Little St. Mary's Big Star, Part 2

Herman Wedemeyer with wife Carolyn (center) and daughter Kittie in the 1960s.

I should say here that back then I was a much more devoted follower of Cal, my future alma mater, than I am now. No matter how bad the Bears team--and there were some stinkers in those days--my loyalty never flagged. The sound of the school band warming up on a Saturday morning sent chills through me as I listened from the window of my family's apartment, a few blocks from the campus. And I was out there cheering on a succession of losers at Memorial Stadium every Saturday from a seat in the Traffic Boy section at the south end zone. (In return for helping direct traffic before games, we got in free.) But to my amazement, on that particular September day 53 years ago, my focus was not on the Bears but on the antics--and I can think of no better word to describe what Wedey was doing--of an opposing player. I had no shortage of heroes as a youngster, but the Hawaiian Hurricane swiftly rose to the top of my list.

In the second quarter, with Cal leading 7-0 and apparently on a roll, Wedemeyer, playing safety and standing on St. Mary's 30-yard line, watched a punt bounce past him to the St. Mary's 24. His nonchalance lulled Bears defenders into momentarily relaxing their vigilance. Then, with those reflexes that would so impress Rice, he unexpectedly scooped up the bouncing ball and sped off, dodging tacklers with what sportswriters would predictably call his "hula hips." Stunned Bears were sprawled all over the turf as Wedey snaked his way downfield, until, finally, he had only one man to beat, Cal halfback Art Honegger. Honegger seemed to have him penned in on the sideline 24 yards from the Cal goal. Penned in? Hardly! In one deft motion, Wedey lateraled back to a trailing teammate, John Ryan, and then took Honegger out with a crushing block. Ryan scored easily to complete an amazing 76-yard play. The crowd was captivated. This was a new kind of football. But there would be more. Just before the half, Wedey leaped high to make a one- handed interception--like a centerfielder, it was said--of a Bill Joslyn pass on the Cal 45, and once again he danced goalward.

Apparently trapped again, he faked a lateral and slipped past a host of hoodwinked defenders before he was brought down on the Cal 16. From there he passed to Tom Pearson for the touchdown. Cal eventually won, 27-12, but who knew or even much cared because Wedemeyer captured all the headlines the next day. "It was St. Mary's Honolulu barefoot boy who stole the show," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle sports editor, Bill Leiser. Wedemeyer, of course, was no more barefoot than Leiser, but the Hawaiian gags were inescapable.

St. Mary's won only two of seven games in that abbreviated wartime season, but Squirmin' Herman was the Pacific Coast's football sensation. As a freshman he played in the annual East-West Shrine All- Star Game at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium on Jan. 1, 1944. Surrounded by senior stars on both squads, he again stole the show, throwing two touchdown passes, one a 65-yarder, in a 13-13 tie. His performance, wrote football historian Maxwell Stiles, "wiped out everything that everyone else was able to do throughout a rain-swept afternoon." And "everyone else" included future NFL stars Bob (Hunchy) Hoernschmeyer and Pete Pihos.

Then, like so many sports heroes in the war years, Wedey was gone. A skiing accident washed him out of the Naval V-5 Air Training Program, so he joined the merchant marine and served all of 1944 ferrying troops and supplies across the South Pacific. When the war ended he returned in time for the 1945 football season, about 10 pounds heavier and bearing the weight of sky-high expectations--which he promptly exceeded.

This time he brought with him some football pals from the islands, most notably a tiny (150-pound) scatback named Charles (Spike) Cordeiro, who would artfully complement Wedey in St. Mary's backfield. The Gaels of 1945 were undersized, the line averaging just over 190 pounds, the backs barely 170 (the Berkeley High School varsity, to which I aspired, was considerably bigger), but they compensated for their physical shortcomings with what Wedey himself called "magic."

They tossed the ball around as if it were an activated grenade, lateraling as many as three or four times on a single play. They threw double passes. They used double and even triple reverses. They ran immensely complicated plays out of both the Notre Dame box and the newly-popular T formation. They didn't merely beat opponents, they bamboozled them. And Wedey was the head magician. In the opener against Cal, his 45-yard coffin-corner punt was so accurate that it brushed the goal line flag, giving Cal the ball, according to the rules of the time, on the one-inch line. St. Mary's won, 20-13, in a "stunning upset."

