LA Times Article - Darren Wedertz

The Coach Fired Him Up, the Game Took Him Out
By: Bill Plaschke


Darren and Charlene Wedertz
Darren and Charlene Wedertz

(AL SCHABEN / Los Angeles Times)

Wedertz rehabs
Wedertz rehabs

(AL SCHABEN / Los Angeles Times)


A mother's ringless hands rub her delicate face.

A son scratches his neck, checks his watch, scratches his arm, checks his watch, scratches, checks, scratches, checks.

A mother looks across the room with weary love.

A son smiles back from underneath a partially sunken scalp.

"His father wanted him to play high school football," she says.

"My father," he says.

"I thought it was a dangerous sport," she says.

"Dangerous," he says.

"But those things always happened to someone else, so I said OK," she says.

"Someone else," he says.

"I wish I wouldn't have," she says.

"So do I," he says.


Fall Friday night, anywhere, everywhere.

Teenagers thrust gangly arms through giant paper screens and race onto patches of green that have become the center of America's most curiously colored fabric.

It is high school football, a violent game obscured beneath bright swatches of community, status and religion.

Fall Friday night, an endeavor both fulfilling and frightening.

Somebody wins.

Somebody learns discipline and work ethic.

Somebody loses.

Somebody screams in frustration at a coach who wants him to hurl his young body like a man.

Somebody weeps from the pain of being hit by somebody twice his size.

Sometimes, somebody is broken.

Occasionally, somebody is dead.

Then there are the ones who are a little of both.

The ones we forget.

For them, there is not the closure of a funeral, or the healing of an injury.

For them, the two weeks of flowers and prayers are followed by lifetimes of wheelchairs and braces.

Last season, from among the 1.5 million high school football players, one national survey counted 26 catastrophic injuries.

A low percentage, if you didn't know any of those players.

A stunningly high percentage if you did.

If this were boxing, it would be banned.

But it is fall Friday night, so it is embraced.

Parents hold it close, intoxicated by its power, infatuated with its possibilities.

Parents wrap their most precious jewels in this wondrous fabric without completely comprehending its darker shades.


It started, as in all things football, with a pep talk.

Charlene Wedertz can still hear the pep talk.

It was 1990. She was in a room with other parents of potential freshman football players for Santa Margarita High in Orange County. They listened to Coach Jim Hartigan explain his sport's mission.

"They come in here as boys, and leave as men!" Hartigan barked.

She believed him. Anyone would have believed him.

The daughter and wife of former football players, Charlene was ready to run out of that room and tackle someone.

"I was so inflated by those words," she says.

Eleven years later, she is proof that high school football cannot always keep its promises.

She brought Hartigan a boy, her only son, Darren, a 5-foot-7 scrapper who loved to hit. Eleven years later, he is still a boy.

His brain essentially crushed by a tackle, he is 25, going on 10.

"Like he had a lobotomy," she says.

"It stinks," he says.

Then he smiles. He always smiles.

The injury not only robbed him of some mental acuity, it also took away much of his capacity for sadness or depression.

An ironic consolation prize.

He wakes up happy. He walks through the house singing.

In the nearly nine years since the injury, he says he has cried only once.

"I get him out of bed in the morning and he says, 'How's my beautiful mother?'" Charlene says.

"Isn't she great?" Darren says.

He says it in a raspy voice. A new voice. He squeals when he laughs. A new laugh.

"This is not the son I knew," Charlene says.

He can no longer read, because after one sentence, he has forgotten what he has read.

He can no longer enjoy TV, because he can't comprehend anything longer than a sound bite.

He remembers names, but by lunch he forgets what he had for breakfast.

He is paralyzed on his left side, deaf in his left ear, and has no peripheral vision.

"He'll never be able to live alone," Charlene says.

There was a time--the sweetest of times--when he would run up the steps and clomp into the house just before his midnight curfew, looking for something to eat.

These days, after attending the renowned High Hopes adult head injury program in Tustin, he is so exhausted he falls asleep by 8.

He constantly itches. He is constantly checking his watch or asking someone else for the time.

He used to think of nothing but football. Now he doesn't have the attention span to watch a game.

Even if he could, the injury took away the aggressiveness that made football such fun.

"This is somebody entirely different," Charlene says.

"No more football," Darren says.

Different, from that moment in 1992 when he made a tackle in a junior varsity game.

There was nobody in the bleachers, because there were no bleachers.

There was neither ambulance nor paramedics nearby.

There was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than an organized sandlot scrum.

Still, it was part of the fabric.

So tangled in it, Charlene Wedertz was initially afraid to leave the sidelines to comfort her collapsed son.

"He told me to never go out there," she says.

"I thought it would make me look like a sissy," he says.


Pop Warner, in his four decades as a college coach, was renowned for his finesse and safety. Yet it was in a Pop Warner League that Darren Wedertz learned to knock the snot out of people.

"He wasn't aggressive enough, and it would infuriate his father," his mother says of her ex-husband, Howard Wedertz. "He would stand on the sideline and shout at Darren to hit somebody like he was protecting his little sister."

Howard, a Southland pilot and former high school football player who was divorced from Charlene before the injury, says football was a teaching tool.

"In the big picture, a lot of people get many positives from football," he says. "They learn discipline, camaraderie, perseverance. Darren was being taught these things."

