Wedemeyer's heroics went far beyond the football field 'Spirit of life' filled icon of Isle sports
By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer
To glimpse Charlie Wedemeyer's fluid moves on the football field, smoothness on the basketball court and effortless play on a baseball field for Punahou School was, for a young boy growing up in Honolulu in the 1960s, a compelling invitation to hero worship.
"There didn't seem to be anything he couldn't do," marvels Kale Ane, who was an elementary school student at the time. "He made the last-second shots in basketball, hit the home runs in baseball and made the touchdown runs in football."
His nephew, Blane Gaison, recalls, "he (Wedemeyer) was an idol for so many of us who watched him at the old Honolulu Stadium and Kekuhaupio Gym. He could do it all."
More remarkable was that, for all his rare gifts, there was a refreshing aura of down-to-earth humility and grace that surrounded Wedemeyer then and steadfastly stayed with him through a debilitating 34-year struggle with ALS that ended yesterday at age 64 in San Jose, Calif.
Robbed of his mobility in 1978 and left without a voice in 1983, Wedemeyer nevertheless became a three-decade inspiration to those and their loved ones who grappled with the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, it is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that disables nerve cells and routes to the spinal cord and brain.
But it wasn't enough to keep Wedemeyer away from sports or prevent his spirit from moving those around him. He guided Los Gatos High, where he settled after graduating from Michigan State, to a California sectional high school football championship. He did it from a golf cart hooked up to a ventilator with his ever-present angel of a wife, Lucy, interpreting his words and coaches relying on hand signals.
It was a heckuva system but with the Wedemeyers, as we came to learn, if there was a will, there was usually a way. It prompted two movies and a book.
'AMAZING ALL HIS LIFE'
More than that, it was testament to the qualities he brought out in the people around him and how he continued to touch lives. After all, if this man could endure and persevere, who among us could look at themselves if they didn't give their best?
He wasn't supposed to have more than three years to live, but Wedemeyer had no time to conform to statistics. Once he turned his mind to it, his condition became a calling.
"My regard for him is limited only by my vocabulary," said Rockne Freitas, a childhood friend, high school opponent and UH vice president.
"He was amazing all his life," said Norm Chow, a Punahou teammate who coached three Heisman Trophy winners in college. "When we'd get together he'd always want to talk football," said Chow who has coached at UCLA, USC, North Carolina State, Brigham Young and in the NFL. "He watched all the games and knew what we were trying to do. His brain was sharp."
His humble nature, it has been suggested, came in part from being the youngest of nine children, one of which was All-American running back "Squirmin'" Herman Wedemeyer.
But from his sophomore football debut for the Buffanblu, a 133-yard effort against 'Iolani, Wedemeyer made a name for himself. "We played together for three years on the football, basketball and baseball teams," Chow recalls. "Right after football, we'd go into basketball and while the rest of us were trying to learn to dribble a ball again he was making jump shots from Day 1. We'd go to baseball and he was hitting line drives right away."
Freitas said: "He was a great athlete and could do anything from football to shooting pool. If he'd taken up golf, he would have been great at that, too."
In the end, we were blessed that what he really excelled at was being Charlie Wedemeyer, whose off-the-field heroics surpassed even his considerable on-the-field ones.