PHOTO: Michigan State’s Charlie Wedemeyer, who was named posthumously on Dec. 29 to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021, with his saintly wife Lucy in 2005 at their alma mater, Punahou School in Honolulu.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Duffy Daugherty grabbed the microphone while mixed among a roomful of NFL icons during Super Bowl XIX week. Michigan State’s College Football Hall of Fame coach, never short on engaging stories to tell, took on an impromptu role as Master of Ceremonies.
The luminaries had gathered at a San Jose Bay Area hotel ballroom to raise medical expense funds for Charlie Wedemeyer, one of Daugherty’s former Hawaiian Pipeline Spartans. The Super Bowl, matching the “hometown” San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins, was to be played a couple days later, Jan. 20, 1985, down the road at Stanford Stadium.
Wedemeyer was then a high school football coach at the Bay Area’s Los Gatos High while battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative terminal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The NFL Alumni Association, spurred by 49ers legend R.C. Owens, sponsored the $100-a-plate dinner. Forty-Niners coach Bill Walsh took time from Super Bowl gameday preparations to attend, presenting Wedemeyer with a signed football:
“To Charlie: From one coach to another, with lasting respect, Bill Walsh.”
Wedemeyer could only flash a broad smile, by then having lost his ability to speak. His wife Lucy, his high school sweetheart at Honolulu Punahou and also at Michigan State, was his lip reader for events big and small. Lucy rose from her seat next to Charlie and draped a Hawaiian lei around Walsh’s neck.
“Charlie was so very humbled ,” Lucy said, looking back on the extraordinary night. “These were people he admired, and he was overwhelmed they took time to be with him. He was struggling to stay alive at that point. He almost didn’t make it to the dinner. It was a pure joy for him to be in the company of those football icons.”
Wedemeyer had been diagnosed with ALS in 1977 and given one to three years to live. He overcame several brushes, managing to survive 33 years, his will fighting for what turned out to be more than half his life. His body finally gave out at age 64, June 3, 2010.
His legacy has lived on beyond Hawaii, at Michigan State and the Bay Area. His story was told in a 1988 made-for-TV movie, “Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story.” There also was a Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary filmed over seven years, “One More Season” and a documentary that shared Charlie’s faith, “Courage to Live.”
As his story spread, they were invited to share his inspirational story and his faith from Honolulu to Europe, England, France, Switzerland and Italy.
On Tuesday, Lucy, her daughter Carrie and son Kale (Charles in Hawaiian) received the news Charlie had been named posthumously to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2021. Wedemeyer, like so many Hawaiians, has native Hawaiian blood mixed with his German surname.
“This is pure joy for our family,” Lucy said. “More people can know about someone that faced adversity and never gave up. He’s being honored beyond his success for his athletic ability. His legacy has lived on for how he carried himself and for the love he had for his players and other coaches. He had such great respect.”
Wedemeyer’s Los Gatos record in nine seasons was 78-18-1. The Wildcats won seven league titles and the school’s first California Interscholastic Federation Central Coast Section title.
He was the Hawaii 1960s Prep Athlete of the Decade as a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball at Punahou, a school dating to 1841 and the alma mater of President Barack Obama. He also was a karate Black Belt. Charles in Hawaiian translates to Kalekauwila, which means “God of Lightning.”
Lucy said when she and Charlie went to a local restaurant the owners were honored to have him as a customer.
“Charlie never had to pay,” Lucy said.
Another restaurant set aside a double crust banana pie on Friday nights to be sure they didn’t run out by the time Charlie arrived after games.
With his Polynesian Football Hall enshrinement, Charlie joins previous inductees that include his older brother, Herman Wedemeyer; his high school coach, Charles Ane II; and his fellow Michigan State and Hawaiian Pipeline teammate, Bob Apisa.
Herman was an All-American halfback at St. Mary University’s in Moraga, California. He played Det. Duke Lukela in the TV series Hawaii Five-O.
