Greatest Athlete #10: Speed brought Wegert to the NFL

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08/08/2011 7:57 AM |

RIVERHEAD HIGH SCHOOL COURTESY PHOTO | Riverhead's Ted Wegert, bottom center No. 46, in his 1955 Philadelphia Eagles team photo that hangs at Riverhead High School.

In Riverhead back in the mid-1950s, it was easy to know when Ted Wegert was in town. All one had to do was look for his flashy car, either a powder-blue Cadillac convertible or a red Corvette with the license plate “TD46.”

No one else in Riverhead had a car like that.

Then again, no one else in Riverhead at the time could run with a football the way the late Theodore Addison Wegert did.

The former Riverhead High School star running back played three seasons of pro football for five teams, and he did it his way, with a good dose of fun along the way.

“What he accomplished as far as I’m concerned is nothing short of miraculous,” said Don Walsh, whose father and Wegert’s father were best friends.

Some pages are missing from the chapters of Wegert’s life story. Part of that is because many of his contemporaries, relatives and friends are no longer around to talk about him. Wegert himself isn’t around to fill in the missing pieces; he died of a heart attack on Feb. 18, 1986, in Port Charlotte, Fla., at the age of 53.

But Wegert left a lasting impression, nonetheless, with his exploits on the football field.

Ted Wegert kicks off the top 10 selection of Times/Review's 20 Greatest Athletes series. No. 1 will be unveiled Aug. 17.

It’s hard to say what plans Wegert had for his future while he was a youngster. His father, also named Ted but with the middle name Otto, owned a bank of attached buildings in Riverhead. He ran a bar and grill on one side and a delicatessen on the other.

Did Ted expect that he would work in the family business? Did he have aspirations to play pro football?

Actually, it’s quite possible he didn’t give much thought to it. “He lived in the moment,” said Don Walsh.

But football was in Wegert’s future. At 5-foot-11 and around 200 pounds, Wegert was strong. “Solid as a rock,” said Fran Walsh, Don’s step-brother who coincidentally shares the same last name with him. “He was tough, a tough nut.”

Wegert was described as a powerhouse, but a powerhouse with exceptional speed. Don Walsh said Wegert could run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat.

Although Don Walsh was 14 years younger than Wegert, some of his earliest memories involve going to Riverhead football games in which Wegert played and rooting for Sonny, as his family called him.

Wegert liked to leave his feet and hurdle over defenders.

“They said he was very fast for a man his size,” said Jim Underwood, a former Riverhead running back who was three years older than Wegert and received a scholarship to play football for Fordham University. “He was extremely fast and a pretty big guy. His big asset, I think, was his speed and his deceptiveness while carrying the ball.”

Fran Walsh, who was several years younger than Wegert, said: “Teddy could just outright fly. He was very powerful. He was called the galloping ghost. He was very fast and quick and powerful.”

Wegert used those qualities to set the Suffolk County single-season scoring record in eight games in 1950. In November of that year, a hard-hitting Amityville team easily defeated the Blue Waves, 45-14, for the county championship on a neutral field in Babylon. Amityville did well to hold Wegert to less than four yards a carry that day, but Wegert still scored both Riverhead touchdowns to run his single-season points total to 163, a county record at the time.

That record stood until Bernie Wyatt of Amityville broke it by scoring five touchdowns against Lindenhurst in November of 1956, eclipsing Wegert’s mark by seven points with a last-second touchdown. The record has been broken numerous times since then.

Wegert played other sports in high school, too. He was a guard for the basketball team, and a sprinter and pole vaulter for the track and field team.

In a basketball game in March of 1950, East Hampton had a plan to deal with Riverhead’s high-scoring Dick Boden, figuring it could tie up the star forward by putting two players on him. What East Hampton didn’t count on was Riverhead’s guards, Reg Underwood and Wegert, coming through with 17 and 16 points, respectively, for a 46-35 victory.

