Wedemeyer: An Unbelievable Athlete

by Dan McGuire
Honolulu Advertiser, May 15, 1979

 

Spike Cordeiro, Herman Wedemeyer, and Bill Wedemeyer (Herman's father), at the testimonial dinner for Wedey's induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, 1979

You had to live through the college football season of 1945 to believe it--especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nearly four years of war had ended in August and once again sports such as football were dramatically important to a large segment of the population.The University of California at Berkeley, which had maintained a major football program during the war because of the manpower generated by a Navy V-12 officers' training unit, was scheduled to open the season with little St. Mary's College of Moraga.

St. Mary's too, with little more than 100 students, had kept football going on a modified basis. Its campus had been taken over by the Navy for a pre-flight school. During the 1943 season St. Mary's had produced a sensational freshman halfback from Hawaii--Herman Wedemeyer.

The Galloping Gaels had lost to California that year, 27-12, but Wedemeyer had been carried off the field o the shoulders of admiring fans. His all-around talent--running, passing, kicking, playing defense--was, by one writer's reaction, "unbelievable."

And Wedey, who had spent 18 months in the Merchant Marine, was returning to the Galloping Gaels as one of four sophomores. All the other members of coach Jimmy Phelan's squad were just out of high school.

The California varsity, still loaded with V-12 personnel, was a heavy favorite, but 80,000 people packed the Memorial Stadium--they wanted to see Wedemeyer. The 5-11, 175-pound graduate of St. Louis High School in Honolulu didn't disappoint them.

Teaming with 140-pound Charles "Spike" Cordeiro, his old rival from Honolulu's Roosevelt High, and quarterback Denny O'Connor, a devastating blocker at 165 pounds, Wedey led St. Mary's to a 20-13 upset--and two Gael touchdowns were called back.

St. Mary's third score came when Cordeiro ran to his right, lateralled to Wedey, who thereupon whipped it to O'Connor at midfield. Denny raced the rest of the way for a 68-yard touchdown.

In his book, "They Did It Everytime," the story of St. Mary's football, Randy Andrada writes: "Northern California was enchanted by Phelan's team. Wedemeyer was mobbed by fans following the Cal game. The press and the people loved their unorthodox laterals and reverses, their youth, their unconventional activities. Team leader 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." There were other nicknames -- "Beardless Wonders," "Whiz Kids," and "Moraga Minstrels."

Cordeiro reminisced recently: "I guess we were all innocent. We didn't know we were actually lambs being led to the slaughter. We were so carefree we could care less. We had a wholesome attitude. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain."

St. Mary's won five in a row, then faced Southern California, the ultimate Pacific Coast Conference champion and Rose Bowl representative, at Los Angeles before a sellout crowd of more than 90,000. The Trojans outweighed the Gaels by 25 pounds per man.

The game turned into a rout--for the Gaels. Wedey scored twice, while little Spike gained 116 yards on only 10 carries. Even some of the Los Angeles writers, impressed by the 26-0 final, said that St. Mary's, not USC, should go to the Rose Bowl.

The Gaels were 7-0 when they went to Los Angeles again to face UCLA. Leading in the fourth quarter, 7-6, they were victimized by the officials who "lost" a down when the Gaels were marching for another score. UCLA came back to win, 13-7, on a long pass in the final seconds.

But St. Mary's still received a Sugar Bowl invitation for Jan. 1, 1946. They faced a bigger and more experienced Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) squad, also embellished with V-12 players.

A&M's All-American quarterback, Bob Fenimore, was larger than any St. Mary's lineman. The razzle-dazzle of the youngsters from the West, spearheaded by Wedemeyer, held up during the first half. A&M led by only 13-12 at the intermission. The crowd of 75,000 gave the St. Mary's team a standing ovation as it left the field.

Size and experience took their toll in the second half and A&M won, 33-13. A Chicago Herald-American writer said: "Fenimore's team won by largest margin in the classic's history, but it was his red-shirted Hawaiian opponent, Wedemeyer, who provided most of the fireworks which made yesterday's affair as spectacular as any ever presented."

Wedey was almost unanimously named to the All-America team's backfield with Fenimore and Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of West Point. But the most thrilling accolade came from Grantland Rice, dean of American sports writers:

"Herman Wedemeyer is the greatest athlete in the country."

That year of 1945 was nostagalically reviewed last night by hundreds of old-timers who gathered at the Hilton Hawaiian Village to honor Wedey on his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Earlier, Wedey said it was impossible to believe that almost 34 years have elapsed since he and the Gaels galloped to that wild season.

"There were so many great moments that it's hard to count them," he said. "I have such wonderful memories of my coach, Jimmy Phelan, and the best teammates that a man could ever have. Sports, especially football, have been very kind to me."

And Wedey has served his community well--two terms on the Honolulu City Council and two in the State Legislature. In recent years he has worked on a volunteer basis for the Heart Association of Hawaii after suffering two serious attacks.

"There have been some ups and downs in my life," said Wedey, "but I don't think I'd trade it for anyone else's."

   Back to the home page