SAN JOSE, Calif. » For the 2,000 in attendance at the HP Pavilion, yesterday’s The Celebration of the Life of Charlie Wedemeyer was a perfect blend of smiles and tears.
Those in attendance were often dabbing their eyes while laughing out loud as an array of family and friends — from the famous to the less familiar — recounted stories of how Wedemeyer had touched their lives along his journey.
The Punahou School graduate died on June 3 after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) that was first diagnosed in 1978 after feeling its effects in 1976. His wife, Lucy, right by his side in the final moments, told a captivated crowd that she whispered in his ear, "If heaven is too irresistible, it’s OK, I’ll meet you there."
Lucy, his high school sweetheart, was the first of eight to share their love and admiration for the legendary local athlete. The memorial service lasted two and a half hours for the Los Gatos, Calif., resident, whose life inspired an Emmy Award-winning documentary "One More Season," the autobiography "Charlie’s Victory" and the TV movie "Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story."
Charlie and Lucy traveled the world to share their inspirational story that was told in so many ways yesterday — big and small — there’s no way to write them all down. Former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci was the closing act in this late-morning gathering that stretched into the early afternoon.
Mariucci talked about how every Monday after a 49ers game, he greeted the media by naming the Bay Area’s Charlie Wedemeyer coach of the week. At year’s end, there was a ceremony at the San Francisco practice field where all those year’s winners would gather and wait for the Wedemeyers to come and recognize the honorees.
Near the end of practice, Lucy would drive up in what Mariucci described as "The Pope Mobile" and park it "anywhere she wanted." Charlie would be wheeled into Mariucci’s office and sit at his 49ers desk.
"One time I told him, ‘Why don’t you take my job? Terrell Owens is driving me crazy,’ " Mariucci recalled. "And Charlie just gave me that wink."
There were several touching moments throughout the program that included Charlie’s son, Kale, Kale’s close friend Craig Williams, former 49ers tight end Brent Jones, former Los Gatos and current Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, son-in-law Keith Andry and longtime Los Gatos assistant coach Butch Cattolico, who told wonderful stories of how he and Charlie loved coaching football.
He credited Wedemeyer with changing the mind-set of the Los Gatos community and how over the last 33 years since Wedemeyer was named head football coach, the Los Gatos High Wildcats had won 317 games.
"Lou Gehrig once said that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth when he retired from the New York Yankees," Cattolico said. "We’re the luckiest people on the earth for knowing Charlie Wedemeyer."
Williams told a lighthearted story that best depicted Wedemeyer’s penchant for pulling pranks. One day, he walked into the Wedemeyers’ house and made himself a sandwich, as he often did before football practice, when a new nurse wondered what was going on.
"She asked Charlie if he knew who I was," Williams said. "And he said, ‘I have no idea.’ She said should she call the police and he just broke into a wide smile."
The family took a more serious approach, often talking about the faith Charlie acquired in 1985 when he couldn’t catch his breath. His son, Kale, said that was when his father surrendered his soul to God, his first steps toward a path of faith he would remain on until his death.
Kale’s favorite memories were the times he spent reading all the Honolulu press clippings of his father’s playing days in high school. Back in 1964, playing against rival Kamehameha in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu championship game, Charlie had a 14-yard touchdown run described by many as the greatest in local prep history.
The 5-foot-7 senior picked up an errant lateral at the 25-yard line and began a reverse-field run that lasted 30 seconds. Nearly every defensive player for Kamehameha had a shot at Wedemeyer, but missed. The touchdown broke a 6-6 tie and eventually led to Punahou’s 20-6 upset win on Thanksgiving Day.
"He wowed all the fans at Honolulu Stadium," Kale Wedemeyer said. "Poring over those clippings was like reading a never-ending comic book about a super hero. My dad was Superman."
He would go on to play college football at Michigan State and was the place-kick holder during the 1966 Game of the Century between the No. 2 Spartans and the top-ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame that ended in a 10-10 tie
Wedemeyer was also strict, a disciplinarian both on and off the football field. He demanded perfection from his players, often running the same play at practice as many as 15 times.
"My dad’s favorite phrase was ‘One more,’ " Kale Wedemeyer said. "His other favorite phrase was, ‘Ah, not bad,’ That was as close to great as you could get."
After being put on a ventilator in 1985, Charlie Wedemeyer wondered what was next in his life, but that quarter-century would be the most influential, as he traveled everywhere to spread the word of faith, love and the ability to overcome any and all obstacles.
But without his wife, Lucy, none of it would have been possible. Kale described her as Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale rolled into one. Flanked on both sides of the vast arena by past and present Los Gatos football players wearing their black Wildcat jerseys, some stretched to the limit, others fit as if they could still play the game today, Jones wondered how difficult it would be to peel those off later.
He also said that most football players simply called Wedemeyer, "Coach."
The big tight end paused a moment and said, "It’s the ultimate sign of respect. Charlie once described himself as, ‘A husband, a father, a football coach.’ He was the funniest guy I never heard."
A second memorial will be held on Oahu in a week, but the local flavor rang true throughout yesterday’s program. There were a couple of hulas, everyone on the podium wore a lei and Lucy was adorned in a beautiful aloha shirt in honor of her husband. When she finished her heartfelt speech, she said, "He never set out to be a hero, he just wanted to live his life."