1945: "Better Than Gipp"

World War II ended a few weeks before the beginning of the 1945 football season...The caliber of the sport itself was quickly being restored to prewar levels...But the country's most revered football player in that fall of 1945 played halfback for St. Mary's College. He was only a sophomore. His name was Herman Wedemeyer. And he led the Galloping Gaels to their most extraordinary season ever.

Pre-season prospects at St. Mary's were the best since Phelan assumed control in 1942. Even so, the situation was still grim. The war effort still occupied many. St. Mary's enrollment still numbered less than 100...Wedemeyer, though, was returning from the merchant marine. And, his old Hawaiian buddy, 5'5", 155 pound Charles "Spike" Cordiero had just enrolled as well.

This team of unknown quantities jelled from its first day of practice. They all seemed of the same mold. They were young, the youngest college team ever assembled. Their exuberance matched that of the country's. They sang and played music together. They composed impromtu boogie-woogie dance numbers. They played football for fun...

They were supremely self-confident. Not even a hazardous schedule deterred them. They possessed no size and no experience, only speed, hustle, and daring. Phelan equipped them with an offense that suited their personalities as well as their football capabilities...

Northern California was enchanted by Phelan's team. Wedemeyer was mobbed by fans following [St. Mary's season opening upset of Cal]. The press and the people loved their unorthodox laterals and reverses, their youth, their unconventional antics. Team leader [Dennis] O'Connor had professional entertainment aspirations and did not hesitate to lead his mates in song, even on the field during huddles. The press quickly dubbed the squad the "Singing Saints." A new generation of nicknames arose: "Beardless Wonders," "Whiz Kids," and "Moraga Minstrels."

Two weeks after the California victory, the Saints confronted the finest football team Nevada ever produced...Nevada's coach stated after the game that Wedey was the finest back he had ever seen, and he had seen them all, including Red Grange...The youngsters continued to laugh and sing their way to wins...By midseason St. Mary's was unbeaten and challenging Army, Notre Dame, Oklahoma A&M, and Alabama for the national title.

And Herman Wedemeyer had emerged as an authentic All-American. Many were boosting the sophomore for the Heisman Trophy. His charm and exciting style reminded many of Slip Madigan. Wedey had also become Frank Sinatra's rival for the affection of an emerging class in American life-the teenagers. His musical and dancing abilities prompted formation of Herman Wedemeyer fan clubs. Giggling coeds waited outside the St. Mary's dressing room anxious to collect the dark-eyed, dark-haired glamour boy's autograph or shake his hand. Everybody liked him. "My wife always maintained that he had the greatest legs she's ever seen," laughed an alumnus of the time.

Wrote one reporter: "Few celebrities in sport ever gained fame and worship any more quickly than Wedey. He is the most popular hero to grace the local sports scene for as long as I can remember.

"In his first game on the mainland the fans rushed out of the stands...and with howling cheers and incoherent applause they carried him across the green turf to the St. Mary's dressing room. It was an unheard of stunt even in this land of hysterical football worshippers...

"Some football heroes are dull and solemn dodos...But Wedey has a bubbling boyish air about him that is seldom found elsewhere...

"Wedemeyer had a definite point-blank appeal to women. For the first time in years football presents a star with definite sex appeal."

Wrote another: "It takes a pretty fair football player to make Notre Dame say "he's better than Gipp." No one that good has come along as yet. But out in California there is a fellow who has a chance. Fact is, Herman Wedemeyer doesn't miss by much...Several old Notre Dame men checked themselves just in time. The heretic words were on their lips."

Writers considered him "the Pacific Coast's all time greatest halfback," or the "best all-around player we've seen in years." "Wedemeyer," said one, "will go down as the most exciting football player we've ever laid eyes on anywhere, anytime, on any field...There have been better passers, better punters, better runners, better blockers...But none combined all these functions in higher degree than Wedemeyer." Grantland Rice, the dean of American sports writers, saluted him as "the greatest athlete in the country," and "the most versatile college athlete I've ever encountered."

He could break a game open any time he touched the ball. His passes were compared to Bob Feller's pitches-fast, direct, low, accurate. He could punt too. During the California game that year he hit the flag from midfield attempting a coffin-corner kick. He was a sure tackler on defense. Herman also acquired a reputation as a team player. He often surprised opponents and thrilled fans by lateraling to Cordiero, O'Connor, or a pursuing lineman when he could have garnered additional yardage himself.

His only faults seemed to be his tendency to hold the ball loosely and a penchant for outrunning his blockers. Once during a practice Wedey returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Phelan chastised him for the above mentioned failings. "Well, coach," he laughed, "how was it for distance?"

Some stubborn old time Gaels insisted, however, that Wedey attracted such notoriety only because college football still suffered from the effects of war. Herman would not even have started on some of Slip Madigan's teams, they maintained. Jim Phelan scoffed at such assertions: "Saying Herman Wedemeyer was as great as he was because the competition wasn't so good was like saying Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs because the American League had weak pitching."

...[In the final game of the season] The gun sounded with UCLA the victor 13-7. St. Mary's bid for an unbeaten season and a national championship had been foiled. Phelan's 17 and 18 year olds left the field with tears in their eyes.

Sugar Bowl officials were undismayed by the loss. The antics of the "Singing Saints" and All-American Herman Wedemeyer would provide alluring opposition for unbeaten and defending Cotton Bowl champion Oklahoma A&M. Wedey, the top scorer on the Pacific Coast, was the nation's number two total offensive leader. A&M's Bob Fenimore was number one.

New Orleans was in a gala mood. New Year's Eve 1945, the first since V-J Day, was one of the most memorable ever. The City's enthusiasm about the Sugar Bowl was unprecedented as well.

"There was a band waiting for us when we got off the train," remembered Spike Cordeiro. "We went straight to chapel...That's the first time I've ever seen a congregation stand up for a football team. There were even reserved seats for us. We knew then that we had New Orleans locked."

St. Mary's was an underdog from the start...[But thanks to razzle-dazzle play] St. Mary's, trailing at the half 14-13, left the field to a thunderous ovation. "No two more exciting periods have ever been played anywhere," said a journalist. "We had them on the ropes," remembered Spike Cordeiro. "They were so demoralized...they were arguing among themselves."

St. Mary's mistakes, however, permitted A&M to pull away in the second half...[When the gun sounded] Oklahoma had won 33-13.

"The score," wrote one reporter, "would indicate the Aggies outclassed the Gaels...Eyewitnesses know this isn't true." Said another, "They left a lost cause taking consolation in the fact that they had treated New Orleans' largest football crowd to some of the most thrilling, most spectacular, and most exciting football ever seen." Wrote the Chicago Herald-American, "It was the red-shirted Hawaiian who provided most of the fireworks which made yesterday's affair as spectacular as any ever presented."

Said Fenimore himself, "Herman Wedemeyer is the greatest passer I've ever seen." None realized it was the last time that two such talented triple-threat backs would ever challenge each other. The rise of the more specialized T formation ended the era of the all-around back and the possibility of such confrontations forever.

Go to 1946: "Perhaps the Finest All-Around Player Ever"

Back to 1943: "The Most Sensational Discovery"

   
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