For team and country|[07/04/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 4, 2008

Temple star Wardell a war hero and, finally, a coach

As a star receiver on Temple High School’s 1967 Negro Big Eight state championship team, Welton Wardell had dreams of playing college football. Yet there was also another dream, to serve his country.

Wardell chose to volunteer for the United States Army at the height of the Vietnam War. He joined the elite Army Rangers and by late 1969 and into 1970, he was immersed in dangerous missions deep in Southeast Asia.

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“The rangers were top-notch. The guys who were the better athletes wanted to go with them. I know I did,” Wardell recounted.

The decision to be a ranger, however, nearly cost Wardell his life. In January 1970, he was part of a six-man reconnaisance unit looking for weapons caches among suspected Viet Cong hideouts in the TaAnn province.

“We were doing recon in an area that we thought where a lot of weapons had been stashed. What we got was an ambush. They caught us in what we call an L-Shape ambush. We got fire from the front and the side,” Wardell said. “I was the third man in the group when they opened fire. I saw one guy get hit and went to go help him when I felt shrapnel hit my back. Then I took fire near my face. A bullet went near my ear and came out my lip. I never had any more contact with any of the guys in my unit. They said I was the only one who came out alive.”

For his injuries and his service, Wardell was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star on Feb. 11, 1970. Although he was alive, Wardell was in bad shape. He spent 14 months in various VA hospitals.

“I was 100 percent disabled because of the head wound. I still have insomnia, post traumatic syndrome, and dental problems to this day,” Wardell said, some 38 years after his injury.

Current Vicksburg High football coach Alonzo Stevens was a freshman at Temple when Wardell played there under coach W.C. Gorden.

“He was a top wide receiver. Great hands. William Triplett, who went on to Michigan State, was his quarterback. They won the first Big 8 championship to Vicksburg and was our first team to go undefeated,” Stevens said. “Welton could definitely play at the next level but he wanted to serve his country and he went to Vietnam. And then he gets shot and left for dead.”

Wardell faced a difficult adjustment period to overcome his disabilities. He wanted to be a coach, of some sort, but didn’t think he could get the opportunity in an official capacity.

Wardell was still classified as 100 percent disabled. He says his status made it hard for him to go for a position as either a football or baseball coach at a high school or college.

Then Joe Nelson, a baseball coach at Utica Junior College, gave Wardell a hand. Nelson hired him as an assistant coach. Wardell spent two years at Utica, then three more in Lorman as a student assistant under longtime Alcorn State baseball coach Willie “Rat” McGowan.

Eventually, Wardell landed in New Orleans and got back to football.

“That’s why I stayed away, but I still had a love for the game,” Wardell said, referring to his disability. “That’s why I thought minor league football might be the way to go.”

Over the next 30 years Wardell became a fixture in the New Orleans minor league football circles.

He worked with flag and minor league football teams with names like the New Orleans Hustlers, Kenner City Chiefs, Baton Rouge Bandits, Houma Bucks and Louisiana Vipers. But it was a position with the Bayou Thunder out of Hammond, La., in 1996 where he had his best success until this year.

“So many times in minor league football, you were only as good as your sponsor. A lot of times these guys would jump town taking all the equipment with them,” Wardell said.

The Bayou Thunder were different. It was the best organized team in Louisiana.

“We had a really good sponsor and a good stadium to play in, We played at Strawberry Stadium where Southeastern Louisiana plays. We had a good fan base and a tough, tight schedule. We went 17-2 and won the league championship, but I knew we were a real team when we got our rings,” Wardell said.

Wardell served as the wide receiver and punt return coach for the Bayou Thunder. He was named the team’s coach of the year by the Thunder’s ownership.

After his experience with the Thunder, Wardell went back to New Orleans to work with a variety of teams. One of his best success stories was finding and developing future New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Michael Lewis.

“I helped coach him for three years when I worked for an arena team in Baton Rouge and in minor league football. We have a real good relationship,” Wardell said.

Lewis, known as “Beer Man” because of his regular job as a delivery man for a brewery, became a key figure for the New Orleans Saints for six seasons, beginning in 2001. He is now a return man for the San Francisco 49ers.

With his vast experience in the game, it would seem Wardell would be a cinch for a head coaching role. Some came his way, but more often than not, went away. That changed in 2008 when he was named the head coach of the New Orleans Pitt Bulls.

“This was my first real head coaching job. I’ve had some others, but none of them made it through the season. The Pitt Bulls are a legit team, a good team. It’s as well put together as the club in Hammond,” Wardell said. “We had 35 to 40 players come for every practice and the big thing was the road games. I’ve had teams have to forfeit road games because not enough players showed up. But with the Pitt Bulls, we had at least 30 players for every one of our road games.”

The Pitt Bulls were successes, too, compiling a 10-1 record in the Gulf Coast Football Association. They won the National Division and earned a spot in the league championship game on June 28 in Houston.

“That was our Super Bowl and we won the game, 12-7,” Wardell beams proudly. “A lot of the credit goes to our sponsor. He was a young buisnessman who has done well in the construction business. He was able to bring back together many of the players who had been dispersed after Katrina. New Orleans teams always had the rap about not showing up. We showed up. I only had one problem all year and that was after an argument on the field, some of our guys bum-rushed the field. I’ve always strived to have disciplined teams, so that was disappointing, but we recovered.”

With a title in hand, Wardell has just one more dream he would like to come true.

“It would be great if there could be a minor league football team in Vicksburg. There has been so much talent from that area, as long as I can remember.”