As a student, Stan Najeway frequently hitchhiked from Wake Forest University to his home in Pennsylvania. But only once did his classmate and fellow passenger Arnold Palmer get dropped off at the Latrobe police station.
A four-year Wake Forest starter who went on to play basketball for the Goodyear Wingfoots, Najeway ate at the training table with golf legend Palmer for four years. Twice during their college days, Najeway and Palmer bummed a ride together.
An Akron resident and the former owner of Akron Parcel Delivery company, Najeway is 94 years old, but he remembers every detail of his most memorable trip with the seven-time major champion.
Picked up in Wake Forest, N.C., by a couple returning to New York from Florida, Najeway said they were dropped off in Washington, D.C., then took a bus to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Hitchhiking again, they rode with two men headed for Najeway’s hometown of Arnold, Pa. Palmer said he could get home from there, but the men insisted on dropping Palmer off in Latrobe. By the time they arrived, it was 2 a.m.
“Palmer said, 'Take me to the police station,’ ” Najeway recently recalled during a lunch gathering at Spaghetti Warehouse. “The guy said, ‘Why, are you in trouble?’ and Arnold said, ‘No, all the policemen play golf at my father’s golf course. I’ll crawl into one of the bunks and sleep. Call my mother at 8 o’clock and she’ll come take me home.’ ”
After Palmer and Najeway left college, they reconnected when Palmer competed at Firestone Country Club, spying Najeway among the gallery and bringing playing partners Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus over to say hello.
The late Palmer became a golf icon, but Najeway (pronounced nay-way) went on to be selected for three sports halls of fame — Wake Forest, Summit County and Allegheny. For the latter, Najeway said Palmer sent a four-figure check in his honor.
As the Goodyear Wingfoots celebrate their 100th anniversary, highlighted by Hall of Famer Larry Brown’s speech at Friday night’s reunion banquet at the Hilton Garden Inn, they will chat about the elite athletes they played with and competed against. Goodyear began sponsoring the team in 1918 to test the rubber on athletic shoes, but the Wingfoots became a force in the National Industrial Basketball League, a forerunner of the American Basketball Association and the NBA.
Playing through the 1970 season, the Wingfoots won AAU championships in 1964 and 1967. Brown led the ’64 team, and Indiana basketball Hall of Famer Mike McCoy was a member of both.
A list of 275 former players from 113 colleges includes five Olympians (Brown, Dick Davies and Pete McCaffrey, 1964; and Jim King and Calvin Fowler, 1968) and two Olympic alternates (Charlie Slack, tabbed with the late John Havlicek in 1960, and Tom Black, 1968). Going back to 1947, 66 Wingfoots were drafted by the pros, 18 by the NBA. Eight (Black, Bob Cluggish, Johnny Cox, Jimmy Darrow, Jay Miller, Chuck Noble, Adrian Smith and Charley Shipp) competed in the NBA, and Brown went on to stardom in the ABA.
Even those who didn’t go on to professional success compiled impressive sports resumes.
Former Wingfoot Pete Cunningham, of Lansing, Mich., is a Chicago Public League legend, scoring 90 points for Carver High School on Feb. 18, 1959. Cunningham played briefly at Carver with its most famous alumnus, Cazzie Russell. Cunningham won an NAIA championship in 1965 at Central State University, which finished 33-0.
Slack, 88, of Tallmadge, still owns the NCAA single-season rebounding record of 25.6 per game for Marshall University in 1954-55. Drafted by the Detroit Pistons, Slack chose to play for the Wingfoots, once scoring 42 points with 35 rebounds in a game. Working for Goodyear for 35 years, Slack was already honored by Marshall and Summit County and will be inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame this month.
Randy Berentz, 76, of Green, is a member of four halls of fame — Summit County, the University of Akron, Barberton and the National AAU Basketball League. Still officiating and assigning referees for varsity basketball and volleyball, Berentz said he is working on his fifth — the Ohio High School Athletic Association officials Hall of Fame.