Ane played seven years in the NFL with the Detroit Lions before returning home to coach at Punahou. His son Charles “Kale” Ane III also took the Hawaiian Pipeline to Michigan State, 1972-74, with his own seven-year NFL career. Father and son were later coaches together at Punahou.
Apisa, who is from Honolulu Farrington, was the first Samoan All-American player as a two-time All-American pick in 1965 and 1966. Apisa played roles in episodes of Hawaii Five-O and another Hawaii-based TV series, Magnum PI.
Michigan State’s third Hawaiian Pipeline player in the 1966 season was senior Dick Kenney, a bare-footed kicker/punter. Wedemeyer was a sophomore backup quarterback in 1966 and also Kenney’s holder. He wasn’t shy about pulling up for a two-point play.
Although the fund-raising dinner was an NFL driven event for a Bay Area high school coach, Daugherty, who traveled from his home in Santa Barbara, made sure those in attendance knew of Wedemeyer’s Michigan State background.
“Everything he did was with great determination,” Daugherty says in the PBS film that includes scenes from the dinner. “He was the finest blocker on our team. At 5-8, 175 pounds, he would knock those big 6-4, 258-pound ends flat on their backs. He had that explosiveness. No one was too big for him to attack.”
And for good measure, the impish Daugherty sang the Michigan State fight song for Charlie, a locker-room tradition after every Michigan State victory.
“Duffy had the ability to make kids from Hawaii think snow was fun,” Lucy said. “His teams had players from all over the country, but they were like a family. Duffy always stayed in touch with Charlie.”
After graduating from Michigan State, Wedemeyer earned his Masters Degree at Central Michigan University. He found a job teaching math and coaching at Los Gatos. He was promoted to head coach in 1977 not long before his ALS diagnosis, but he continued teach another four years. Even when he was no longer in the classroom after the 1980-81 school year, he remained the head coach through the 1985 season.
He was a Coach Emeritus following the 1985 season and remained with the program on the sidelines through what was his final fall season, in 2009.
Lucy said Charlie struggled with his identity when his body betrayed him, but he began to learn his players viewed him as a coach and mentor rather than a former all-around athlete. Wedemeyer never dwelled on his illness with the players. His players appreciated him for his humor and ability to tease them.
“Kids would come over to our house to visit with him,” Lucy said. “Their parents would call our house; they knew where their kids were if they hadn’t come home yet. It meant so much to Charlie to be their coach.”
The final years he coached from a golf cart with a respirator to breathe. At the time of the fundraiser, the upcoming 1985 fall season was to be his ninth and final year as the Los Gatos head coach. But his legacy is still honored every year with the Bay Area’s Charlie Wedemeyer High School All-Star Game. The 49ers honor a Bay Area high school coach weekly with the Charlie Wedemeyer Award.”
Wedemeyer spoke of his wife’s devotion through his battle in the PBS film.
“My wife’s very special person and my two children help me a lot,” he says on film. “But I think without their encouragement and their support, with their hope, it would hard to cope.”
ALS is such a cruel disease for the victim and challenging for the family, 80 percent of ALS victims helplessly have their partner leave them. Lucy has remained an ALS advocate in the decade since Charlie’s death.
Although Charlie’s illness shattered his life, his love for teaching and coaching that was long on record continued. His mantra to his players: “Football is the one classroom where kids learn to live. They learn to live with victory and defeat and life.”
Lucy’s lipreading role helped Charlie continue to coach. She relayed practice instructions and game night play calls from the golf cart. It worked fine until one game Charlie called “max” on a play – meaning maximum pass protection. Football players and coaches understand the vernacular. Lucy didn’t.
She wondered if there was a new player on the team and then reminded Charlie there was no one on the team named Max. She looked at Charlie, and his lips said, “Yell, max! Right now!”
Too late. Los Gatos had to call a timeout.
“That’s when I was fired as a coach,” said Lucy added, although she was immediately hired back with no one else able to read his lips.
Those duties included two of Charlie’s last interactions with Michigan State.
