KING CITY, Mo. -- At King City High School, it is impossible to miss Roger Wehrli.
Inside the front door and outside the gymnasium is a shrine to the former Wildkat and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Those mementos are about to get some company.
On Thursday, Wehrli returned home to present the school a plaque as part of the Hall of Fame’s Hometown Hall of Famers program.
He talked football – the sport that earned him college All-America honors at Missouri and a 14-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals – but he also talked about grades and the joy he gets visiting the small community in Gentry County.
“I have so many friends here,” Wehrli said. “When you graduate from a class of 28 it’s almost like a big family rather than just schoolmates. We just had our 50th reunion this past summer.
“I think it is great that the Hall of Fame has put together this program so we can come back to our home towns and hopefully inspire the kids that they can look forward to more than they can imagine.”
King City principal Dottie Stoll said Wehrli is a true friend of the school and community where he grew up. She said events like Thursday’s assembly that filled the gymnasium where Wehrli once played basketball remind students that anything is possible.
She noted that the King City students don’t often get to meet someone that came from such a small community and went on to such success.
Despite the adoration of the crowd, Stoll noted how humble the man who first inspired the term “shut-down corner” is among the attention.
“He exudes teamwork,” she said. “He came from a team where the numbers were probably in the lower 20s and played both sides of the ball and really was a team player.
“I think that is an excellent opportunity for our students to see what being a quality teammate and a team player can do for you.”
Incredibly, what made Wehrli who he is today didn’t end up being any feat on a football field or his play on the basketball court.
Wehrli -- who said his small-town status didn’t get him heavy attention from college programs – worked hard in the classroom, and that’s what landed him at the University of Missouri.
“The teachers, the coaches and all of the faculty here want you kids to succeed,” said Wehrli, whose parents taught in King City and retired from the district. “Take advantage of what they are offering you here.
“If I hadn’t have had fairly high grades in school, Mizzou wouldn’t have even looked at me. I got one of the last scholarships there and it really changed my life.”
Wehrli parlayed that scholarship into an All-American career for the Tigers and his storied career with the Cardinals.
He told the crowd – and especially the students – that everything in his life built upon something else and the foundation was in King City.
Wehrli said he was proud to give something to the school in the form of the plaque that might remind students of a sentiment Stoll expressed as “small but mighty.”
In his introduction of Wehrli, classmate and teammate Jim Pettijohn recalled a basketball game with a half century’s worth of amazement.
On a fastbreak, Wehrli found himself at center court with a pass on its way.
“He tripped and fell and did a somersault, came up dribbling and got a layup,” Pettijohn said. “I couldn’t do that. Could you do that?”
As the gymnasium crown started to thin and the media attention wrapped up, Wehrli looked around the gymnasium.
His graduating class was the first to go all six years after elementary school in the building. He seemed to be sorting memories as he shook the hands of well-wishers and friends.
He was asked about some of his favorite Wildkat memories.
The answer didn’t initially drift to the sport that earned him the gold Hall of Fame blazer he wore. Instead, the small-town gymnasium worked its magic or Pettijohn’s memory was still fresh and he smiled.
“I can remember coming out of those doors right over there from the locker room,” he said, gesturing to his right. “As a kid, basketball was fun. I really enjoyed playing basketball.
“Football was work.”