By the time he was a scrawny high school freshman, Darren had been taught something else.

"I wanted to hurt people," he says. "I wanted to make them cry."

By the end of his first season, he was one of the freshman team's best players.

As a running back in his sophomore season, he was the junior varsity's MVP.

Teammates called him "Squiggs," for the way he eluded tacklers.

He believed he was not only playing football, but answering a higher calling.

After all, he played for a Catholic school that decorated its game program with lines from hymns.

As a member of the school choir, he would walk through the house singing those hymns.

"It was about an entire experience," his mother says. "It was incredible."

Looking back, Hartigan, the Santa Margarita coach, agrees.

"Darren was a tough kid, a hard-nosed running back," he recalls. "He was going to be one of our good ones, and we've had some good ones."

Then, at the beginning of his junior season, things began to change.

Wedertz had inexplicably lost a step. He was slower. He wasn't improving.

He remained on the junior varsity squad and became a target for coaches who were concerned that he wasn't giving his best.

Late in the season, he called his mother from school and asked her to meet him at home.

He told her he wanted to quit. He told her he couldn't take the constant scolding, the exertion of playing in two JV games and a varsity game every week.

"He plopped on the bed and said, 'Mom, I've had it,'" recalls his mother. "He said, 'I'm tired of being yelled at.'"

What happened next is the second pep talk that Charlene Wedertz will remember forever.

"I told him, 'You have a responsibility to the team and other players,'" she recalls. "I said, 'You've got to stick out the year.'"

Good words. Teaching words. The same words spoken every day by responsible parents everywhere.

Two days later, she was at his hospital bedside, thinking about those words.

"When he said he wanted to quit, I wish I had just taken him in my arms and gone on a little vacation," she says.

"Me too, Mom," he says.


It's rarely the first hit.

Parents who allow their children to play high school football need to understand that brain injuries rarely occur on the first hit.

Matt Colby of Costa Mesa High, the Southland's latest high school football casualty, died last month after collapsing a few plays into a game--but he had been complaining of headaches after two earlier games.

Darren Wedertz's life changed within an hour after he was hit and complained of a headache.

It was Nov. 6, 1992.

In the second quarter of a JV game against Newport Harbor, Wedertz, playing running back, was tackled hard by several players.

He stepped out of the ensuing huddle.

"Boy, that hurt," he said.

In the third quarter, playing defensive back, he made a tackle.

It was such a big hit, he broke the opponent's collarbone.

"I bet that guy's in a lot of pain because my head's hurting right now too," Darren told a teammate.

The last words of his former life.

With everyone gathered around the injured Newport Harbor player, few noticed that Wedertz had collapsed.

There was no doctor there, no certified trainer.

By the time her son went into convulsions, Charlene Wedertz was at his side, screaming. "Somebody do something!" she said.

It was four months before he completely came out of his coma.

It was one year and one day before he left the hospital.

The long stay was not for the head injury, but to battle leukemia, which was diagnosed six days after he'd entered the hospital. It turns out leukemia was why he had lost his step after his junior season.

At the time, a Santa Margarita official speculated that the leukemia had weakened the blood vessels in Wedertz's head, contributing to the trauma.

Doctors told his mother that was not the case.

Doctors, in fact, told his mother something else entirely.

"The doctor said he looked like had been playing football without a helmet," she recalls. "What does that say for helmets?"


It's an unwritten code woven through the fabric.

A fallen high school football player is instantly a famous player.

But he is eventually only a fallen one.

Nearly nine years ago, there were vigils and prayer services and Santa Margarita kids lining the hospital halls on their knees.

There were benefits and autographs and even a tree planted in Darren's name.

Darren and his mother were embraced by the sorrowing community.

A father bought Charlene a wheelchair-accessible van. Other parents raised money to make accessible changes to her modest Mission Viejo home.

"I can't say enough about the wonderful people here," Charlene says.

But attention wanes. New causes are found. New heroes appear.

This is the first newspaper story on Wedertz in nearly seven years.

Wedertz, who has long since beaten the leukemia, is still visited occasionally by old friends.

"His positive attitude is amazing," says Scott McIntosh, a former teammate and now a Santa Margarita teacher and coach.

Darren spends most of his time with his family--his grandmother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, a niece and a nephew. He will have plastic surgery to level his scalp, but little else in his life is expected to change.

His father's views, however, have also not changed.

Like many, he believes high school football's positives overwhelm its negatives.

"I would not be afraid to let a kid play football," he says. "It does so much for kids. And he could have suffered the same injury if he fell backward off a chair."

His mother, a petite but strong woman, agreed to tell this story for a different reason.

"I just want parents to know, some football helmets do not protect the brain, and they should not get a false sense of security," she says. "I just want parents to open their eyes and check things out before letting their sons play high school football."


He asks my full name. He does not forget it. During two days of interviews, Darren Wedertz repeatedly shakes my hand and sometimes asks questions I have answered only moments earlier.

But he always addresses me by my full name.

As I am leaving High Hopes after the last interview, he rests his hand on my shoulder.

"William Paul, you have a son?" he asks.

"Yes," I say.

"William Paul, has he asked you to play football yet?" he says.

"No," I say.

"You know what you tell him, William Paul?" he asks.

"What?" I say.

He tightens his grip, narrows his eyes, concentrates.

"You tell him the story of a 16-year-old boy who made a tackle," he says.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.