Here Comes the Hawaiian Hurricane

by Billy Stepp
Sport Life Magazine, December 1948

 

Webmaster's note: This article is very complimentary to Herman Wedemeyer, but refers to his race in language that would not be considered acceptable today.

Herman Wedemeyer was a brilliant half-back at St. Mary's -- now the Honolulu flash is out to show the pros just how he does it.

One afternoon when Polynesia's gift to the pro pigskin buisness, Hula Herman Wedemeyer, was working as a bartender in an Oakland, California pub, he had $25,000 in large, crisp bills waved under his nose. Herman sniffed, but didn't grab.

"If you sign with us," said the bill-waver, a National Professional Football League scout, "the 25 G's are yours. And that's only the bonus."

Wedemeyer shook his head and went stoutly about his business of polishing glassware. "Thanks," he replied, "but I'd kinda like to finish my college ball at St. Mary's."

A bit later, two fight managers sat at the bar, cutting up the Gael All-American. According to them, he was the hottest light heavyweight boxing prospect since Tommy Loughran.

"You can get rich," they urged. "Inside a year, we'll split a quarter of a million bucks!"

Wedemeyer shrugged them off politely.

The next offer fired at America's most versatile athlete since Indian Jim Thorpe, came from big-league baseball. A man who had signed a million dollars worth of talent dropped in to see the young Hawaiian who boasted at .400 college batting average. One more the pug-nosed, ex-pineapple picker shook his head -- just as he did to a flood of promotional schemes during 1945 and '46. It was hard going when he weighed an $80-a-week barkeep job against that kind of bullion.

Meanwhile, rumors flew in the West Coast press. Wedemeyer would quit school to play New York Yankee baseball at a record signing sum! Wedey had been screen-tested and was going into the movies! Wedey, a fine golfer, would tackle the pro tournament trail!

"They had me do everything but make a balloon ascension at high noon," grins Squirmin' Herman.

Nobody stopped to figure that since Wedemeyer had remained stubbornly loyal to his St. Mary's coach, Jimmy Phelan, he might stick with him to the finish. Thus, there were gasps around the grid leagues when the news finally burst last year --

'WEDEMEYER SIGNED BY LOS ANGELESE DONS: TO PLAY AGAIN UNDER PHELAN.'

Months earlier, the shrewd Irishman, a onetime Knute Rockne quarterback at Notre Dame, had taken over the Dons in the All-America Conference. The first man he went after was the Waikiki Wonder. Today, rival National Football League owners are kicking themselves for letting Herman get away and Phelan has built a new and brilliant attack around him. Fans from coast to coast are chearing the realliance of the smart coach and his swarthy ace -- for it means fresh fireworks in New York and Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco. From now on it'll be triple-threat Wedemeyer matched against the superb Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns and Frankie Albert, flipper of the San Francisco 49er's tricky T-switch. It takes no expert to guess that Graham, Albert, Spec. Sanders and the other All-America aces will have to move over and make room for a new and color-laded personality.

Best of all, the amazing Wedemeyer now has a chance to answer the question debated by football's millions: "Is Mr. Hula--Hips really the greatest all-around modern player?"

Phelan and two sachems of the sport, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner, are already on record with their opinions. "There's nothing he can't do better than the rest," says Phelan, who in 28 years has produced championship teams in the Missouri Valley, Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conferences. "He'll out-kick, out-pass and out-run any one man in the game."

Both Warner and Stagg place Wedey high on the all-time list. "Brilliant -- one of the best I've seen in fifty years," praises Pop.

"A beautiful performer, deserving to rank with the Gipps and the Granges," testifies Stagg.

Opponents toiled all Summer over plans to stop the whirlwind operating behind the huge Dons line. "After all, he was almost unstoppable at St. Mary's playing with a gang of mere kids," they point out.

The object of this lavish acclaim looks the part. His statuesque frame carried only 175 pounds when he's in top shape, but it's overlaid with smooth muscle. His thick black hair and dark skin tell you his homeland, despite the Germanic name. Wedemeyer's grandfather left the Rhineland to seek his fortune in the Islands' sugar trade and there became part of the melting pot of nationalities. In Herman's veins flows a mixture of Hawaiian, German, Irish, Scotch, and Chinese blood, a fiery fusion of races that produced the All-Everything athlete of today.