His final trip to campus was 1987 when he was presented with the Jack Breslin Award. Lucy’s most recent trip to campus was 2018 when the Lansing All-Stars semi-pro football team was inducted into the Greater Lansing Area Sports Hall of Fame. Charlie played quarterback and called the plays for a team primarily made up of former Michigan State players; they went 28-0 in 1969 and 1970.
In 2001 on a trip to the Bay Area, then-Michigan State coach Bobby Williams invited Wedemeyer to speak to the Spartans. They played, and beat, Fresno State in Silicon Valley Football Classic at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium.
But in addition to his love for Michigan State, Lucy says Charlie never lost his distaste for anything about the University of Michigan. As a junior in 1967, Wedemeyer scored at Michigan on a reverse touchdown run as a flanker and also completed a two-point conversion pass.
“Anytime we saw someone with a Michigan shirt, he’d want to say something to them about their ugly helmets,” Lucy said. “I’d tell him, ‘I’m not going to say that,’ but he’d make me. Those were amazing times for us at Michigan State.”
“HE ALWAYS WANTED TO GO FOR IT”
Among the stories Daugherty told at the 1985 fund-raiser was marveling at Wedemyer’s uniquely instinctive talent.
“He had great intuitions as an athlete,” Daugherty said. “He just did things you couldn’t coach.”
A story he didn’t tell, though, was one that foreshadowed Wedemeyer’s coaching instincts. They were revealed defiantly in the 1966 game at Ohio State that was played in a torrential rain storm.
Michigan State trailed 8-3 in the fourth quarter and needed a comeback to preserve its march to facing Notre Dame in the Game of the Century, a battle of unbeaten teams at the end of the season. The Spartans overcame the muddy field and dropped balls in the rain when Jimmy Raye completed 4-of-7 passes to gain a first-and-goal at Ohio State’s 2-yard line.
From there, though, it took four plays on a sloppy field to get the footing to find the end zone. Apisa managed to score on fourth-and-one dive when he extended the ball over the goal line with 7:09 to play. Ohio State coach Woody Hayes ran down the sideline, complaining to officials so vociferously he nearly started a riot. Fans booed the refs and threw bottles at Michigan State’s players.
The TD gave the Spartans only a 9-8 lead, but in the muddy conditions Daugherty called for an extra-point kick. Kenney had earlier connected on a 27-yard field goal, essentially an extra-point.
Wedemeyer, though, changed the play in the huddle to a two-point conversion pass.
Lucy says Charlie’s football instincts were “he always wanted to go for it.” She saw it in Charlie as a high school player, a college athlete and while he coached at Los Gatos.
As Wedemeyer changed the play call and broke the huddle, he took a knee awaiting the snap, flipped the ball to Kenney, curled uncovered into the end zone and caught a two-point pass from Kenney, who also was a pitcher on the Spartans’ baseball team.
Michigan State held on for an 11-8 victory. The University of Hawaii wasn’t a Division I program until 1974, so Hawaii fans adopted the Spartans as a team to watch. The headline in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin: Hawaiians 11, Ohio State 8.
The Ohio State game predated Wedemeyer’s Los Gatos days, so it naturally wasn’t part of the scripts for “Quiet Victory” or “One More Season.” But imagine if such a scene was written for a movie.
It could have portrayed Daugherty initially waving his arms, yelling “No! No! No!” Then as the play worked, pumping his fists and shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Apisa, who was on the PAT team assigned to blocking the left defensive end, initially was surprised Wedemeyer changed the play. But then his mind flashed to practice that week.
“Charlie and Dick worked on that that play all week,” Apisa said. “At one point I said, ‘Come on you guys, we’re playing Ohio State. Get serious.’”
Lucy, enduring the rain storm in the stands, was less surprised than anyone.
“Charlie always loved a trick play,” she said.
But because Wedemeyer’s Los Gatos assistant coaches never heard the Ohio State story, they didn’t fully understood Charlie “always wanted to go for it.” And that turned out to be a good thing.
