|Squirmin' Herman Wedemeyer '49, the one time greatest athlete
in the country, and the all time greatest Galloping Gael, died on January
25, 1999, in his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. He was 74.
Wedey led an enchanted life. The pre-war Hawaii that he knew as a boy was still lush and isolated. He grew up playing the ukelele and surfing off Waikiki. He first played football in a plowed corn field!
At 20, he looked like a movie star. "If Herman played today, he would be on the cover of GQ he had the greatest legs I ever saw," gushed one female fan. At 70, with his still handsome face and thick gray hair, he looked like an ambassador.
Wedey was a spellbinding raconteur. He could also sing and dance the hula. He charmed spectators, reporters, and even his opponents. Adoring coeds formed Herman Wedemeyer Fan Clubs. Altar boys prayed silently for him in church. Actor John Wayne could not wait to meet him.
Herman enrolled at Saint Mary's in 1943, after being recruited by every major college in the country. He came from Honolulu to San Francisco by freighter and then to Moraga by thumb!
The Navy, of course, had taken over the campus. Thus, Wedey found a one building college with 100 students, all enrolled in an exclusively Great Books curriculum. So it was that the future Heisman hopeful studied Socrates and Shakespeare.
He also found a flamboyant coach, Jimmy Phelan, who would later join Herman in the College Football Hall of Fame. At the moment, however, Phelan was desperately putting shoulder pads on every freshman and even the 4-F's. Wedey's teammates included an epileptic and a player with one hand!
The season began with the customary game against the heavily favored Cal Bears. Few expected Saint Mary's to even score. In the second quarter, Wedemeyer watched a punt sail over his head and bounce on the Saint Mary's 24. He casually retrieved the ball and sprinted down the field. He fooled two Bears so badly that they knocked each other to the ground. He broke two more tackles, lateraled the ball, and then crushed the last defender with a devastating block, allowing his teammate to score.
A few moments later, he intercepted a pass with one hand, broke several tackles, and again flipped the ball to another Gael who was finally tackled just short of the goal. The Bears eventually wore down Phelan's freshmen 27-12; but, it was Herman Wedemeyer whom fans carried off the field. One reporter wrote, "Wedemeyer is the most sensational discovery to come over the horizon since the Santa Maria [he] won the heart of every man, woman, and child "
The nicknames came in a flurrySquirmin' Herman, the Honolulu Hurricane, Hula Hips Herman, and best of all, the Hawaiian Centipede! So, too, did post season honors. He was named All Coast and a Catholic College All-American. Wedey became the first freshman ever selected for the East-West Shrine Game. Surrounded by the best players in the country, he again stole the show. One reporter wrote that he " wiped out everything that everyone else was able to do "
Herman missed the 1944 season while serving in the merchant marine. However, he returned just in time for the 1945 campaign, the most extraordinary in Saint Mary's history.
California was the first team to face Phelan's youngsters. 80,000 fans jammed Memorial Stadium. Many were drawn by the memory of Herman's 1943 performance. Most, however, were convinced that the Golden Bears would annihilate the Galloping Gaels. But just the opposite occurred. Wedey ran. Wedey passed. Wedey kicked. Wedey punted. Wedey tackled. Wedey even sang in the huddle. The final score was 20-13, but the game was never that close. Two Saint Mary's scores were called back because of penalties. Cal's second score came with almost no time remaining. Once again, Squirmin' Herman was carried off the field.
Two weeks later, the Gaels beat the best team Nevada ever had 39-0. The Wolfpack's coach called Herman " the best back I ever saw, and I've seen them all, including Red Grange." Saint Mary's pulled its first and second string and still beat Pacific 61-0. COP's coach, the venerable Amos Alonzo Stagg, called Wedemeyer " one of the best I have ever seen " The Gaels routed Rose Bowl bound USC 26-0 before 88,000. The Trojan's coach described Wedey as " the greatest back I have ever seen, certainly the greatest in the country and without peer ever on the West Coast."