From the Aloha Tower to San Francisco Bay is 2,091 miles by the shortest sea route. That's the jump that Herman had to make to challenge the old theory that Hawaiians are no good in rugged Anglo-Saxon sports. "Too easy-going, those Kanakas," claimed the critics for years. "They're okay in swimming -- fellows like Duke Kahanamoku and Bill Smith -- but they're not built for the rough, body-contact stuff."

In his first mainland test (Hawaii already knew what he could do) Wedemeyer was tossed into a football tempest. The wide-eyed St. Mary's freshman, 18 years old and with only 300-odd minutes of varsity playing time, was invited to join the West team in the Shrine's annual East-West classic at San Francisco. There were shrugs. What could an unseasoned kid halfback do against the pick of the nation's veteran college talent?

He could do plenty and did. With the West sagging and seemingly licked in the final quarter, Herman came off the bench to the rescue. Pitching two brilliant touchdown passes, he gave the West a 13-13 tie wit hthe heavily-favored East. And Kezar Stadium fans, erupting in delight, took him to their hearts.

"Where'd HE come from?" thundered the mob.

Their anti-Hawaii ideas exploded, the experts dug frenziedly into his history. They found that Herman John Wedemeyer was a big name in the Islands. From Hilo, his birthplace, to teeming Honolulu, football-crazy Territorial fans were fervently rooting to him. If Wedey could make good in big-league American play, it might unlock the door for many other ambitious brown-skinned youths. Leading the rooting sections was Herman's husky father, William Wedemeyer, a judo expert and former smashing line star of the famed "Thundering Herd of Kalihi" in the Inter-Islands Barefoot League. The father had groomed his boy from the cradle for a sports future. He, himself, was a stone-quarry worker, but for his son he wanted something better. The chance were slight that any mainland college would seek out an Island boy, but William Wedemeyer was willing to take the chance. Through the formative years, he coached his slim offspring in blocking, tackling, punting and passing.

It was hard to keep Herman's nose to the gridstone because he excelled in practically every sport. Swimming? He could outsplash the fastest beachboys. Baseball? They couldn't strike him out in sandlot games. Surfboarding? The old Duke, himself, blinked when he watched Herman riding the combers at Waikiki.

But the kid had inherited football blood. At 14, he could thump the ball over 50 yards -- off his bare toes. He could run with it like a ghost through a graveyard. At parochial school and later, at St. Louis prep school in Honolulu, he averaged three to four touchdowns a game. Fans cheered him from Koko Head to Waialua Bay, but the sound waves couldn't carry half across the Pacific. The old prejudice against tropic talent remained a barrier.

If it hadn't been for the canny Phelan, the first mainland coach to take a long look at the Hawaiian sandlots, Herman might never have had his chance. Phelan didn't believe in the racial theory. When he was coaching the University of Washington Huskies, he had brought a huge, sleepy-eyed tackle named Wayne Sterling to Seattle from Honolulu. Sterling was a four-star riot when aroused, just as his older brother, Leon, had been for the Oregon State College Beavers.

"How about this boy?" he asked his island scouts.

All reports on Wedemeyer were in agreement. "He can't miss!" enthused the St. Mary's agents. "Herman can knock a fly off an end's nose at 50 yards."

Phelan talked to William Wedmeyer, then gambled with him. Herman came to St. Mary's in 1943, when Gael material was at an all-time low ebb. The team won only three games -- those mostly because it had Wedemeyer. Then came his Shrine game splash, after which he dropped from sight as the Navy's V-5 program claimed him. When he returned for the '45 season, public interest had waned. Most of the writers had forgotten him.

