Little St. Mary's Big Star

by Ron Fimrite
Sports Illustrated., Oct 28 1996
COPYRIGHT 1996 Time Inc.

Last fall, for a reason that struck some of my more sophisticated friends as either grossly sentimental or just plain silly, I went to see a football game in Moraga, Calif., across the bay from my San Francisco home, between St. Mary's College and UC Davis. This was hardly a big game in the accepted sense of that overworked expression, since neither of these otherwise admirable institutions plays a Division I-A college schedule. But I enjoy watching football at this smaller level, Division I-AA, possibly because the players, far removed as they are from the enormous hovering shadow of the NFL, seem to be having more fun, experiencing more of what the college game was meant to be. Still I wasn't in Moraga that afternoon to register my support, heartfelt though it may be, for small-time college football.

No, I was there to meet, for the first time, my boyhood idol, "Squirmin' Herman" Wedemeyer. I had been promised an introduction by my friend Frank Carillo, a popular San Francisco jeweler who had played briefly with Wedemeyer at St. Mary's after World War II. It was a meeting for which I had been waiting the better part of a half century.

Wedemeyer--or Wedey, as he was affectionately called by the press and fans--was making a rare visit to the Bay Area from his Honolulu home to be honored in a pregame ceremony with other surviving members of the Whiz Kids, St. Mary's football team of 1945. Now, this was a team that not only played a major college schedule but also finished the season ranked seventh in the nation and came close to upsetting powerful Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in the 1946 Sugar Bowl.

Regrettably, the Whiz Kids, now mostly in their seventies, looked more like escapees from a nearby retirement settlement as they stood on the field before the St. Mary's-Davis game. The public address announcer, presumably an undergraduate, introduced them by position, each Kid stepping forward as his name was called. The predominantly young crowd of about 5,000 in the pastoral little stadium seemed profoundly indifferent to these nostalgic proceedings. To that generation of football fans, the silver-thatched Whiz Kids might as easily have been Roman legionnaires or combatants in the second Battle of Bull Run. But to Frank and me, the name of each geezer induced yelps of recognition; the years peeled away before us as we sat there contentedly munching our hot dogs.

Then came Wedey's turn. There he stood, a human rainbow wearing tan slacks and a lavender sweater that set off his white hair and nut-brown skin. The P.A. person nervously cleared his throat, agonizing no doubt over the juxtaposition of this teutonic name and the distinctly Polynesian gentleman below. "Next," he finally announced, "Herman Wedemeyer, end."

End? End? Frank and I stared at each other in disbelief. How could anyone, even a callow undergraduate with no sense of history, mistake for a lineman the triple-threat genius described by Grantland Rice, sportswriting's dean, as the best player in the country in 1945, superior even to Army's immortal Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard? "A great all-around back should be able to run, pass, block, tackle and kick," Rice wrote at the time. And Herman Wedemeyer "is the only back I've seen in many years who could handle all these various assignments with poise and grace thrown in....His reflexes are far quicker than anything I've seen on a football team in many, many years." Rice called Wedemeyer the Hawaiian Centipede in tribute to his multifaceted game.

As Frank and I muttered angrily over the P.A. gaffe, Wedey, unflappable as always, stepped briskly forward and waved energetically to the blase crowd. Frank and I, virtually isolated in our enthusiasm, rose to our feet and bellowed, as we hadn't in almost 50 years, "Wedey! Wedey! Wedey!"

I was 12 years old when Herman Wedemeyer made his mainland football debut in St. Mary's season opener, against Cal, on Sept. 25, 1943, in Berkeley. He was already something of a legend in Hawaii, where he had set scoring and ground-gaining records at Honolulu's St. Louis College, which despite its name was a high school. Despite some tantalizing preseason publicity, he remained a mystery to Bay Area fans, most of whom had never heard of a Hawaiian who could do anything but swim, surf, strum the ukulele and dance the hula. As ardent a sports fan as I was then, I don't think I was even aware that they played football in the islands. Hawaii for me was pretty much Duke Kahanamoku and Hilo Hattie, the popular singer who often appeared with Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians.

And Wedemeyer, at only 5'10" and 164 pounds, was hardly an imposing physical specimen. On first seeing him, Kathleen Phelan, the wife of St. Mary's coach, Jimmy Phelan, inquired of her husband, "Is this what you're staking your reputation on?" But as we all would soon learn, this particular Hawaiian could play.

Of course 1943 was wartime, and most of the best football players, college and professional, were performing for service teams, of which there was an abundance in the Bay Area. Service football was a godsend for young fans like me, who at long last were given the chance to see players--Elroy Hirsch, Buddy Young, Bruce Smith--we had only read about or heard described on the radio. Some of the college programs also benefited from having military training units on campus, to which stars from other schools had been shipped. Cal was one of these fortunate few. In 1943, for example, its roster was bolstered by some military transfers from despised rival Stanford, which had discontinued football for the war's duration. Ultimately, however, the transfers were of little help as Cal went 4-6 that season. But to undermanned St. Mary's, obliged by the wartime diminution of talent to play freshmen such as Wedemeyer and 4-F's, the heavily favored Cal Bears might as well have been the Chicago Bears.

Enter Wedey.

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