Only a last minute loss to UCLA in the last game of the regular season kept the Gaels from going unbeaten. Bill Leiser, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was hardly discouraged. In this view, Wedey had proven himself to be " the greatest player in any position of any year in any part of the country." Simply put, Leiser thought that Wedemeyer was the best player of all time.
The Gaels were glad to accept a Sugar Bowl bid against an outstanding team from Oklahoma A&M. The game matched Wedey against fellow All-American Bob Fenimore. Initially, there was some grumbling in Louisiana about Wedey's dark skin. However, by the time the game was over, Herman was all but King of the Mardi Gras. The much larger A&M club won 33-13, but the reviews were dazzling.
A reporter wrote "It was the best game I ever saw." Fenimore called Wedey " the greatest passer I've ever seen." Grantland Rice, the most authoritative sports writer in America, called Wedey " the most versatile college athlete I've ever encountered and the greatest athlete in the country."
Indeed he was. Some thought that Herman was actually better at baseball than football! Jimmy Phelan was afraid that Herman might leave school and sign with the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs. Wedey boxed so well that local promoters wanted him to fight professionally. He was a brown belt in judo and a black belt in karate. He was an excellent swimmer and diver.
Wedey was almost as spectacular in 1946, once again earning All-American honors. Against Fordham he threw three TDs and accounted for 300 plus yards in little more than a half! However, his most remarkable play came on defense, when Fordham quick-kicked from its own five yard line. The ball rolled all the way to the Saint Mary's 30. Wedey calmly reciprocated with his own kick, which rolled out of bounds on the five, where the play started! The demoralized Fordham quarterback threw an interception on the next play, and the Saint Mary's defender trotted into the end zone. Saint Mary's finished the year at 6-2, and earned an Oil Bowl appearance against Georgia Tech.
Wedemeyer was a mere mortal in 1947. He was hurt most of the season, but still played in the East-West and College All Star games. The schedule included a homecoming game for Herman against the Hawaii Rainbows. However, there was one problem. Phelan insisted on a guarantee of $35,000 which Hawaii was unable to provide. At the last moment, a Honolulu entrepreneur mortgaged his business to front the money, with the understanding that he be given any net proceeds. Wedey was such a draw that the stadium sold out in one hour! The Gaels won the game and the guarantor made a handsome profit.
Wedey was a first round draft choice of the Los Angeles Dons. He signed a package deal that included the naming of Jimmy Phelan as head coach. Herman played two years and then had a fling with the San Francisco Seals. Tired of traveling, he went home.
He became a huge success as a corporate spokesman. He also won landslide victories in several political races, and impressed people as an intelligent, powerful stump speaker. One admirer wrote "His diction is flawless, his words meticulously chosen. He is Olivier in the body of a surfer."
He seemed destined to be governor. However, two heart attacks caused him to seek more relaxing employment. He found it by playing the character Duke Lukela on the enormously popular series Hawaii Five-O. He spent his retirement enjoying his family and playing golf. Even in his 70s, he could still shoot in the 60s!
Wedemeyer laughingly insisted that his combination of German, Irish, English, Chinese, and Hawaiian ancestry made him, in his words, "chop suey." However he was described, he was the first man of color to be a serious Heisman candidate and the first since Jim Thorpe to have a truly lasting national impact on the game.
Herman Wedemeyer helped us define who we are as a college. He embodied the romantic notion that, despite its size, Saint Mary's was worthy of national prominence in every respect.
At the same time that he and the Galloping Gaels brought such recognition athletically with their glorious victories, men such as Professor James L. Hagerty and Brother Robert Smith brought such recognition academically with their bold, sophisticated Great Books program. Indeed, it was a Golden Age!
The Greeks had Achilles for a hero, the Romans Aeneas. For my money, I'll take old Hula Hips. Aloha, Wedey!
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