California Whiz Kids

by Emmons Byrne
Collier's, January 5, 1946

Like everything else in the Golden State, St. Mary's college football team is magnificent, stupendous, amazing. It was nigh colossal till it got trounced by U.C.L.A.

Herman Wedemeyer, a Whiz Kid at everything, runs around the end for a long gain against the University of Southern California.

 Time was when the St. Mary's football team of Moraga, California was noted for its avoidupois, the rainbow hues of its uniforms and its cross-country junkets to New York via Canada, Cuba, Mexico City, and way points.

A man couldn't play tackle for the Gaels in those halcyon days unless he had to duck his head and turn sideways to walk through an ordinary doorway, and had enough hair on his chest to stuff a sofa. It took a quarter of an acre for the lads to huddle in, and the spectacle they presented between plays was not unlike the northern view of a herd of elephants going south for the winter.

Yet in their palmiest days those Gaels of old never so enthralled the sports-minded public as the present group of St. Mary's Whiz Kids.

Even Los Angeles sports writers, notorious for the stiffness of their civic pride, bewailed the fact that the Rose Bowl plum couldn't be taken away from the Pacific Coast Conference and given to St. Mary's after its 26-0 victory over Southern California, the 1944 champions, but this hysteria subsided somewhat when U.C.L.A. slammed into the little Merriwells and handed them their only defeat, 13-7. However, the excitement arose again when St. Mary's was picked for the Sugar Bowl.

Substituting speed for bulk, these beardless wonders were galloping all over the Pacific Coast until U.C.L.A. stepped in. They operated from a very intricate offense rigged by Jimmy Phelan, their coach, and had as spearhead a gridiron genius named Herman Wedemeyer. Despite his name, Wedemeyer is a true Hawaiian, with statuesque frame and swarthy complexion.

Men who ought to know call Wedey the perfect halfback. Pop Warner, one of the game's old masters, came out of retirement to marvel at the lad's all-round brilliance. Amos Alonzo Stagg, whose career covers the whole course of modern football, described him as a "beautiful player, one of the best I have seen." Said Dick Hanley, coach of the El Toro Marines and formerly of Northwestern: "Wedemeyer could make any college or professional team in the country." Oscar Fraley of the United Press, beating the gun with an early November All-America lineup, placed Herman at left half. Buck Shaw, whose California team learned about Wedemeyer the hard way, compares him with his old teammate, the immortal George Gipp. And that's about as far as a Notre Dame man can go.

Phelan, who in 27 years as a head coach has won Missouri Valley, Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conference championships, rates Wedemeyer absolutely unique in his experience. "There isn't anything he can't do," Jim explains. "He picks up the whole team and carries it along with him."

Wedemeyer's father, a Hawaiian of German descent, was an outstanding baseball player and judo expert. Wedemeyer himself is said to be a better baseball player than a football player and has already turned down a contract with Oakland of the Coast League. There are faster men in the Pacific Coast Football Conference but what counts is getting first down, and there Wedemeyer is supreme. At left halfback in the basic Notre Dame box formation he takes the ball from center in ninety per cent of the plays and it is his threat either to pass or run that upsets the opponents and gives his own men a chance to run.

He has carried the ball himself 93 times in eight games for a total of 391 yards. In addition, he has completed 60 out of 93 passes for a total of 1,086 yards and has compiled a punting average of more than 38 yards. Some of his punts have gone 60 or 70 yards and he has an uncanny facility for kicking out inside the ten-yard line. He kicks, runs, passes, blocks and is a whale on defense.

An All-Around Career Man

On the kid team, Wedemeyer is a solemn old man. He is married to a childhood sweetheart from Honolulu and has an infant daughter, who lives with her mother in San Francisco. Wedey was married when he first entered the Merchant Marine after getting out of the Navy V-5 program. He has his future mapped out to include professional football and baseball and after that a career as an athletic coach in Hawaii. His fame in the islands is so great that he is only next to the famous Duke Kahanamoku as a hero. The excitement there because of the Sugar Bowl is so great that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin is sending its sports editor, Willie Leong Hopp, to New Orleans for the event.

