The Washington Post today names its Fall All-Met teams (Section M). For football, this marks the 60th anniversary of selecting the area's best players. Ray Wrenn was on that first team in 1939. His two sons, Gary and Ray Jr., remember the pride their father took from being named to that team. Today, we remember Ray Wrenn.
The leather football helmet is tattered and scarred. More than 60 years old, it bears more markings from games played than of time passed. As Gary Wrenn held up the antiquated piece of equipment his father wore as halfback at Western High, his eyes moistened and his voice cracked.
Wrenn is the athletic director at Bowie High School. His brother, Ray Jr., teaches physical education at Kenilworth and Yorktown elementary schools in Bowie. The brothers' love of sport comes straight from their father. In 1939, Ray Wrenn Sr. led Western, the Northwest school that later became Duke Ellington, to the city championship. In so doing, he was named to The Post's first All-Met football team.
"Sports were his life and his passion," said Gary Wrenn of his father, who passed away in July at 78. "When Dad found the All-Met picture years later, I can remember him saying how proud he was to be on the first team. He told us to always strive to be first."
In addition to playing halfback, tackle and punter for Western, he also was such a good third baseman in baseball that he received a contract to play for the Washington Senators.
"Ray was as an unbelievable athlete," said Jack Neam, 79, a teammate of Wrenn's at Western and also on that first All-Met team. "He had a heck of an arm. He was a tackle, but the coach devised a play that was designed to let him throw the ball deep. Ray could throw the ball 65 yards or more."
Football was a common bond between Neam and Wrenn both early and late in life. For 25 years, Neam, a retired delicatessen owner who lives in Arlington, sat three seats from Wrenn at Redskins games Sundays at RFK Stadium.
"He considered being selected to that first All-Met team a special accomplishment," said Ray Wrenn Jr. "After he died, we went through all the boxes of stuff he had accumulated over the years and there was that picture" of the 1939 All-Met team.
Ray Wrenn spent much of his life involved with sports--as an athlete, coach and, mostly, a football referee for area high schools and colleges. His football legacy lives on through his sons, Ray Jr., 55, and Gary, 50, who also have spent most of their lives on fields around the Washington area.
"I bet it would be hard to find someone who has been around here for a while who didn't know him," Gary Wrenn said. "The number of lives he touched is incredible. I couldn't go to any sports event and not have someone say, 'Uh oh, here comes trouble, it's one of Ray Wrenn's kids.' "
Both Ray Jr. and Gary played football locally--Ray Jr. at Wheaton High and then Montgomery College-Rockville and Gary at Peary (a now-closed Rockville high school) and then Frostburg. Both served as head coach of the Bowie football team during the mid-1980s.
That love for sports affected a third generation of Wrenns. Ray Jr.'s daughter, Stacey, 30, was the manager and student athletic trainer of Bowie's football and baseball teams; his son, Kevin, was a catcher for Bowie's baseball team and was a second-team All-Met in baseball 10 years ago. Gary's son, Brandon, 13, is catcher for his local recreation league team in Southern Maryland; his daughter, Brittney, 10, plays basketball.
"When I was coaching," Gary Wrenn said, "I found myself saying the same things to the kids that my father said to me 40 years ago. The same things he instilled in me are the same things coaches are teaching kids today."
After graduating from Western, Ray Wrenn, who at the time was listed at 6 feet 3, 200 pounds, was recruited to play football for Boston College. But his family could not afford to send him to Boston to meet with school officials.
Around the same time, Wrenn received an invitation to try out for the Senators. Wrenn made the club and was signed to a contract. But soon thereafter, he was drafted to serve during World War II. He played baseball while in the Army Air Force, and when the war ended he had a tryout with the Detroit Tigers. He was asked to accept a minor league assignment, but Wrenn had other priorities by then--he was married and raising a family--Ray Jr., Gary and daughter Nancy.
Although he never made it to the majors, Wrenn's passion for sports--football in particular--was insatiable. He began officiating games for local high schools and colleges in the Mid-Atlantic region. During that time, his reputation as a top-flight referee grew, as did his circle of friends. Before long, Wrenn was an official at Redskins home games, working the game clock at RFK.
What kind of father was he? When Gary Wrenn, then 12, was cut from the St. Catherine's School baseball team along with 11 of his classmates, Ray Wrenn took the castoffs and made a St. Catherine's "B" team out of them. Not only did that team end up beating the "A" team, but it went on to become the area's Catholic Youth Organization runner-up.
"Someone may tell you that you're no good," Gary Wrenn said. "But somehow, he made us believe that we could play. And he made us want to be good. . . . That was one of the biggest impacts he had on me."
Ray Jr.'s fondest memory of his father on a football field is the time his father's yellow flag hit him in the back of the head during a Montgomery College game.
"I felt a plunk on my helmet," Ray Jr said. "I looked around, and it was his flag. He kept a rock in it so the thing would land where he threw it. He had called me for clipping. He never said anything, just pointed right at me and called the foul."
"If today's All-Mets could have met him," Ray Jr. said, "he would have told them about the importance of hard work, sacrifice, discipline and perseverance."
Ray Wrenn lived his life by those principles.
"He made us believe that if we hung around sports that we'd be surrounded by good people," Gary Wrenn said. "And you know what? He was right."