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Little St. Mary's Big Star
Ron Fimrite
October 28, 1996
The author waited 50 years to meet his boyhood idol, Herman Wedemeyer
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October 28, 1996

Little St. Mary's Big Star

The author waited 50 years to meet his boyhood idol, Herman Wedemeyer

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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.

After the St. Mary's-Davis game there was a reception for the Whiz Kids that Frank and I brazenly crashed. Frank sought out Wedey, and the two old teammates fell into a laughing embrace. After a few moments of reminiscing, Frank got around to introducing me. Talking to athletes has been part of my job for longer than I care to remember, and I attach no special feeling to it. Meeting a boyhood idol so many years later is quite a different experience, and at first I found it hard to say much of anything to this charming guy who is only slightly older than I. Wedey was more than cordial, but he also had a roomful of alums to entertain, so I told him my wife and I would be in Honolulu a few months later and if he had the time, maybe we could talk then. He said that was a wonderful idea, so we exchanged phone numbers, and he disappeared once more into the crowd.

A few months later I met him at the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. He had just finished playing a round of golf (at 72 he often shoots his age) and was once again in rainbow raiment. We sat in the clubhouse before a window that overlooked lush green fairways extending to the crashing surf. It was a typically gorgeous day on Oahu—warm and with a gentle sea breeze taming the humidity. He ordered us a couple of beers and settled back, mildly curious as to why, after all these years, I wanted to talk about his glory years at St. Mary's. I told him, slightly embarrassed, of my childhood admiration and then realized that the passing years had pretty well closed the gap in our respective ages. It occurred to me that at the time I was canonizing him, he and I were both merely boys.

Wedey still has a touch of the actor in him, and some of the politician. His diction is flawless, his words meticulously chosen. He is Olivier in the body of a surfer.

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