No one, not even Oklahoma A&M's single wing tailback, Bob Fenimore, matched Wedey for versatility. Wedey averaged 4.2 yards per carry; threw for 1,040 yards; averaged 18 yards receiving; intercepted nine passes; punted for an average of 40.1 yards; and returned 14 punts for 193 yards and eight kickoffs for 147 yards. He accounted for 15 touchdowns, running and passing, in eight games, and he kicked 17 extra points. The Gaels won seven games in a row before losing their final regular-season game in the closing minutes to UCLA, 13-7. Wedey was a consensus All-America selection, and he finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, which was won by Army's Blanchard. Leiser, junking the hula humor, now hailed Wedemeyer as "the greatest player in any position of any year in any part of the country."

In the Sugar Bowl, the tiny Gaels weren't given much of a shot against powerful A&M, but Wedey kept them in the game for at least the first 30 minutes. St. Mary's even scored first when Wedey, taking a lateral from Cordeiro on a fake end run, tossed a 47-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Dennis O'Connor. Then, just before the half, he broke loose on one of his twirling runs, gaining 26 yards before pitching to guard Carl DeSalvo to complete a 44-yard touchdown play. And it was Wedey's block that freed the excited lineman. Plays like this, we younger boys concluded, simply demonstrated our hero's modesty and unselfishness. Imagine lateraling the ball off to a guard when you could as easily have scored!

At halftime A&M had only a 14-13 lead, and Wedey and the Whiz Kids had the big crowd in their pockets. In the end the much bigger and far deeper Cowboys won, 33-13. But Wedey had once more stolen the show.

It is difficult now, so many years later, to describe the impact this little team and its big star had on schoolboy football in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Virtually every high school running back wanted to wear Wedey's number 11. Everyone wanted white shoelaces on his football shoes, just like Wedey's. Laterals, ordinarily punishable by instant benching, were suddenly all the rage. Berkeley High, where I began, steadfastly held to a conservative power game, but San Leandro High, to the south, where I transferred when I was a senior, embraced the St. Mary's offense. We, too, throve on tossing the ball around, backward and forward, and on all those tricky reverses and double passes.

Hopelessly caught up in all the excitement of the time, I, a nonstarter, once intercepted a pass (a rarity) and, in returning it, attempted a lateral. But it was intercepted by the very player who had thrown the pass I'd intercepted, and he very nearly scored. This, in the opinion of my coach, Joe (Tip) O'Neill, was carrying the St. Mary's stuff too far.

The Gaels' magic faded somewhat the next season when they finished with a 6-2 regular-season record and then lost on a frozen field in Houston to Georgia Tech, 41-19, at the Oil Bowl. But Wedey still had some cards up his short sleeves. In a 33-2 win over Fordham in New York's Polo Grounds in 1946, he chased down a Rams quick kick and then, as defenders bore down on him, punted right back over their heads. The ball bounced out of bounds on the Fordham five. On the next play Henry Van Giesen, another Hawaiian, intercepted a Fordham pass and returned it for a touchdown. Wedey's overall stats were not quite up to the previous year's, but he did average six yards on 104 rushes, and he threw seven touchdown passes.

He was injured for much of 1947, and his team stumbled to a sorry 3-7 record. The Whiz Kids had finally run out of gas. And yet Wedey signed what was then considered a lucrative two-year contract, for $37,500, with the Los Angeles Dons of the new All-America Football Conference. He lasted only one season there, even though he led the league in punt returns with a 16-yard average. The Dons waived him, and he was picked up by the Baltimore Colts, a T formation team better suited to the quarterbacking skills of Wedey's teammate Y.A. Tittle. After one more season, Wedey's pro football career ended.

He played some minor league baseball (he had been a centerfielder at St. Mary's) and then, disillusioned with life as a professional athlete and divorced from his first wife, he returned to Hawaii. Most mainland fans lost track of him after that, though I remember hearing that he had become a politician. In fact, he served terms both on the Honolulu City Council and in the state House of Representatives before a couple of heart attacks in the early 1970s forced him to abandon his political aspirations. Then he became an actor, playing Duke, a plainclothes detective on the popular 1970s television series Hawaii Five-O.

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