Otherwise, his assistant coaches could have spoiled what turned out to be a true-to-life, tear-jerker ending to “Quiet Victory.” No embellishment, no rewrite, was needed. The script wrote itself.
The movie, sticking to reality, builds up to Wedemeyer coaching his final game, Dec. 13, 1985, in the CIF-CCS championship. Los Gatos faced Mountain View St. Francis, a traditional power that eliminated Los Gatos a year earlier in the CIF-CCS semifinals.
The 1985 title game was tied 6-6 until Los Gatos scored a go-ahead touchdown. Wedemeyer, always going for it, ordered a two-point conversion pass play that worked for a 14-6 lead. Those two points stood up as the difference after St. Francis scored a touchdown but failed on its two-point play.
Los Gatos was still leading 14-12 when it had a chance to put the game away late in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats had recovered a fumble and were positioned to score until the possession stalled. Los Gatos faced a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Lucy read Charlie’s lips and said to the assistant coaches, “Go for it.”
A touchdown and extra-point kick would have provided a nine-point lead with less than a minute to play. But the assistant coaches misunderstood Lucy. They sent in the field goal team. The kick was wide. The score remained a precarious 14-12 as St. Francis took possession.
Then, with the drama building, St. Francis completed a desperation pass in the final seconds to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. The drama, in real life and with the film sticking to the facts, intensified until it burst into relief.
Los Gatos blocked the field goal try to clinch the victory.
The players swarmed Wedemeyer’s golf cart, reaching out with hugs. They got down on a knee and listened as Lucy read Charlie’s lips. His message: “You guys played like champions. I’m so proud of each and every one of you. You have accomplished something no other Los Gatos team has done and you’re going to remember it the rest of your lives.”
Looking back, imagine if the coaches had understood Charlie wanted to go for a touchdown and Los Gatos did indeed score for a 21-12 lead. That two-score lead provided a happy ending, but it lacked last-second drama to bring on the tears. The movies producers and director would have sent that ending to rewrite for some embellishment.
No need with The Charlie Wedemeyer Story. Truth is stranger than fiction.
DEFYING THE COACH
Dramatic finish aside, there was some incongruity between Wedemeyer’s playing days and his own coaching career.
As a coach, Wedemeyer was a task master. He permitted no profanity from his Los Gatos players or assistant coaches. In the movie, the team rule comes across when a wise-guy quarterback scoffs at Wedemeyer, “Bullshit!” Wedemeyer calmly tells him “to take a lap,” a standing team rule.
“Actually, it was, ‘Take a mile,’” said Lucy, revealing a rewrite the director or writers must have felt necessary. “They had to run four laps around the track.”
Nevertheless, “Take a lap” got the movie message across to the audience. And as it turned out, also to the film crew.
One day Charlie was on the set observing as scenes were filmed. When a crew member shouted out a string of profanities over a mistake in the scene, the offender realized the problem, looking to Charlie seated in a golf cart. His eyes bulged. Without prompting, the guilty party ran a lap around the track.
Lucy laughed recalling the story, adding, “The producer, Linda Otto, said, ‘Can I get Charlie on the set for all of our pictures?’”
Apisa, a Hollywood stunt man who also had many parts over the years in the Hawaii-based TV shows “Hawaii Five-O” and “Magnum PI,” played a role in “Quiet Victory.” He was the Kahuna that blessed Charlie in Hawaiian Pacific Ocean ceremony after Charlie’s ALS diagnosis.
“I think it also says Duffy had confidence in Charlie.”— Lucy Wedemeyer
Apisa offered an explanation for squaring Wedemeyer the demanding coach with the sophomore backup quarterback that defied Daugherty’s play call. He said Daugherty wasn’t one of the era’s tyrannical coaches, a stereotype that Hayes, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight aptly fulfilled.
“The old man gave us some space,” said Apisa, now older than Daugherty was when he died in 1987 at age 72. “We were an unbeaten team.”
Lucy added, “I think it also says Duffy had confidence in Charlie.”
The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame enshrinement is a reminder Wedemeyer’s spirit was unbeaten.
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