St. Mary's, huddled in the Moraga Valley with less than 200 students, had become a grid nonentity. Pre-Flight training on the campus had swallowed the school. Phelan's hodge-podge "high school team" averaged 18 years of age and only 180 pounds in weight. Wedemeyer's brother backs weighed 158, 151, and 179 pounds and there were five 17-year-olds in the starting lineup. This peewee bunch of babes had a killer schedule that included huge California U., the Stockton Army Commandos, loaded with service stars, and mighty University of Southern California, western college champs. Sportswriters shuddered at the carnage to come.

Again, they sold Herman short. When California grabbed a quick 6-0 lead in the opening game, the tawny tailback rolled up his sleeves and laughed. Pressbox observers gaped, then tapped their heads significantly.

On the bench, Phelan waited. He knew that Wedey was crazy -- like a fox.

Three plays later, it happened. Wedey pulled 80,000 to their feet with a lightning pass to Paul Crowe for a touchdown. Then he kicked the point for a 7-6 Gael lead. The startled Bears floundered, trying to fathom Herman's shifty running and looping throws. On punts they charged viciously, aiming to flatten him. Herman's answer was a series of booming punts that shoved the Bears into hole after hole. One 70-yard spiral hit the Coffin Corner flag and put the ball on Cal's six-inch line. When the smoke cleared, St. Mary's had posted a stunning 20-13 upset.

The win caught national attention, but it was nothing to what followed. In rapid sequence the inspired little Gaels ran over Nevada, Stockton Commandos, College of Pacific, McClelland Field and University of Southern Cal -- scoring 210 points to none for the opposition. Southern Cal, the Rose Bowl team of the year, was conked by Wedemeyer & Co., 26-0.

The "Cinderella team" marched into the Sugar Bowl, where it finally met insurmountable odds. Oklahoma A&M was four-deep and outweighed the Gaels 20 pounds to the man. The Aggies were fated to win from the opening kickoff, but not before the mob got an eyeful of Wedemeyer. He was never better and 78,000 tabbed him as the best man on the field over Bob Fenimore, the great Aggie back. All-America pickers unanimously put the Hawaiian on their first teams in company with Blanchard and Davis of Army and Gilmer of Alabama.

Look over your all-U.S. lists since the first one in 1889 and you'll find a potpourri of nationalities. There have been O'Briens, Savoldis, Goldbergs, Heikkinens, Domnanoviches, Cabots, and Nagurskis. There has been Robeson, a Negro, and the Indians, Seneca and Thorpe. But there was never a Hawaiian until Hula Herman came along to break the ice.

The fact that St. Mary's played to more than 1,000,000 paying customers during Wedey's three-year reign was enough to send pro scouts rushing after him. Not since Cotton Warburton, the USC jackrabbit of '33, has the West produced such a drawing card. High school girls have formed Wedemeyer fan clubs and grandmas send him their favorite recipes. Working in the Oakland bar to defray expenses, he was a greater attraction than the East Bay's snappiest floor shows. Phelan wags his head today and says it's a miracle that Herman resisted the lush offers and refused to cash in on his reputation.

"Nobody could have blamed him," states the dapper little coach. "All he got at St. Mary's was the regular scholarship and a job. He must have passed up at least $200,000 to stay in college."

What makes Herman such a terror? Oldtimers call it poise. His iceberg attitude under pressure makes them catch their breath. When crowded, he's as dangerous as a King Cobra. Nevada's big line once smeared him for a 14-yard loss and one of the Wolfpack sneered, "So you're the great Wedemeyer!"

Thirty seconds later, Herman ripped around end for 46 yards -- and a St. Mary's touchdown!

"So they say," he told the discomfited Nevadan.

The brown man is the kind of back who never fails to shine, even when his mates are crumbling in defeat. Last season, St. Mary's lost its magic touch and took pastings from Detroit U., Washington and California. But Wedey's explosive quantity kept opponents jittery. He passed for 103 yards and ran for 77 more as he scored against Detroit, gave the Gaels their lone touchdown against Washington after a brilliant 26-yard run and did the same, via passes, against California, the No. 11 team in the country in '47.

"My biggest thrill was going home in September for a game with the University of Hawaii," says Herman, his white teeth flashing. "My friends from all the Islands were there to wish me well. It was a wonderful homecoming."

