Soft Hands, Gentle Soul
Glory comes in the black and white images of warriors from another era, action frozen in time: jerseys torn, faces exposed, bodies in limited padding, piles of men fighting for that extra yard. Art Weiner represents the glory of his generation
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Jack Morton
PHOTOS: Hugh Morton
rt Weiner’s body is slowing down, but his mind is still exceedingly sharp. The large, soft hands that caught end-over-end passes better than any other pair in the country now grip the edges of a walker, but the 80-year-old remembers well, and fondly.
“Other coaches thought I was older because of my size, even by the time I was 13 or 14,” laughed Weiner. “I had a very unusual set of experiences in high school, very unusual.”
Weiner was born and raised in Newark, N.J.—aka “The Brick City”—and attended Westside High School. Inspired by Coach Bucky Harris, Weiner enjoyed the fruits of his freshman year, a star receiver for an undefeated Westside team in 1941. Still, his heart wandered, as did those of many after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Weiner wanted off of the playing field and onto the battlefield.
“I desperately wanted to go into the service—the War was everything, and I finally talked my father into signing my papers in early 1942,” said Weiner, now cozy in his Greensboro home of the last 40 years. “My father was reluctant, but he gave in, and there I was at Parris Island at 15 years old, in the Marine Corps.
“I spent the basic amount of time at Parris Island and then went on to Toledo for Quartermaster School,” he continued. “At the time the Marines were expanding, so I volunteered for what was then an ‘overseas’ assignment in Hawaii. They were going to open a new fighter squadron base, and I thought it sounded like an interesting opportunity.”
Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, Hawaii was commissioned in August 1942, home to the 4th Marine Base Defense Aircraft Wing—the other two squadrons were located at Midway and Samoa. Weiner and his mates were charged with setting up the new base “from scratch,” as he described, and the receiver ultimately spent three years at what was, at the time, the farthest West of any American base in the Pacific.
“So many people were coming into Hawaii at that time—eventually the admirals wanted more outlets for recreation,” said Weiner, clearly fond of his time in the Pacific. “As a result, each branch had a football team, and in 1944 we all started playing one another.”
What followed was the reigniting of an already heated rivalry among the four branches of U.S. servicemen in the Pacific. Led by future Tar Heel back Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice, the Navy won the first football title with an undefeated 1944 season, followed by the Marines, Army, and Air Force. Games were played in old Honolulu Stadium, also the site of 7th Army baseball games in 1944 featuring Joe Dimaggio, among others. It was a magical time for American boys stationed where the climate was ideal and the competition legendary.
“Boys were starting to talk about where they were going to wind up after the War, where they’d be going to college,” said Weiner. “A lot of guys there had gone to North Carolina schools before the War, particularly Duke and Carolina. I had a notion to try and go to one of those schools, but I only had two years of high school under my belt.”
“Sometimes, if someone was bleeding, we’d wipe his blood on our faces and jerseys to make ourselves look tough for the photos.”
And that’s where Weiner’s storybook life experiences took him next, to Waipahu High School. Located near Air Station Ewa, Waipahu presented Weiner with an opportunity to finish his high school education by working with Philipino, Hawaiian, and Chinese students learning English. After three years of part-time work at the school, Weiner was given his deeply-treasured high school diploma, a key to a college education and a football scholarship.
“Roy Armstrong was the Admissions Director at Carolina at the time, and he was very lenient with servicemen,” Weiner chuckled. “So there I was, 19 years old, discharged, and a freshman at UNC in 1946.
“With all the boys coming back from the War at practically the same time, teams were 10 deep at each position, so the competition was tough,” he continued. “UNC had exploded in size and it was tough just to find a place to sleep, let alone playing time on the field.”
Weiner spent his freshman year of 1946-47 in the basement of then-baseball venue Emerson Stadium, “much like bunk beds in a warehouse,” by his recollection. The 6-3 receiver was teamed with friend Charlie Justice as a freshman, in what would become one of the University’s most legendary duos.
“Everyone had been after Charlie, but the big-time coaches thought he was too small,” said Weiner of Justice, who died in 2003. “I never understood that, considering he was All-Service for three years.”
The big receiver’s collegiate career began with a bang—he caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Justice on his very first play in the season’s opening game versus Virginia Tech. Weiner’s playing time was limited as a freshman, however, and he ended the 8-2-1 campaign with three receptions for 94 yards and three touchdowns. Following a 10-point loss to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Tar Heels aimed for a higher national ranking in 1947.
“My playing time really went up my second season, as a lot of those upperclassmen finished,” said Weiner, who hauled in 20 catches for 396 yards and two scores as a sophomore. “Charlie and I had grown really close by that point, and we made a good team. I had big, soft hands and he was a good passer—we were driven to get better. The two of us would stay an extra 30 minutes after practice each day. He called me ‘Eagle Beak’ and I, naturally, called him ‘Choo-Choo.’”
