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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Charlie Wedemeyer: 1946-2010 Sideline inspiration defied limitations

No wonder Charlie Wedemeyer was called "the Hawaiian eye." He never missed a thing at Los Gatos High School's football practice, certainly not a teachable moment.
Even after his final game as the school's head coach in 1986, he would come to practice every day, and players would flock to him afterward as he sat in his golf cart.
"For the next 30 to 60 minutes, he'd work with us individually," former receiver Craig Williams said. "He'd remember every single thing each one of us did in practice. He'd tell me to run a pattern, and he'd say, 'When you get to 12 yards, you need to lower your hips, get your hands up and watch the ball into your gut. Don't just watch the ball. Watch the stripe on the ball.' "
Each of the other players would receive a lesson with the same exacting detail, no matter which position he played.
Many high school football coaches leave lasting lessons with their players. Many are inspirational. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a coach who meant as much to his players as Mr. Wedemeyer, who was still a head coach even when he couldn't move a muscle, barely could speak and needed a respirator because he could no longer breathe on his own.
Mr. Wedemeyer died of pneumonia Thursday at age 64, more than three decades after doctors told him his days were numbered because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"It was a fascinating, courageous battle that he fought," his widow, Lucy, said Friday. "He didn't dwell on the loss of a day or what was going to happen tomorrow. Every day at practice, the endorphins would take over, and he would focus on what was going on."
What drove him to persist through the myriad physical traumas, she said, was his joy in being on the field and his faith. "He was needed here in Los Gatos, and it was (a role) where he could make a difference. He always knew God had a purpose for his life."
Quarterback Trent Edwards, who went from Los Gatos to Stanford and now is with the Buffalo Bills, called him "a huge influence on me. I didn't know what work ethic meant until I learned it from Charlie and Lucy."
Brock Bowman quarterbacked Los Gatos in 1984, when the players were distraught they didn't win a title because it appeared Mr. Wedemeyer wouldn't make it to the next season. Now a doctor in Atlanta, Bowman said it was because of the ailing coach that he chose a career in medicine.
"In many respects, playing for him was the defining experience of my childhood," Bowman said. "The respect and courage he demonstrated was something we felt at every practice and game. We never knew if he would be back for another game.
"What he was doing, for somebody who had difficulty breathing or speaking, was astonishing. It's something that every player who played for him will have for the rest of his life. You knew you were part of something bigger than scoring a touchdown that day."
A native Hawaiian, Mr. Wedemeyer was the youngest of nine children. Brother Herman was an All-America running back at St. Mary's who later played Duke on the TV series "Hawaii Five-O." Mr. Wedemeyer was a wide receiver and blocking back at Michigan State even though he stood just 5-foot-7, 164 pounds.
Stricken in his early 30s with ALS, he was told he had a year to live. "We've been on borrowed time for so long," Lucy said. "He's outlived his doctors."
He nevertheless continued to coach a high-powered program at Los Gatos. He would call the offensive plays from his golf cart via Lucy, who would read his lips and relay the call to assistant Butch Cattolico, who would use hand signals to direct the players.
"To do all that and get the play off in 30 seconds was amazing," Bowman said. "And we had one of the more complex offenses in the country at the time."
In 1985 - the year his final Los Gatos team won the sectional title - he was rushed to the hospital when he stopped breathing. The doctors told Lucy he'd have two weeks to live even if he were put on a ventilator because of the threat of pneumonia. Put him on it, she said.
Many years later, he would give inspirational speeches in the United States and abroad, always through his wife and frequently through an interpreter. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking, paralyzed by a disease related to ALS, had the couple over for tea and crumpets at his home in England.
Mr. Wedemeyer's message has hit home with the infamous as well as the famous. After a speech at San Quentin State Prison, according to Lucy, an inmate confided in him, "I was thinking of ending my life. Your story showed me that God has a plan for me."

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