Athletic Hall of Honor Inductee: Wendell Byler
For University of Corpus Christi Tarpon Wendell Byler, one of the biggest surprises of his life came when he was told he would be inducted to the Texas A&M – Corpus Christi Athletic Hall of Honor this year.
But the shocking moment for Byler almost never happened. It was 1949 and he called Will Walls, the athletic director at UCC, to ask about a football scholarship.
Byler and his father set out for Corpus Christi in an old pickup truck that he estimated needed about a quart of oil every hundred miles. They were coming so that Wendell could work out with the team in hopes that the coach would offer him a scholarship.
The Tarpons played Trinity on Saturday and the workout with the team was on Monday. Byler tried out for passing, kicking and then what he called a "head-knocking game." After nearly two hours, an all-state center from Donna walked off the field because he couldn't take anymore, and Wendell pondered going with him.
"I knew I was out of shape physically, but I was determined to stick with it," said Byler. "My folks were farmers, and my dad had told me before, 'I hope you can get a scholarship, son,' so I gritted my teeth and stuck with it."
"We were balls of mud after the workout; all you could see were the whites of our eyes."
What Byler did not know was that UCC had lost to Trinity on Saturday, a game they should have won. The coach pushed his team especially hard that day, with Byler being an unfortunate participant of the grueling workout.
"I'd never been to a workout like that in my life," said Byler. "The mosquitoes were as big as dump trucks and the humidity was terrible."
Following the long practice, a manager came over and told Wendell that the head coach wanted to see him. He offered the teenager a full scholarship, room and board, and some money for laundry during the semester. Before accepting the offer, Byler would have to speak with his dad.
"As tired as I was, I just wanted to go home," said Byler. "And I wanted my dad to say let's just go home, but he said to take the coach up on the offer.
"Dad made the right decision for me to accept the offer."
As soon as Wendell stepped on campus, he helped make an impact for Tarpon Athletics.
"In 1950, the Annual was dedicated to the basketball team that went 25-1 that year," recalled Byler. "I remember somebody sent me a picture from the Corpus Christi Times from Jan. 28, 1966, with a 1950 team picture titled 'Once Upon a Time.'
"That 1950 basketball team should be cloned," Byler said with a laugh. "I remember playing against Oklahoma City University and it was the biggest crowd I ever saw in my life for a UCC basketball game. There were people hanging out of the windows that night.
"We won that game 25-23 by stalling once we got ahead."
But Byler was not just a two-sport star like is more common these days. Perhaps his best sport of all was baseball, where professional teams showed interest in the talented athlete.
"Baseball just came natural to me, the coaches didn't really teach me anything," said Byler.
In 1951, he hit 13 home runs and had a .436 batting average, which caught the attention of the Chicago White Sox.
"They were really interested in me, but football was my No. 1 sport," said Byler. "They were offering a standard $5,000 signing bonus, which was a lot of money back then, but I had a little age on me, so I knew it would be hard for me to go.
"There were two different places you could be sent, so I told them if they sent me to the one in west Texas I could go, but they said they couldn't guarantee where they would send me. I knew I could always go to the Army later, so I decided to stay."
What followed was a 1952 season where he was named co-captain of the team at the beginning of the year, and the MVP at the conclusion.
All that culminated this year in his 2012 induction into the Hall of Honor. When he got the call from Islanders Associate Athletics Director Arthur Haas to notify him, he was, to say the least, surprised.
"When he called, I couldn't talk for I don't know how long," recalled Byler. "It floored me, it shocked me; I really just couldn't believe it. Some of the other inductees were teammates of mine back from 1949-1952. I already knew some of the people inducted, so it was really a privilege and an honor.
"It makes me happy to be linked to those past inductees. I think it choked me up all over, and I felt great about it."
When Byler returns to the campus tonight, it will be an almost foreign experience for him. When he was here, it was University of Corpus Christi, but it has since been Texas A&I, Corpus Christi State University and is now Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi.
"Of all the transitions the school went through, the one that really killed me was Texas A&I because we were opponents," said Byler. "I didn't mind change much, but they were opposing competition."
But he has since moved on from that and says it will take some getting used to the new mascot and the changed campus.
"I'm going to have to get used to changing from Tarpons to Islanders," laughed Byler. "I am just now getting over my weaning stage. The school has also changed a lot, so I probably won't recognize the campus."
With his induction coming tonight, Byler recalled some of the other greats in the group that he will now be a part of.
"It feels great to be hanging out with Jerry VanderGriff," said Byler. "I am honored to be in there with him."
One of Byler's more memorable moments with O.B. Garcia was when Garcia was just a freshman and Byler was a senior.
"When we played Texas Lutheran, it was a close game that had gone back and forth most of the night," said Byler. "Late in the game, we were up by two and got the ball back, so our coach wanted us to stall the ball out to help run off some time.
"I'll never forget, he was bringing the ball down and as soon as he crossed midcourt, he fired up a two-handed shot. I yelled for him not to shoot it, but it went in, hitting nothing but net, so it ended up working out. I was worried about him shooting the ball and he made a big shot."
Of his nominator, Byler says Dr. George Kemp likes people to call him Dr., but he just calls him George.
And he is also a big fan of Howard Townsend, one of the biggest supporters of Islanders athletics.
"If we were going to call someone Mr. Islander, that would be the guy," said Byler. "In fact, I think I'm going to nickname him Mr. Islander."
Byler recalled having a science class with Townsend that turned out to be one of the biggest points in his time here at the University.
After a weeklong road trip, Byler returned to class after missing all three sessions of the class the week before. That Monday, the professor asked Wendell to remain after class to discuss the course.
"I was thinking to myself, 'oh my goodness, what have I done?'" said Byler. "I started trembling in my shoes.
"After everybody left, he told me to come up to the front and have a seat."
That is when the professor asked Byler if he liked that class or basketball better, and how many more weeklong road trips the team was going to take.
"I said 'oh, this class, sir' when he asked me that," Byler laughed. "I also told the opposite to my coach when he asked me the same question.
"I told the professor that it would be the last one like that, and he said it was a good thing, because I couldn't stand another week like that. He said I really couldn't afford the first one. That deflated me because I knew a C-student like me would have a tough time making it up, but I told him I was wiling to burn the midnight oil or write a book, whatever I had to do so I could raise the grade."
Byler made it through and graduated with a degree in education, learning the value of hard work and a college education. After his time at the University, he spent time in the Army and the Texas Department of Health before going into business with his family.
But he never forgot his time on the Island, even if he never expected to be honored for his athletic achievements.
"When I got the call, I felt like that Billy Ray Cyrus song when he says 'This achy, breaky heart is about to explode.'
"I don't believe there is one inductee in the past that was more shocked or surprised as me. I was so happy."