Making the team
John Jamerson, 75, of Stow, played at Fairmont State (W.Va.) and was the MVP of the 32-team NAIA tournament, which earned him a trip to the 1968 Olympic Trials. When he wasn’t selected, he tried out for the Wingfoots, making the team the same way he earned a college scholarship.
“Shot around, thank heaven that’s all I had to do. That’s how I got in college,” said Jamerson, who later became coach at Field High School. “The [Fairmont] coach couldn’t find the lights to the gym, so I’m shooting in the semi-dark. He finally found ‘em and I literally went around the key, 15, 20 feet, made eight in a row and he said, ‘I don’t have to see any more.’ ”
Jamerson is a member of the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame, the county’s softball hall of fame and the Fairmont State athletic hall.
Dick Barr, 84, of North Canton, played two years at Rio Grande College with the legendary Bevo Francis, who totaled 112 and 116 points in single games his first year.
“That was a great part of my life. We played a lot of big colleges and beat a few,” said Barr, who worked for Goodyear for 36 years in the films and flooring division. “We won 39 straight games the first year. The second year we traveled the United States; we never had another home game after the first 17 games.”
Louis Arko, 92, a Cuyahoga Falls resident who raised nine children in Stow, was a four-sport athlete at the University of Akron, also playing baseball and tennis and running track. A member of the Zips and Barberton halls of fame, Arko excelled at golf in his later years, winning an age group championship in the 1980s.
Most Wingfoots played only a couple years, but many took advantage of Goodyear’s “squad” program, which enabled them to try different positions in the company. Mike “Mickey” Wittman, who said coach Hank Vaughn kicked him off the 1969 Wingfoots during a televised game, became recognized as the father of aerial sports broadcasting with the Goodyear Blimp, which earned him a spot in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
A former player at Miami, Fla., who was chosen for the ACC Legends Class in 2013, Wittman was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA, but cut during the preseason, which he called “the worst day of my life.” He landed with the Philips 66ers, surviving “a vicious tryout in Bartlesville, Okla., seven or eight college All-Americans going for one spot.” After the ABA spelled the end of the 66ers after the 67-68 season, Wittman made the Wingfoots.
“By then I knew I couldn’t be an NBA player, so I started writing. I worked in the [Goodyear] PR department,” Wittman, 74, said by phone from St. Joseph, Mich. “One day I wrote a story for the Wingfoot Clan, the company newsletter. I met this guy who had flown a blimp for Howard Hughes. His son was a Goodyear blimp pilot. About a month later, Goodyear decided to build another blimp in Houston, they gave me the job.”
Wittman eventually moved to New York for what he called “the greatest job of all time.”
“It never seemed that I had to work,” he said. “I have a thousand stories about celebrities, stories that you wouldn’t believe. I was single and on the road for 23 years. I never had a house. We traveled almost eight months a year, then I would come back to Houston. I owe it all to Goodyear and to the Wingfoots.”
Darrell Whitford, 80, of Copley, attended Silver Grove (Ky.) High School with a 12-member graduating class and was a junior college All-American in Georgia. He went on to Oglethorpe (Ga.) University.
The former owner of medical supply company Intermedics Associates, Whitford looked at a picture of the 1964 Wingfoots and rattled off their colleges, “Union (Tenn.), Duquesne, St. Joseph, LSU, St. Louis, West Virginia, Illinois, Memphis State and North Carolina.”
“I will never forget ‘em,” Whitford said. “I felt like it was the top of the mountain for me. Growing up at a small high school and going to a small college, I always wanted to play at another level above. I felt Goodyear was the top of the line."
Tickets remain for the Wingfoots’ 100th anniversary reunion banquet Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Hall of Famer Larry Brown will be the featured speaker at the 5 p.m. event, held at 1307 E. Market St. in Akron. Tickets are $40. For information, call Ken MacDonald at 330-699-5272.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.