Dec. 27, 2008
Former Denfeld football star Wally Smith
By Kevin Pates
Wally Smith’s football exploits still had
vitality a half-century after producing spectacular statistics at
Duluth Denfeld High School.
When home for his 50th reunion in 1993, the former
halfback was stopped by a present-day halfback asking for pointers.
Scoring 23 touchdowns in eight games in 1942 made Smith a high school
All-American and a legend.
Smith died Thursday in Diamondhead, Miss., the
result of stomach cancer. He was 85.
“Wally had a long and happy life, and so
much of it revolved around Denfeld athletics,” his widow,
the former Shirley Stengelsen, said Friday.
Smith wasted little time making a name for himself
after being promoted to coach Walt Hunting’s Denfeld varsity
as a freshman in 1939. He scored a touchdown that fall to beat Duluth
Central 7-0. In his first three years he scored a combined 25 touchdowns.
In a remarkable unbeaten senior season, he set a Minnesota high
school record with 141 points at 5-foot-9½ and 180 pounds.
He was hailed at the time as the best high school
running back to have come out of Duluth.
“Every Saturday in the fall, there were
headlines in the Duluth newspaper saying ‘Smith Gets Loose,
Again,’ ” said Bob Smith, 86, of Duluth, a cousin. “He
was such a strong, fast runner.”
Wally Smith was invited to try out for the University
of Minnesota football team, but first enlisted in the U.S. Marines
and was among the assault troops on Tarawa, a South Pacific atoll,
on Nov. 19, 1943, in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
He was the only survivor among 24 in an amphibious tank as the Marines
suffered 3,110 dead and wounded.
Smith was awarded a Purple Heart and a Presidential
citation, and was hospitalized for 10 months with left hand and
shoulder injuries. He went through nine operations at a U.S. Naval
hospital in San Diego before returning to Duluth. He was married
in 1945 and tried out with the Gophers that fall with coach Bernie
Bierman, but because of his injuries, was unable to securely carry
the ball, said Shirley Smith, ending his career. He graduated from
Minnesota in 1948.
Smith, an avid golfer, coached high school football
for three years in Faulkton, S.D., then operated two liquor stores
in the Middleton, Wis., area before retiring to Diamondhead, 25
miles from Biloxi, in 1988.
Cancer was diagnosed in July and Smith recently
was moved to a hospice facility. He also suffered from Alzheimer’s
Smith will be buried at the Biloxi National Cemetery
with a ceremony date still to be determined.
Smith is survived by his
wife of 63 years, Shirley, and daughters, Nancy, of Middleton, Wis.,
and Sharon, of Wilmington, N.C.