholic, and when his family finally moved to Honolulu, when he
was four, he entered St. Louis, a parochial school renowned
for both its athletic and academic excellence. After his
brilliant senior year there in 1942, he was recruited not only
by St. Mary's but also by Ohio State and Notre Dame. Because of
wartime restrictions, however, his transcripts were delayed in
reaching the Midwest, and he got tired of waiting for the bigger
schools to respond. Besides, St. Mary's was closer to home.

"I guess you could say I arrived with a surfboard tucked under
my arm. We were just beardless youths that first year [1943],
but we had fun, and I got to play in the East-West game as a
freshman. I played there again as a senior, and that has to be
unusual. I thought back then that I was invulnerable. Then, in
that Navy program, I broke my ankle skiing at Lake Tahoe. After
that I transferred to the merchant marine. I must have sailed
right past Honolulu five or six times, so close and yet so
impossibly far away. You see, I get homesick easily. After the
war I did some boxing--some promoters in Oakland wanted me to
turn pro--and I think that helped build stamina, made it
possible for me to play both offense and defense for 60 minutes.
When I was 18 I got a brown belt in judo. Later, when I was in
my 30s, I reached black belt in karate.

"That 1945 team of ours was small, but we had a lightning
attack. There were times when not even we knew what we were
going to do next. It was Hawaiian football all over again. I
remember Jimmy Phelan telling us, 'You're a bunch of
entertainers. Now go out and give 'em a show.' Can you imagine a
coach saying that today? But it was just after the war and
people really needed entertainment. We gave it to them both on
and off the field. You know, we had quite a good singing group.
Our quarterback, Denny O'Connor, was a fine Irish tenor, and I
could always sing. We would entertain in hotel lobbies the night
before our games. The Singing Saints, they called us. We may
have lost that Sugar Bowl game, but we sure won the singing. We
were all very close on that team."

He took a long sip of beer, his dark eyes brightening. He was
fully involved in his memories, as I was, a kid again. How much
easier it is, I thought, for a famous athlete to recall the past
than explain the present.

"I think I'd finally gotten tired of football by the time I
turned pro," he said, his voice trailing off a little. "The
atmosphere was entirely different. It was no longer a game for
me. There was so much pressure--somebody always behind you,
trying to take your job. With everything that was happening to
me, I knew it was time to go home again and try something new.

"In politics, I suppose that I hoped someday to be governor. But
my health, which is fine now, got in the way. Then I was playing
golf one day with one of the directors of Hawaii Five-O, and he
asked me to do a reading. I'd had no acting experience,
except"--Wedey laughed--"under Jimmy Phelan, but I found it was
pretty much the same as being an athlete. Instead of a playbook
you have a script. And then you perform. I started out as only a
uniformed officer on the show, then I got promoted to
plainclothes detective Duke. I lasted 12 years. And our stars,
Jack Lord and Jim MacArthur, became my close friends. I've had a
good life. Been married to Carolyn for over 40 years, and I've
got two wonderful children and three grandchildren. I play a lot
of golf now that I've retired from the car business. I was doing
promotional work here for Toyota. Actually, I shot a 67 just the
other day."

We finished our beers, and Wedey table-hopped his way out of the
clubhouse, pausing before almost every group to exchange golf
banter. At the doorway he paused, glancing back at his friends.

"These are nice people here," he said. "I feel no need to travel
now. Everything I want is here in Hawaii. But returning to St.
Mary's last fall for that reunion really pumped up my ego. It's
nice to be remembered, to know that there is some affection that
still exists between you and the school."

He strolled through Waialae's lobby, illuminated now by the
brilliant midafternoon sun. "You know," he said, "I really
consider myself privileged." He paused again, searching for the
right words. "After all, on a Saturday afternoon I've heard the
applause of nearly a hundred thousand people, and there aren't
many around who can say they've had that experience, are there?"

A few days later as my wife and I were waiting for a cab to take
us to the Honolulu airport for the trip home, we chanced to meet
another Hawaiian celebrity, the popular entertainer Ed Kenney.
After some casual conversation, a question suddenly occurred to
me: Is Wedey still famous in his home state? After all, the only
evidence I had seen of his popularity was in his own country
club, where, it stands to reason, he would be a popular fellow.
I also knew that, save for fans of my particular vintage, he was
all but forgotten on the mainland. In fact, his youngest
brother, Charlie--a high school coach who was the subject of a
television movie because of his courageous struggle against Lou
Gehrig's disease--is probably better known there. The public
address announcer at Wedey's own school had called him, of all
things, an end. So, I asked Kenney, is the name Wedemeyer still
big on the islands?

Kenney, a tall man who speaks with a cultivated Ivy League
accent, didn't answer at first. Instead he leaned back and gazed
out at the vast expanse of the blue Pacific for a long time.
Then he turned to me with a look of amazement on his tanned face.

"Oh, dear man, my dear man," he said. "Herman Wedemeyer well
known here? Why, I suppose you could say he is still something
of a god, that's all."

That, I can honestly say, made my day.

B/W PHOTO: ST. MARY'S OF CALIFORNIA/COLLEGE ARCHIVES Wedemeyer not only ran brilliantly but also passed, blocked, tackled and kicked with comparable skill. [Herman Wedemeyer in game]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF HERMAN WEDEMEYER After the war Wedey picked up where he'd left off. [Cover of 1946 Illustrated Football Annual featuring Herman Wedemeyer]B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF HERMAN WEDEMEYER Football wasn't all that Wedey played at St. Mary's. [Herman Wedemeyer swinging baseball bat]B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF HERMAN WEDEMEYER Carolyn (center) and daughter Kittie were political assets to Herman in the '60s. [Kittie Wedemeyer, Carolyn Wedemeyer and Herman Wedemeyer]B/W PHOTO: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVES For 12 years Wedey, as Duke (in glasses), helped to crack cases on "Hawaii Five-O." [Jack Lord, Herman Wedemeyer and cast members of TV's Hawaii Five-O]COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN At 72 Wedemeyer is still loved in his beloved Hawaii. [Herman Wedemeyer]
"My granddad was a German seaman who met a Hawaiian girl and,
under the influence of moonlight and balmy breezes, fell in love."
"We played touch football with as many as 30 on a side. You
learned to dodge with that many people trying to catch you."
"You could say I arrived at St. Mary's with a surfboard under my
arm. We were just beardless youths that first year."
"I found acting was much the same as being an athlete.
Instead of a playbook you have a script. And then you perform."
"I consider myself to be privileged. On a Saturday I've heard
applause from a crowd of nearly a hundred thousand."