How strong is this 1945 St. Mary's team, composed as it is mostly of youngsters just out of high school? Phelan says he doesn't know, although it has won seven games, scored 237 points to the opposition's 32, and it dominated the Coast until it hit U.C.L.A.

"I know I've never coached another team like them," Phelan says. "It's positively amazing, the load they carry. I have always looked for intelligence in my players, but these kids astonish me. I don't actually know the number of plays they've mastered."

***A few sentences of article cut off ***

The history of the Whiz Kids really dates back to 1942 when Phelan took over the St. Mary's job after Red Strader, who had succeeded Madigan, went into the Navy. Phelan, who had been ousted at the University of Washington at the close of the 1941 season, looked upon his new post as merely a [word indecipherable] venture. His goal was not to win so much as it was to keey the sport alive for the youngsters who were waiting [to be inducted] into the service. A fiercely practical idealist who practices the fine art of proselytizing with [word indecipherable] fervor, he took his lickings from teams bolstered by Navy and Marine trainees, without a murmur.

His first reward came in 1943 when Wedemeyer, having closed his prep career in a blaze of glory at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, came to Moraga. The Gaels won only three games, but Wedey was the standout player of the year, and as a freshman, was invited to play in the Shrine's annual East-West All-Star classic on New Year's day in San Francisco. He stole the show, as usual, pitching two fourth-quarter passes to give the West a victory over a favored East team.

By the time the 1944 season had rolled around, Wedey had departed to enroll in the Navy V-5 program. Phelan had practically nothing to show in the way of athletes except Denny O'Connor, who had been discharged from the Army and suddenly decided that it was high time for him to continue his education.

Beginning the current season, Jim had two proven men-O'Connor and Wedemeyer. The latter had dropped out of the Navy program to ship with the Merchant Marine and arrived at Moraga a week after the opening of school. The coach also had a pretty good idea of the capabilities of Charles Albert (Spike) Cordeiro, Jr. This five-foot-six, 151-pound speed merchant who runs as if he has an outboard motor in each leg was Wedemeyer's only rival in Honolulu. If Wedey ran back a kickoff 85 yards for St. Louis, Spike would run one back 87 yards for Roosevelt. Spike sailed with the Merchant Marine during the war but every time his ship touched at San Francisco he hurried across the bay and worked out with the Gaels.

The Kids Made the Grade

Ed Ryan, the big end from Vancouver, B.C., had played some football in Canada, and Phelan was hopeful that he would find enough men to fill the holes among the 17- and 18-year-olds who answered his opening call to practice. Forty-four men turned out, slightly more than half of the boarding students at the college. The grandpappy of the squad was O'Connor. On the program his age is listed as 23. Actually, it's several years over that figure, he having been a very busy man making a living following his graduation from high school. Exactly half the squad was only 17 and only three of the entire lot had any previous college experience.

However, so great was the ballyhoo over the return of Wedemeyer that when the Gaels opened the season against California in nearby Berkeley, the stadium was filled to 80,000 capacity. The St. Mary's starting lineup, which has remained the same throughout the season except for Adair who was injured, is:

Left end-Don Schultz, 17: 186 pounds
Left tackle-Al Beasley, 18: 213 pounds
Left guard-Carl DeSalvo, 17: 195 pounds
Center-Vic Cuccia, 17: 179 pounds
Right tackle-Harvey Adair, 17: 178 pounds
Right end-Ed Ryan, 19: 200 pounds
Quarter-Denny O'Connor, 26: 158 pounds
Left half-Herman Wedemeyer, 21: 170 pounds
Right half-Spike Cordeiro, 19: 151 pounds
Fullback-Wes Busch, 17: 183 pounds

The nine freshmen and two sophomores were victims of a slight attack of stage fright before the multitude, and they were put on the defensive when Wedey fumbled the kickoff and the Bears recovered. The entire first period was played in St. Mary's territory and before the Gaels could settle down California had a 6 to 0 lead.

