Recently, a good friend of mine in Lubbock, Tai Kreidler, emailed me a story published in the Kerrville newspaper, and his message simply read, “Looks like we just lost a great running back.” Beneath his brief but thought-provoking statement appeared words of remembrance of a man who had lived in the Texas Hill Country for some years after retiring from the oil industry out in Odessa. While I immediately recognized his name and knew a little bit about him, my reading of a few lines about his life revealed much more than I expected. After ninety-five years of perpetual motion, to paraphrase the great Jimmy Buffett, Mr. Fred Wendt’s journey through this mortal coil ended on May 18, almost a month back from this moment as I try to make some sense of my thoughts about a man I never met. Fred Wendt, you see, has long been on my radar to learn more about the great things he did in the fall and winter of 1948 on football fields in El Paso, Texas, and elsewhere.
In the weeks leading up to the opening of the 1948 college football season, while coaches were evaluating the talent of their respective squads and sportswriters prognosticated on the season’s ultimate, possible outcomes, scribes in the Southwest regarded Arizona, Hardin-Simmons, and Texas Tech as the leading contenders for Border Conference honors; as for the Southwest Conference, Southern Methodist, Texas, and Texas Christian were widely considered the favorites to claim the league crown, while similar aspirations were pinned on North Texas State and Trinity University in San Antonio for the Lone Star Conference laurels. On a more extensive level, Paul B. Williamson, the nationally syndicated sports information writer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, named Georgia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, Army, Columbia, California, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Missouri, in that order of one to ten, for national gridiron honors. Within the Southwest itself, Jack Durham of the Abilene Reporter-News, stated that Texas Mines, West Texas State, and the University of New Mexico “are all three serious dark horse threats to upset the pall in the Border loop,” with Abe Chanin, writing for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, noted the fans’ sense of hopeful optimism that the Arizona Wildcats would greatly raise their standing in the Border Conference.
Despite all the viewpoints and thoughts, however, one player garnered nearly more attention for himself and his team than anyone else nationwide. Doak Walker was entering his junior year at Southern Methodist, and the Mustangs were coming off a 9-0-2 record in 1947, in which they barely won the Southwest Conference title over the Longhorns. Before their season-opener in 1948 at the University of Pittsburgh, The Saturday Evening Post in its September 15 issue named Walker “Back of the Year” and a surefire All-America player. Another powerful runner was right behind Walker on the roster, sophomore Kyle Rote, and the team’s overall offensive prowess provided ample reason for high hopes on Dallas Hill. As September and early October unfolded, the Mustangs defeated both the Pitt Panthers and Texas Tech rather handily before dropping a close game in Columbia against the Missouri Tigers. Walker and Rote churned up plenty of yards to be sure, but out west in El Paso, the Ore Diggers were demonstrating on the gridiron that the Texas College of Mines also featured two talented backs in Fred Wendt and Pug Gabrel. Undoubtedly, the Miners’ one-two running combination was making Coach Jack Curtice’s life much easier on the sidelines, as the orange-and-white in West Texas notched five consecutive victories to open the season, including two conference wins.
To the delight of Miner fans, Flying Fred Wendt, as the press quickly dubbed him, shot out of the gate in the season opener at Fly Field in Odessa, when the Miners and the McMurry Indians played on a neutral field. After the game, Coach Wilford Moore of the Abilene school had probably seen enough of Wendt to hold him over for a long, long time because Flying Fred, like the famed, and yet fabled, pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, he announced his presence with authority, rushing for three touchdowns, two of which were for 56 yards and 58 yards, respectively. Following the Miners’ next game, a 35-7 win over Houston, Wendt ranked among the best rushers in the nation with 367 yards. He tailed off a little bit against the stout defense of West Texas State with an 81-yard rushing performance, but he regained his form against Brigham Young University and the University of New Mexico. Against the former, Wendt rushed for 180 yards and four touchdowns, but against the Lobos he flew for 204 yards and a scoring run. A showdown loomed between Coach Warren Woodson’s Hardin-Simmons squad and the Miners on Kidd Field in El Paso for an early decisive game in the Border Conference. Nearly 14,000 fans witnessed the Ore Diggers’ homecoming game against the Cowboys, whose team was led by quarterback John Ford and halfback Wilton “Hooks” Davis. Both offenses hummed, and the defenses played reasonably well, but neither team scored a decisive punch, resulting in a true sister-kisser, 27-27, that helped neither team in the conference standings. In comparison, on that same penultimate day in October, the SMU Mustangs ran roughshod over the Longhorns in Austin, earning a 21-6 victory with Doak Walker as the standout player of the game. One sportswriter noted, “It took him less than two minutes to convince 68,750 roaring fans that he is one of the great—perhaps the greatest—players of all time in the Southwest.”