Boden and Wegert were unanimous selections to Newsday’s 1950 eastern Suffolk all-scholastic basketball team for the part they played in leading the “County Seaters” to a third straight sectional title.

In a story about those selections, the County Review wrote: “Wegert is a hard-driving schoolboy, a play-maker, and a clever ball handler. His long passes to [Walt] Kobylenski and Boden accounted for many points this season. Wegert was very rarely matched in speed on his fastbreaks for the basket. He concluded this season with an outstanding performance against Huntington. He was Riverhead’s mainstay that night.”

Wegert survived the preceding football and basketball seasons without injury, only to chip an ankle bone in the spring of 1951 while playing volleyball in a physical education class.

Wegert may have viewed school as little more than a place to play sports.

“Teddy Wegert was just being Teddy Wegert,” Don Walsh said. “He played sports. He didn’t worry about school. Football was his main thing.”

Wegert left high school in 1951 before graduating and joined the Navy at the age of 19. He was in the Navy for four years, playing for the Bainbridge Naval Training Service football team in Bainbridge, Md. During that time, the all-Navy player caught the attention of some professional teams. After being discharged from the Navy, Wegert received letters from pro teams interested in his services.

RIVERHEAD HIGH COURTESY PHOTO | Ted Wegert played two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1950s, where he was viewed as a 'player to watch' despite never playing college ball.

Wegert, a player with no college-playing experience, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and started as a rookie.

“He did well,” said Reg Underwood, Jim’s younger brother who played in the same Riverhead backfield with Wegert. “You got to give credit where credit is due. He [made it to] professional football, and he played.”

Don Walsh recalled a terrific game Wegert played that year in a preseason game against the Detroit Lions. The game was played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in order to honor the Lions’ great running back, Doak Walker, who had played his college ball in the Cotton Bowl for Southern Methodist University. Wegert stole the show, though, racing for three touchdowns, including runs of 63 and 47 yards.

“Where was Teddy after the game?” Don Walsh said. “He was out getting drunk with [Lions quarterback] Bobby Lane. I’ll tell you, Teddy Wegert could go the distance. … He always lived the high life.”

Jim Underwood said, “He was known to go the gin mills.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in a Sept. 6, 1955 story that also included mention of the Pittsburgh Steelers cutting quarterback Johnny Unitas, stated: “Like everyone else who has watched him, [Steelers backfield coach Bob] Snyder was also impressed by Ted Wegert, the rookie who is making the [Eagles] ball club without benefit of any college training. Wegert, a 200-pound halfback who played for Bainbridge Navy last year, scored four of the Eagles’ first five touchdowns this year.”

A United Press story from Oct. 30, 1955 reported that Wegert returned to action following a one-month absence nursing a broken foot to score two touchdowns in a 24-0 defeat of the visiting Steelers.

The following year, Sports Illustrated listed Wegert in a preview as a player to watch out for, “a heady runner.”

Many of Wegert’s teammates in Philadelphia were with the great Eagles teams that won National Football League championships in 1948 and 1949. Two of them, Chuck Bednarik and Pete Pihos, are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite his first two seasons being slowed by foot injuries (he missed five games with a fractured toe in 1956), Wegert played seven games in each of those seasons, averaging 3.7 yards per carry the first and 6.7 the second.

“A running back gets hit on every play,” Don Walsh said. “It’s a brutal lifestyle. He was getting his butt kicked every play.”

And then, there is one of the missing gaps in the Ted Wegert story. He tried to hook up with the Steelers in 1957, but was among six players dropped in what The New York Times described as a “wholesale housecleaning.”

Wegert was out of football for three years. What was he thinking about at the time? How was he feeling physically?

What can be said is that Wegert wasn’t through with football yet, even if it meant waiting until 1960 to make his return. That was the year the American Football League was created. Wegert made a comeback as a member of the newly formed New York Titans, who became the New York Jets three years later. Don Walsh remembers a photo in the New York Daily News of the Titans’ coach, Sammy Baugh, with his arm around Wegert at the team’s training camp in Peekskill, N.Y.

