Lathrop honors one of its favorite sons: College football and NFL great Paul Wiggin

ragostini@modbee.comOctober 19, 2013 

— Paul Wiggin stands tall,his posture perfect, his back straight, his crewcut still trimmed. He's 78, five decades past his NFL prime, and he's still devoid of frailty.

Football was no match for him. Think about this: Throughout his playing days — from Manteca High, to Modesto Junior College, to Stanford, to 11 years in the NFL — Wiggin, a lineman, never was seriously injured.

He never walked off the field hurt and never missed a game, despite the flimsy equipment, almost anything-goes rules and virtual sandlot fields of the 1950s and '60s. He played in 146 straight NFL games.

The odds on that one? Through the roof. It's like walking through a car wash and coming out dry.

"I've been lucky," Wiggin says.

Perhaps, but you know there's more. He points to his hometown of Lathrop, to his parents and to the coaches who molded him. He also possessed the smarts, the genes and the hand-eye coordination to escape tight spots and to, above all else, excel.

Lathrop honored one of its favorite sons Friday, first with a luncheon and later at Lathrop High when the "Paul Wiggin Stadium" sign was unveiled. He spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express, the exact property where Wiggin's Trading Post — the family's landmark store — stood half a century ago.

Back then, Lathrop's population wasn't much more than 600. Today, it flirts with 20,000, and Wiggin's words contain both surprise and admiration.

"Lathrop was a tough blue-collar town. Not mean-tough, but in a good way," he said. "It was a great place to grow up."

Go figure Lathrop. Wiggin became a two-time first-team All-American at Stanford, and he was voted by fans as the Cardinal's Defensive Player of the Century. A decade later, Don Widmer — one of Wiggin's neighbors — started at linebacker at UCLA. And the next generation produced a tow-headed gym rat named Scott Brooks, a future NBA Coach of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Keep those Lathrop jokes to yourself. Then again ...

"I told a stewardess once during a flight to Hawaii that I could fit my whole hometown on this plane," Wiggin said. "After I was named All-American, there was a big potluck dinner in Lathrop. I signed pie plates that night for people who baby-sat me."

All that country cooking produced a 6-foot-3 244-pound tackle machine. Wiggin lacked something, however, that was provided for him at MJC in 1952 and '53.

He's talked often over the years about Stan Pavko, the crusty head coach of the Pirates for 17 seasons who passed away in 2002. To Wiggin, it's simple: He never would have reached the NFL, much less his potential, without him.

"I had a coach in Pavko who taught me toughness," he said. "Until I came to Modesto, I got through games just because of my size. When I started there, I hoped the ball wouldn't come toward my side. Before I left, I wanted the ball coming to me. Coach never soft-sold anything. I needed that. At my age, you can sit back and think of the people who made a difference in your life. Coach Pavko was one of those people."

Those old-school lessons paid off, because Wiggin walked tall through good moments and bad. He twice was a head coach, for the Kansas City Chiefs and at Stanford, and was fired from both jobs. The immortal Play, Cal's five-lateral romp through the Stanford Band in 1982, finished Wiggin at his alma mater a year later.

Yet that survival instinct never wavered with Wiggin. Review his résumé one more time: A banner career at Stanford, a two-time All-Pro with the Cleveland Browns including an NFL title in 1964, a man who coached John Elway and was influenced by giants such as Paul Brown and Bud Grant.

"What a life I've had," he admitted.

Wiggin, still a resident of Edina, Minn., has worked for the Minnesota Vikings as a pro personnel consultant for the past 20 years. That means he's been a part of the NFL for more than 50 years.

You want to know why Lathrop is proud of him? Who wouldn't be?

More than anything else, Wiggin proved Thomas Wolfe wrong.

Yes, you can go home again.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.

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