Even as Walker was leading the publicity parade across the nation, Wendt’s name was seldom unmentioned for the accomplishments in his own right. Indeed, through six games, Wendt had rushed the ball exactly one hundred times for 929 yards; his closest competitor, Jackie Jensen of the University of California, trailed him by 243 yards, despite having played in seven games. Wendt’s teammate, Pug Gabrel, was holding his own as well, standing at seventeenth place nationally at the end of October with 472 rushing yards, and their combined 1,401 yards set the standard for the country. But on the opening Saturday of November, the Miners faced another tough opponent when they traveled to Lubbock to play the Red Raiders. Several days before the game, Joe Kelly, sports editor of the Lubbock Evening Journal, wrote glowingly of Wendt and reminded his readers of the talented fullback’s Lubbock roots. In 1937, Wendt attended Lubbock Junior High School, and as a member of the football team, he made a name for himself playing alongside such teammates as Roland “Tuffy” Nabors, Max Walthall, and J. A. Blackwell. He never played for the Lubbock High Westerners, however, as his family moved to El Paso, where he honed his talents in the classroom and on the gridiron. Upon graduation, Wendt opted to remain close to home, enrolling in the Texas College of Mines, and in the fall of 1942 he played for the Miners under Coach Walter Milner. As with so many young men, his collegiate career was paused for three years while he served in the Pacific Theatre during the war. Upon returning stateside, Wendt declined an offer to attend the United States Military Academy; rather, he returned to El Paso and resumed his studies at the College of Mines. In the seasons of 1946 and 1947, Wendt’s primary role on the team was kicking; he could punt and kick extra points with skill, but he also showed a glimmer of talent running the ball, so when his senior season arrived, Coach Curtice decided to insert him into the starting lineup as a fullback – and did he make the most of the opportunity! With interest in the game building on the South Plains, Coach Dell Morgan game-planned with two objectives: Stop Wendt, and stop Gabrel. Despite the seeming simplicity of the goal, the execution would be the litmus test, and the Tech defense rose to the occasion. Wendt indeed had a rough afternoon at Jones Stadium; his twenty-one rushes netted a paltry forty-four yards, as Tech won 46-6 en route to winning the Border Conference title.
Wendt seemed to take his lackluster performance against Tech in stride, though. The following week in Tucson, the Miners defeated the Wildcats 25-14, with Flying Fred contributing to his team’s success. And then arrived the glorious, or bitterly infamous, Thanksgiving Day game in El Paso against archrival New Mexico A&M. In an admittedly drastic understatement, the Aggies under Coach Vaughn Corley were set to conclude a highly anti-heroic season marked with too many defeats, a punchless, lackluster offense, and an inefficient, Maginot Line defense. In a decidedly one-sided affair, the Miners eked out a narrow 92-7 victory over the hapless Aggies. Several individual and team scoring records were set with the win, including most individual rushing yards in a single game (Wendt, 326), most individual points scored (Wendt, 42), most yards rushing and passing by a team (717), most team rushing yards (645), and most points scored by a team (92) – all single-game records set by the Texas College of Mines against New Mexico A&M to lead the nation in those categories for the 1948 season. Three hundred twenty-six rushing yards in one game! Wendt’s twenty-five rushing attempts yielded just a bit over thirteen yards per carry, and combined with his six touchdowns and booting through six extra points, ol’ Flying Fred enjoyed one of the most productive offensive games in the history of college football.