That touchdown, instead of stampeding the youthful crew from Moraga, set them on fire. The Gaels jumped to midfield on two hops-a pass by Wedemeyer and an end run by Cordeiro. On second down Wedey spiraled a long pass to Cordeiro who couldn't quite catch it. Spike had been running on every play and was called to the bench for a breather, Paul Crowe replacing him. O'Connor called for the same play. Crowe took off, snatched the ball out of the air behind the [word indecipherable] halfback without breaking stride and ran for a touchdown. Wedemeyer kicked the extra point and from there on it was St. Mary's ball game.

Not evident in the final score of 20 to 13 are two other touchdowns called back because of technical infractions of the rules, nor can the scoreboard describe the sleight-of-hand ball handling of the Gael backs. California, a 2 to 1 favorite, was completely outplayed for the last three periods.

This was the beginning. In quick succession the kids knocked off the Stockton Army Commando eleven, 26 to 0; Nevada, 39 to 0; College of Pacific, 61 to 0; McClelland Field, 58 to 0; U.S.C., 26 to 0; Fresno State, 32 to 6. In every game except the Pacific contest, the Gaels were outweighed, yet they could have added at least one touchdown to the score in every instance if Phelan had wanted to keep his first string on the field to run up the score.

Som observers who watched St. Mary's humble the proud Trojans ranked Cordeiro a better back than Wedemeyer and damned O'Connor with faint praise. Yet Wedey and Denny are the two keymen in the Gael offense. It wouldn't work without both of them in there.

On defense-and for a team that specializes on attack as this one does, it is a surprisingly tight and canny defense-the keyman is Vic Cuccia, a five-foot-nine center from Los Angeles. He calls the plays on defense, just as O'Connor does on offense, and then makes half the tackles.

Until the Southern California game, most of St. Mary's yardage had been made in the air. Passes had massacred every opponent. The Trojans were set to throttle Wedemeyer's forwards. So O'Connor sent his backs galloping on the ground. Yardage for the afternoon; 80 on passes, 267 on running.

The Trojans had their chance in the opening minutes when, following an intercepted pass, they got a first down on the St. Mary's 26-yard line. Four plays later the Gaels took possession on downs-on the 34-yard line. In their street clothes, those teen-aged linemen may not look like football players but they know what to do when their goal line is in danger.

In the highly competitive field of college football an outstanding eleven happens by chance alone. The Gaels are probably the best-coached, best conditioned and best organized team on the Coast. During the war the enrollment at St. Mary's, a college for men, was reduced to little more than 100 students. Phelan and his team have done much to preserve the identity of the college, which has been squeezed into one corner of the beautiful Moraga campus by the Navy Pre-Flight program and all but lost in a swarm of cadets.

A Good Job of Managing

The Gaels have played to more than 350,000 spectators, yet Jim and his line coach, Marty Kordick, manage to handle practically all the details and demands that pop up with a winning season. Whether it's a rush order for train reservations, 50-yard-line tickets or getting a boy special treatment for poison oak, they take it in stride. It does make for a long day, however, and only two hours of it is spent on the practice field. This is the easiest part of the day. The players are put through a stiff 15 minutes of calisthenics, then a session with the swinging bag to sharpen up the blocking.

The squad hasn't scrimmaged more than half a dozen times since the California game, and then only for a few minutes, although hardly a day goes by without some live tackling.

Kordick, who played guard at St. Mary's, is amazed at every practice.

"It was different in my day," he mused one afternoon as the Gaels pranced out on the field. "We used to throw rocks at the first man to leave the dormitory for the gym. These kids show up half an hour early and we have to chase them into the showers."

A team composed exclusively of freshmen and sophomores ordinarily would have a bright future on the gridiron, but this season of 1945 will probably be the first and last appearance of the Whiz Kids. In 1946, most of them, having attained the ripe old age of 18, will be in the Army.

   
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