St. Mary's won that game, 27-7, with Wedey scoring freely. Now that he's a pro, he plans to organize an All-Star team next December and play a series of games in the Territory. "Honolulu is really the hottest football town on earth, you know," claims Wedey.

A fun-loving sort of guy, Herman is also noted within football for his extreme modesty. When he sees his name splashed across an eight-column, 60-point headline, he glances at it, then looks away quickly. He has been known to blush. Simplicity characterizes everything he does. Severall All-America pickers were surprised to receive thank-you notes from him -- a novel experience for the selectors. After his manhandling of Southern California, he was told by an enthused radio interviewer: "That was the greatest piece of playing I've ever seen!"

"Yes," said Herman, neatly countering the compliment, "the team was red-hot."

Married to a Honolulu sweetheart of his childhood since '44 and father of a small daughter, he has his future sensibly charted. He'll play pro football -- and maybe take a fling at pro baseball, too -- until he begins to slow up. Since Wedey is only 24, that probably won't happen for another six years. Then he plans to settle in the sun-soaked Islands and devote himself to a coaching career, bringing along to stardom the abundant young talent of his homeland.

Speculation surrounds Wedemeyer's salary in the All-America. One report has placed it at $40,000 for the 1948-49 seasons, which would put him in the bracket of top-paid pros. Owners Ben Lindheimer and Don Ameche of the Dons tote heavy bankrolls and they told Phelan: "Sign Wedey -- at any cost."

As he jogged through practice paces at Ventura, California last July, Herman wore a delighted grin. "I can't get over it," he kept saying, waving a hand at his ponderous mates. "For the first time I don't have to worry about eleven guys smacking me when I get the ball."

The Dons supporting cast is really something to get excited about. At St. Mary's, Herman had to be a one-man team. Now he'll be barricaded behind a 220-pound line and with blockers ahead of him who can tear a tackler's legs off. For example, up front are such goliaths as Eberle Schultz, the all-pro tackle; Len Ford, Michigan's mighty end of '47; Guards Butch Levy and All-American Ray Frankowski; and Burr Baldwin, the ex-UCLA wing flash. Sharing backfield duties with Wedey are such established aces as Jarrin' John Kimbrough, Chuck Fenenbock and Glenn Dobbs. Obviously, the Dons are loaded. Imagine a club that can shoot Wedemeyer at you in the first and third quarters and Dobbs in the second and fourth sessions! That's just part of the parcel of dynamite cooking at Los Angeles.

"We'll stick to the single-wing, using Notre Dame stuff," says Phelan. "With Wedey handling the ball, I think we'll have the most deceptive offense in action this season."

Dobbs, rated the game's master passer, watched Wedemeyer slinging his deadly long and short bullseyes and cracked, "They can cancel the insurance on my arm. Old Dobbsie is just the other passer on this club from now on."

Some critics feel it is Herman's gridiron IQ that will prove most valuable. Some call him the brainiest back of all time. When it's first down and ten, he has already figured his attack pattern through fourth down and is setting up the enemy for the knockout punch. "A halfback with a built-in quarterback's brain," he was once called.

Wedemeyer is a gaudy gambler, always shooting for a larger slice of yardage or a touchdown. In nine St. Mary's games one season, he scored 17 times -- eight by air and nine on the ground. All the scores were the result of a pre-conceived plan.

You'll have to look a long way to find a more satisfied man these days than Herman. Tugged this way and that by those who sought to cash in on him, he remained the captain of his own fate. And now that decision is paying off -- in the sport he loves best.

Not long ago, a leading West Coast golf pro played 18 holes with Wedemeyer and came away with a mournful expression. "He's a natural, the best prospect I ever saw. Do you know that he shot an 88 the first time he ever stepped on a course. He's in the 76's now. He ought to play golf seriously."

That's Wedemeyer -- who can out-swim, out-golf, out-box, out-hit and out-run any one athlete in the country. But he isn't interested in becoming another Weissmuller, Hogan, or Loughran. He just wants to be the best professional halfback in the business.

So far, nobody has offered to bet the Happy Hawaiian won't do it.

 

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