Denfeld News

Dec. 27, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Former Denfeld football star Wally Smith dies
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 disease.

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.

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