Squirmin' Was Sight to Behold

by Ferd Lewis
Copyright January 31, 1999, Honolulu Advertiser

 

To understand what Herman Wedemeyer meant to Hawaii, you have to look beyond the touchdowns and yards to the people he touched.

To grasp the hold that the Islands’ most acclaimed football player had through his death at age 74 last week, it helps to know the lengths fans went to for a glimpse of the man who remains Hawaii’s only unanimous All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist.

A half-century ago, before television, it had been Hawaii’s bittersweet fortune to have the greatest exploits of the man they called Squirmin’ Herman come at distant St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where he helped transform a small school into a national title contender.

While sportswriter Grantland Rice typed the praises of the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Wedemeyer as "the outstanding football player of the year" for 1945 and "one of the greatest natural athletes I’ve ever seen," the man who most put Hawaii football on the map was 2,500 miles away from those who celebrated his wondrous gifts the most.

It would be one of the most enduring ironies of Wedemeyer’s multi-faceted stardom that while his role in the Hawaii Five-O television series was shown worldwide and on into syndication, the heyday of a football career that would showcase his true brilliance went largely unseen here, though never unappreciated, an 8 ¾ -hour airplane ride away.

With little more than newspaper pieces, periodic radio and word-of-mouth accounts to document his mounting legend, there was a faithful following for the elusive halfback who took to wearing pieces of sponge taped to his hips instead of cumbersome hip pads in leading St. Louis School to two Interscholastic League of Honolulu championships.

By 1947, his senior year at St. Mary’s, there was a growing clamor for the University of Hawaii to schedule what newspaper accounts of the time termed a "four-year dream game."

St. Mary’s demand for a then-extravagant $35,000 guarantee promptly ended the proposition as far as the Rainbows were concerned. It would be nearly 30 years before UH, by then moving into Aloha Stadium and the Western Athletic Conference, parted with that kind of money.

Instead, it was the alumni association at St. Louis that nervously agreed to underwrite a meeting, using the deed on its Isenberg Street clubhouse as collateral with the bank. The venture was considered so shaky, recalls Herman Lemke, the association’s head at the time, that some alumni members wanted to sue to halt the deal.

When top tickets went on sale at an unheard of $6—a previous game had been scaled from 35 cents to $1, and a lobster dinner went for $2.25 back then—the alumni braced for more problems.

Instead, the struggle woujld be in meeting an insatiable ticket demand for what reporters took to calling the "football event of the century."

A public sale sold out in a matter of hours and groups that had already been allotted tickets, including UH, screamed for more. Lemke said the UH president threatened cancellation of the game if more tickets weren’t forthcoming for the school.

Later, after it was alleged that a UH official dispensed some of the school’s allotment to the military, the athletic director was forced out.

More than 3,000 fans turned out just to watch Wedemeyer and three fellow local products—Spike Cordeiro, Henry Van Gieson and Packard Harrington—practice. On game day, it required both Honolulu and military police to control the scalpers.

When Wedemeyer stepped onto the field in Moiliili there were a record 28,009—more than 5,000 above capacity—in the stands and on field-side folding chairs to watch a 27-7 St. Mary’s victory.

And there was $100,000 in the till for what would be their biggest gate until the Rainbows played national champion Nebraska nearly a quarter-century later.

"It was quite a site," recalls Frank Dower, a UH defensive lineman. "We all took our best shots at him and did a pretty good job defensively. But there was no stopping Herman. Just when you thought you had him, he slipped away and was in the end zone."

The Rainbows held Wedemeyer, whose trademark was the long, breakaway run, to nothing longer than 13 yards and a total of 75 yards on 19 carries. But he still managed to run for two touchdowns, completed five of eight passes for 45 yards and kicked two extra points.

Recalls Tommy Kaulukukui, the UH coach at the time and a former All-American, "He put on quite a show. He did things other people never would have thought of doing."

Advertiser columnist Dan McGuire wrote that Wedemeyer "turned in a ball game that would have brought accolades to any ordinary mortal."

But Wedemeyer was not just anybody, especially not here. He realized as much and tried to talk his coach into playing him late in the game despite a 20-point lead and bad ankle because, "I think I’ve disappointed my friends here."

Hardly. The UH football team, en masse, would attend one of his games at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco the next month while on a road trip. Dower recalls, "I forget who they were playing, Nevada, maybe, but he ran crazy and our whole team went wild because if you were from Hawaii he was somebody you really looked up to."

Entertainer Jimmy Borges had done that as an elementary school student at Honolulu Stadium when Wedemeyer was a senior at St. Louis. "When my father got transferred to the Bay Area I got to watch Herman play for St. Mary’s," Borges said. "For a kid from Hawaii, that was a treat because he was such an inspiration."

"I tried to run like him and be like him," Borges said. "When things got tough, you wouldn’t give up because you knew he wouldn’t have. Years later, when we both worked on Five-O, I got the opportunity to tell him how much he meant."

Even with his death, nearly 50 years after he put away his cleats, when it comes to football in Hawaii, nobody leaves bigger footsteps to follow in.

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