“No one gave us a chance, but Snavely predicted we’d whoop ‘em.”
One key to Weiner’s success on the football field was coach Carl Snavely’s spread formation on offense—Justice would line up as a receiver on one side, and Weiner, No. 50, would mirror him on the other end.
“Charlie and I would have a ball boy tell us where Hugh Morton and the other photographers were on the sidelines,” Weiner laughed. “We wanted our photos to be taken throwing stiff arms. Sometimes, if someone was bleeding, we’d wipe his blood on our faces and jerseys to make ourselves look tough for the photos.”
With both receivers warranting double-teams, that left seven defenders to cover the rest of the Tar Heel offense. Backs Hosea Rogers and Walt Pupa threw the ball well, according to Weiner, and by his junior season the Heels were ready for their biggest contest to date.
“In 1947 we went to Austin and got it handed to us,” said Weiner of the 34-0 loss to Texas in October of that year. “Bobby Layne just killed us. But in ’48 we opened the year with Texas at home, and it was one against two [in the rankings].
“No one gave us a chance, but Snavely predicted we’d whoop ‘em,” continued Weiner. “All these Texans had come up to Chapel Hill and taken all the hotel rooms—sure enough, we beat ‘em 34-7 in a packed stadium, and I scored on our first play when Charlie threw me a wide pass. We were No. 1 for a large part of that season and our only setback was a tie to William & Mary.”
The ’48 Tar Heels would ultimately lose, 14-6, to Oklahoma in front of 85,000 fans in the Sugar Bowl (then played at Tulane Stadium), a Sooner team in only its second season under coaching legend Bud Wilkinson. Ironically, quarterback Darrell Royal, then a senior for the Sooners, threw a 49-yard touchdown pass against the Heels—Royal is, to this day, a mentor to former UNC coach, and current Texas head man, Mack Brown.
At the time, a college all-star team would face the NFL champions in an exhibition game each season, an arrangement difficult to fathom this day in age. After the Sugar Bowl the college all-stars, including Weiner and Justice, defeated Steve Van Buren and the NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles, 17-7, and Justice was named MVP.
Weiner’s 31 catches for 481 yards and six touchdowns ranked seventh nationally as a junior, but his senior season made him a legend. Big No. 50 led the nation with 52 receptions for 762 yards and seven scores, during a season that would see the Tar Heels finish 7-4 and lose to Rice in the Cotton Bowl. Weiner would later be named MVP of the Senior Bowl and finish his Carolina career with 106 receptions, currently ninth-most in school history. He held the UNC record with 18 touchdown receptions until 1997, when he was eclipsed by Octavus Barnes (he still remains 2nd). Weiner’s 1,733 career receiving yards place him 8th in school history, and he is tied for 7th in Tar Heel lore with 52 receptions in one season. His 762 yards receiving as a senior remains the 8th-best season in school history, and he is 10th in Tar Heel history with 106 career receptions.
Weiner and Justice
Weiner played one season for the New York Yanks, lacing up for the home games at venerable Yankee Stadium during the 1950 season. The receiver caught passes from former Notre Dame signal caller George Ratterman, claiming his passes to be the “first time in my life I actually caught a perfect spiral.” Already married to his beloved wife ‘Boots,’ whom he met while a student in Chapel Hill, Weiner returned to the school for a Master’s degree in Education and Business. After one year coaching football in Kings Mountain, Weiner and family ultimately settled in Greensboro, where they’ve lived for over 40 years. Weiner spent 25 years working for Burlington Industries, serving as Vice President of Administration where he oversaw personnel, engineering, and transportation for the company. In the early 1990s, while on vacation in Florida, Weiner received a call from North Carolina area broadcaster Mike Hogewood, a call he’ll not soon forget.
“Mike called to tell me that I’d been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and I was just praying it wasn’t a joke,” laughed Weiner, father of two, grandfather of eight, and great-grandfather of one. “It was like a dream, going to the ceremony and seeing folks like Doak Walker—I was truly humbled.”
Art Weiner is one of the greats, a Carolina gem of success and humility, perfectly balanced. He described his time in Chapel Hill as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and claimed that “all the best things that ever happened to me happened in North Carolina.” A genuine symbol of the Greatest Generation, Weiner served his country at the tender age of 15, legend enough. His legacy was increased on the football field, where he is regarded as one of the finest receivers ever to play college football. He has been married to his sweetheart for 59 years, and proudly boasts a slew of grandchildren. Though slowed by time, his hands and heart are as soft as they are sturdy, and his likeness will shine forever in the College Football Hall of Fame, reminding all comers of a glorious era in American history.
Jack Morton (email@example.com), an Inside Carolina Magazine contributor since 2003, is a Senior Communications Specialist in Raleigh and is following in his grandfather Hugh’s footsteps as a photographer of Tar Heel sports.