Going into the Aggie game, the Miners still had an early December date with the University of Hawai’i to conclude their regular season. But on November 20, many teams across the country played their season finales, including the only undefeated and untied team in Texas, the Lobos of Sul Ross State College in Alpine. For a little college in the Trans-Pecos, the Lobos made some big noise in 1948, winning ten games and claiming the championship of the New Mexico Conference. Led by Ted Scown, a 160-pound halfback, the Lobos’ fleet-footed rusher scored twenty-four touchdowns to lead the nation in scoring with 144 points through November 20. His lead lasted all of five days before Wendt ran wild against the Aggies. Wendt’s college career ended first on a high note against Hawai’i and then on a lower note in a loss to West Virginia in the Sun Bowl game on New Year’s Day. Shortly after the Miners’ 21-12 loss in the bowl game, Wendt signed a contract to play professional football with the Chicago Cardinals, making him ineligible to participate in the track and field events that he had excelled in for the Miners. And with the ink on the contract, Fred Wendt’s amateur athletic career drew to a close.
Mark Twain’s observation about “lies, damn lies, and statistics” is perfectly applicable in the case of Wendt’s on-field accomplishments in 1948. His individual statistics indisputably cast him as one of the game’s outstanding performers that year; his 1,570 rushing yards for the season set a standard that remained unbroken until 1968, when O. J. Simpson rushed for 1,709 yards for the University of Southern California Trojans. While Wendt led the nation in rushing in 1948 and was joined in the top ten rushers by Wilton “Hooks” Davis who finished the season fifth, SMU’s great back did not appear on that list. Doak Walker probably didn’t worry about it too much, though, because the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City named him the recipient of the Heisman Trophy. When the all-conference teams were named for the Border Conference and the Southwest Conference, Walker was the only representative from the Mustangs on the mythical first team, despite SMU’s outstanding season. Even more curious was the outcome of the votes for fullback Fred Wendt. Not only did conference coaches fail to vote him to the first team, he was named to the second team as a halfback – a position he didn’t even play! It stands to reason that his accomplishment as the nation’s and the Border Conference’s leading rusher ought to be recognized as a first-team selection … but the reasoning therein to exclude him may be the crux of the lies and damn lies part of the equation.
In the days since Dr. Kreidler sent me the humane write-up about Fred Wendt, I’ve taken a closer look at the 1948 college football season. Doak Walker fulfilled the expectations placed upon him, etched his name forever in the annals of Southwest Conference football, and later had a trophy named in his honor awarded to the country’s best running back. Dallas was an epicenter of the national spotlight that year, and rightfully so, as Walker’s exploits merited all the attention he brought to Southern Methodist. Doak Walker is and always will be considered one of college football’s most prolific players, and he earned every bit of that acclaim. But Fred Wendt and Ted Scown also earned a bit of the spotlight that year, and for me, the fact that two of the most productive backs in the country in 1948 hailed from two schools in Arid America serves as a reminder that memorable seasons aren’t limited to Los Angeles, South Bend, or Fayetteville – they happen in El Paso and Alpine, too.
So, thank you Mr. Wendt for teaching me something despite our never having met in person. You are a part of the story, the story of college football in Texas and of the Border Conference. And like my maternal grandfather James Ira Jones, thank you for returning home after the war to carry on with living in the name of those who fell on battlefields far from America. May Doris, your wife for more than seventy years, find peace in your memory of a life well lived.
One last point needs to be articulated before drawing this story to a close. There’s one rider that can’t go unmentioned, and that’s a curious connection that pertains to the Dallas Cowboys. That connection links two players in the 1948 season, one in Tempe, Arizona, and the other in Austin, Texas. Wilford “Whizzer” White finished the season ranked seventh nationally in punt returns with an average of 22.1 yards per return, a feat that kept his Sun Devils in a number of games. Over in Austin, the Longhorn in question played a decent season, and although he would soon enjoy a bit of success with the New York Giants in the National Football League, his legacy in professional football was cemented as a head coach. Wilford, who also played professionally, would later see his son Danny follow in his footsteps and play quarterback at Arizona State University in the latter 1970s. And when Danny White entered the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, his head coach was none other than Gentleman Tom Landry, as my paternal grandmother called him, that very Longhorn in question. And about fourteen years ago, I worked with a fellow in Plano, Texas, who grew up in El Paso who was related to, I can’t remember how, I think it was his dad, who stole away Tom Landry’s girlfriend while they were students there at the University of Texas … but that’s a story for another time, y’all.