Hula-Hipped Herman

by Prescott Sullivan, Sportfolio, October 1946 The Coast, by Bill Leiser

It takes a pretty fair football player to make Notre Dame men say "he's better than Gipp." No one that good has come along yet. But out in California there is a fellow who has a chance.

Fact is, Herman Wedemeyer of St. Mary's College didn't miss by much last year. Several old line Notre Dame men checked themselves just in time. The heretic words were on their lips. Had they not held them back they might have been hanged in effigy on the South Bend campus.

"Buck" Shaw, one of Knute Rockne's greatest tackles, and a teammate of the immortal George Gipp on Notre Dame's unbeaten 1919 eleven, had a particularly harrowing experience.

After seeing Wedemeyer play, Shaw, now coaching on the Coast, blurted out:

"There's the finest back I've ever seen."

Worried friends shook him by the lapels.

"Buck," they pleaded. "Do you know what you're saying?"

Shaw struggled to free himself from their clutches.

"Lemme go, you guys," he roared. "Sure I know what I'm saying. I'm saying that kid out there is the best back I've ever seen."

Someone produced a gag. But Shaw, still athletically trim, was too quick for that.

"Stay away," he warned.

From a distance, his friends tried a subtler method.

"But Buck," one of them implored. "Think of the Gipper. Suppose this gets back to Notre Dame!"

Shaw blanched. The enormity of his "sin" dawned on him.

Penitently, Shaw doffed his hat, held it to his bosom.

Then, head bowed, and humble, he said:

"That's right. The Gipper. Never'll be another like him."

It was a close call. Shaw was days getting over it.

The 22-year-old Wedemeyer, Honolulu-born of a German father and a Hawaiian mother, is starting his third season of football for the Galloping Gaels of St. Mary's.

Last fall, after brief service in the Navy as a preflight cadet, he was virtually a unanimous choice for All-American, but this triple-threat performer was just as good in 1943 when he was a freshman in St. Mary's service.

The nation was late in "discovering" Herman, but the Pacific Coast knew he had something from the moment he made his maiden appearance in the St. Mary's line-up.

We'll never forget that game. St. Mary's played the University of California and was roundly thumped. But even though he was on the losing side, Wedemeyer stood out head and shoulders above any one else on the field.

Next day the papers heralded the arrival of a new and glittering star. California's eventual victory was given secondary treatment. The "story" was of the terrific individual exploits of one Herman Wedemeyer.

Since then, the saddle-colored kid from Honolulu, no flash in the pan, as so many others have proved, has moved from one personal triumph to another. Even the Sugar Bowl game of January 1, 1946, failed to break the magic string. St. Mary's lost that one to Oklahoma A&M but again it was Herman who had them huzzahing and throwing their hats in the air.

We wouldn't care to say Wedemeyer, a compact 175 pounder, with more punch than speed, is the best we've ever seen. These old eyes have oggled some good ones -- Grange, Nevers, Harmon, Grayson, and Wilson of Washington -- to mention a few.

But in one respect, if not in all others, Wedemeyer tops the field. We mean personal appeal. There's drama in his every move and the crowds love 'im for it.

His following is tremendous. San Francisco, a hotbed of football interest, has a Herman Wedemeyer Club of several thousand members. And there are auxiliary chapters up and down the Coast. Out West a fellow has to be careful what he says about Herman. Herman Wedemeyer Clubbers will tolerate no loose talk.

An example of Wedemeyer's drawing power was pointed up last autumn. St. Mary's played the University of Nevada in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. Never in any year before had the contest attracted more than a handful of customers and in 1945 the management figured on the same kind of a turnout -- say 10,000, at most.

The game drew 60,000. That's all the jernt would hold!

Many and varied are the explanations of Wedemeyer's unusual effectiveness. The best, perhaps, is advanced by Jimmy Phelan, Herman's coach at St. Mary's. The man who is in a position to know Wedemeyer, the athlete, better than anyone else, says:

"Wedemeyer enjoys complete relaxation. Tenseness is a total stranger to him. He has the ability to remain calm and unruffled even in the most exciting situation. His composure is almost irritating at times. But it pays off."

A product of Honolulu's sandlots, handsome Herman plays the game as a kid might play it "for fun." While others are sticking out their chins in grim determination, Wedemeyer laughs, jokes, has a good time.

Even when the stadium is jammed with its roaring thousands, the game is never anything but "just a game" to Herman.

Opposing players never know what Wedemeyer is going to do next. His football is his own and there's nothing like it in the books. Coach Phelan, himself an old Notre Damer, is smart enough to give hula-hipped Herman a free hand.

"Wedemeyer has scored touchdowns for me on plays I never recognized," Phelan admits. "The only complaint I have is that he didn't let me know they were coming so I could whip out pencil and pad and diagram them. They were worth preserving."

Some fellows have the knack of taking up new games and getting fairly good at them quicker than you can run the four minute mile. Wedemeyer is like that.

The winter before last he took up skiing and in no time at all he had acquired such a flair for the downhill schuss that he broke a leg.

Then last summer he found a golf ball so he took up golf. Within a couple of months he was hitting 80, a score which others have failed to achieve in a lifetime of hacking.

Like many another successful man, however, Herman is inclined to think his greatest talent lies in a field other than that in which he is at home.

Eminent bankers have fancied themselves as great tenors after a single rehearsal in the bathroom. Captains of industry have deplored the decision which led them to abandon the lute. Wedemeyer's obsession is that he's better at baseball than he is at football.

He isn't. To be that good Wedemeyer would have to be a Ty Cobb. Having seen Herman play baseball we can say that there's nothing of the Georgia Peach about Hawaii's gift to Saturday's millions.

But there is plenty of the old Gipper about Herman even though Notre Dame men aren't quite ready as yet to say so out loud.

A San Francisco sportswriters since 1923, 40-year-old Prescott Sullivan has been with the Examiner 11 years. His wife, the former Pat Seares, is an ex-WASP, and Sullivan will bet she is the first bomber pilot ever to give birth to a son on St. Patrick's Day.

   
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