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
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.
to Part 3
to Part 1