Wegert played six games for the Titans, picking up 124 yards on 31 carries (4.0 yards per carry) — and then he was released by the team.

“When he played for the Titans, he was the leading ground gainer and he got cut,” said Don Walsh, who saw Wegert score his only touchdown for the Titans in a game against the Denver Broncos at the Polo Grounds. “Can you tell me how that happened? Nobody knows.”

That was the beginning of the end in a tumultuous year for Wegert, the first in a series of signings and releases. He played four games for the Broncos and two games for the Buffalo Bills, and that was it. His playing career was over.

In his three pro seasons, Wegert totaled 408 yards on 109 carries (3.7 average) and scored four touchdowns.

The New York Giants didn’t show an interest in Wegert. So, when the Green Bay Packers beat the Giants in the 1961 championship game, probably no Riverheader took more joy in that result than Wegert’s father. “He wasn’t going to root for the Giants after they didn’t give their kid a chance,” said Don Walsh.

Don Walsh said Wegert told him he went as far as he could on the talent God gave him. But Walsh wonders if he could have gone further, saying, “He wouldn’t train.”

An interesting side note: Wegert wore a different number for each of the football teams he played for. He was No. 5 for the Blue Waves, No. 46 for the Eagles, No. 20 for the Titans, No. 40 for the Broncos and No. 33 for the Bills.

At some point, though, Wegert took a special liking to No. 33. “He always said to me, ‘Thirty-three, great number, great number,’ ” said Don Walsh.

And there is No. 33, sitting on the far left of the front row in the Bills’ 1960 team picture. Wegert was 28 years old at the time, but with his boyish face, he looks as if he could have still been in high school.

Wegert’s father was one of the first Rheingold Beer drivers in Riverhead. After football, Wegert returned to Riverhead and worked for Rheingold as well.

Don Walsh spent three summers working for Rheingold. He remembers as an 18-year-old asking Wegert questions about his pro football career.

“I used to ask Ted [questions] all the time,” Don Walsh said. “He would say, ‘Why do you want to know all that crap?’

“When you’re 18, you start to see who has the warts and who doesn’t. He was abrupt. He was not beyond chewing my [butt] when I screwed up.”

Fran Walsh said Wegert was with Rheingold Beer until the end. The business shut down in 1976.

Wegert then spent some time in Florida, working in a liquor store as a salesman. He would come back to New York for the football season to watch the Jets play. He had Jets season tickets and went to games with a small group. After the football season, he would head south again.

Fran Walsh was a golfing buddy and among the group who joined Wegert at Jets games.

“He loved going to the Jets games,” Fran Walsh said. “When we were sitting, there was not much talking going on. He was paying attention.”

Don Walsh remembers a time while he was attending a business school in Boston in the fall of 1965 when he ran into some Jets players at a hotel. Joe Namath, the Jets’ star quarterback, walked in with his entourage. Walsh was talking to Don Maynard, the Jets’ outstanding wide receiver. When Walsh mentioned Ted Wegert’s name, it caused a stir.

“Maynard looked at me and his eyes lit up,” Walsh said. “He told me, ‘You mean to tell me you know old Ted?’ ”

Maynard relayed the information to Namath. Then, Walsh said, Namath yelled out to another Jets player, linebacker Larry Grantham, telling him that Walsh knew Wegert.

“Namath was just shaking his head like, I’m glad he’s still alive,” Walsh said. “It was almost surreal.”

As the years went by, some people lost touch with Wegert. Then, one winter day in 1986, Fran Walsh, who said he did not read the obituaries regularly, just happened to turn to the obituary page in the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune and found a long obituary for Wegert, who was buried at Calverton National Cemetery. Fran Walsh, who is now retired and living in Sarasota, said: “He was fun to be around. I really enjoyed his company. I miss him greatly.”

The galloping ghost is gone, but his memory lives on.

“I don’t think anybody was in the class of Ted Wegert,” Don Walsh said. “He was the greatest.”

bliepa@timesreview.com

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