A spirited conversation recently occurred between several former sterling Red Wing athletes, all of whom played two — if not three — sports in high school during the 1950s and 1960s at the old Veterans Field.
In those days, the terrain had not just pebbles, but metal shards that could easily result in a visit to Dr. Yacaullo’s office or the St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room. The conditions of the playing field were only slightly better than the 15th Street sewage plant, where many pre-practices were held, and where one might develop an orange glow due to the toxic particles flowing between passes.
Not to mention, their playing equipment may have only been the equivalent of a walled cardboard box with heavy diaper pads for football, and plastic earmuffs as practice headgear for baseball. But it worked. These conditions were not the result of negligence, but were about context and time.
Veterans Field was an equal opportunity hurter; yet, even though the facility vastly improved over time, playing two or three sports in high school presented obstacles when it came to also hitting the books and maintaining grades. Teenage bodies have an impressive ability to absorb contact, push through pain, and move on to the next thing. The young athletes would retreat home from their familiar field to face the next strenuous responsibility: schoolwork. First they’d ice down the bruises, hot shower the deep purple, then dig deep to awaken their brains and tackle their school work – perhaps Mr. Winslow’s Spanish, or Ms. Marnell’s English.
How did these athletes manage to keep their studies in perspective?
A first-rate athlete and scholar
One example of a stellar student who excelled in both academics and athletics was John Wendelken. A member of the Demarest High School graduating class of 1961, John was in a class of his own and probably had no equal in Hoboken, Hudson County, or perhaps even the state of New Jersey.
John began his journey at Brandt Elementary School, where he was scouted by the premiere Catholic School in the area, St. Peter’s Prep. Deeply influenced by basketball coach Frank Chiocco, John chose to remain in Hoboken and play basketball at Demarest High School in the band box gym and baseball at Veterans Field with Coach Vecchio.
John earned recognition as a three-time All-Hudson County basketball and baseball player, achieving First Team All State in both sports. Indeed, a sporting accomplishment for any city and county, what was more notable was John’s ability to balance his hours in the tiny basketball court and on the unforgiving Veterans Field with what was being asked of him in the classroom. Wendelken somehow figured out how to not just balance two sports with Beowulf and Beckett; he went above and beyond and demonstrated greatness in both, graduating as valedictorian of a class that exceeded 200 students.
John was chased by some of the most prestigious colleges and universities, including Harvard, Brown, Duke, Fordham, and the Naval Academy. He accepted a four-year scholarship at Holy Cross and graduated magna cum laude with a 3.9 GPA in 1965. Wendelken excelled in both baseball and basketball and was ultimately inducted into both the Holy Cross and All New England Sports Hall of Fame for both sports. He is also a charter member of both the Hoboken and Hudson County Hall of Fame.
John Wendelken’s leading trait? Humility. Perhaps this is what kept him grounded and determined. Whether in the classroom, or on the field or court, John always had a sense of place. In subsequent years, Wendelken’s course took him to Palisades High School, where he put the bachelor’s and master’s degrees he earned from Holy Cross to good use, eventually assuming the role of social studies department head as well as basketball coach. He later served as an assistant to his wife, “Montclair Maureen,” who was a long-time boys’ basketball coach at Hoboken High School.
The lady was a trailblazer
Maureen Wendelken (née McLaughlin) was a trailblazer and a visionary coach at Montclair State University during the infancy stage of women’s college basketball. Winning 70 percent of her games from 1975-1983, she shocked the college basketball world as she led her Red Hawks to the NCAA Final Four in 1978.
Maureen was a talented force who broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for others to follow, an achievement perhaps even more impressive than her number of wins in the books. Like her husband John, Maureen distinguished herself from the rest of the pack, demonstrating greatness and producing amazing results. It makes sense that these two gravitated toward each other.
Inducted into the Hoboken and Hudson County High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Montclair State N.J.S.I.A.A Sports Hall of Fame, Maureen’s achievements should earn her a place in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. Only time will tell.
This significant pair has left a meaningful mark on the contour of Hoboken, Hudson County, and the sport of basketball — both boys’ and women’s, high school and college. They have earned the right to lift high the Red Wing banner and will no doubt continue to find ways to have a positive impact on their community and to inspire others.