Hawaii's Sweet Success

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hau'oli Makahiki Hou, America.

Relax. A test on how to pronounce Happy New Year in native Hawaiian will not be given. Same goes for how to enunciate Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. Or Ken Niumatalolo. Navy's quarterback and coach, also island boys through and through, understand perfectly:

Most of you have led sheltered lives on this North American rock. You have continent fever. You probably forgot what historic event is taking place tonight in New Orleans.

Only Hawaii-Georgia, bruddah, for every granule of sweetness in the Sugar Bowl.

In this provincial part of the world, the Warriors are merely viewed as 2007's Boise State, a nice tale about another small fry cracking the BCS code. They have a coach named June and a quarterback called Colt, who presumably slurp Mai Tais, listen to Don Ho and Iz and rent longboards on Waikiki after practice.

Never mind that they are big-time college football's only unbeaten team. And forget that LSU and Ohio State are playing for a fraudulent national championship with a combined three more losses than Hawaii.

Just remember this: If you thought Boise State shocking Oklahoma with a hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty was good television, wait till the Bulldogs go down hard tonight.

I am, of course, pumping this game for two reasons: (1) because Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl is being billed on the Sandwich Islands as the greatest, single sporting event in state history, and (2) because I spent my entire adolescence and part of my adulthood there, wondering why no one on the mainland paid us mind.

They should have wised up on Dec. 23, 1982. That's the night 3,500 people showed up at Neal Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu to witness the greatest college basketball player on the No. 1 team in the nation, Ralph Sampson and his Virginia Cavaliers, beat up on an 800-student NAIA school.

Except little, old Chaminade absolutely shocked Virginia, which a quarter of a century later might stand as a greater upset than the Miracle on Ice. I would have seen it, too, except for Tommy Asinsin. He was the coach of Hawaii Pacific College who thought it better that a sorry, freshman small forward and his teammates should practice that night in a high school gym 200 yards from where Chaminade, which didn't have a player taller than 6 feet 6, dunked on all 7-4 of Big Ralph.

Yes, we knocked off Chaminade 10 days later and, by association, began telling everyone we were really No. 1, even the freshman forward with hair down to his shoulders who played zero minutes. But we missed a moment in time. When we saw folks yelling leaving the arena, we thought Sampson had done something incredible instead of losing, 77-72, weeks after beating Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the alleged Game of the Century. The late Tom Mees would not even read the score on ESPN when he was handed the result. He didn't believe it until it was double- and triple-checked.

Looking back, Chaminade was the forerunner of every George Mason or Valpairaiso, the idea that any five who work together and believe can beat a five of incredible talent. And the Warriors' 11 are carrying that message from paradise tonight, the idea that poi-fed boys from a little hamlet in the middle of the Pacific can drop the hammer on a perennial powerhouse such as Georgia.

Per capita, Hawaii is seventh in NFL roster production. So that tired refrain, You only have a one-in-a-million shot to play football professionally, so do your homework? Yeah, well, in the islands it doesn't apply. You actually have 1 in 53,611 chances. Thirty-eight of these Warriors are local, born and raised in Hawaii.

Colt Brennan, who should have won the Heisman Trophy instead of that robo-kid from Florida, is not a native, but he has thrown for more than 450 yards per game and set or tied 29 NCAA records, which begs the question: Will a mainland boy supplant Duke Kahanamoku as Hawaii's No. 1 athlete of all time?

Duke won swimming gold medals in the 1912, '20 and '24 Olympics and is considered the father of modern surfing. But he didn't lead the local university past Boise State, or pull out pulsating finishes against San Jose State and Nevada, like Colt.

Already, Brennan has leapfrogged Chad Rowan, known as Akebono in Japan, who became the first foreign grand champion in the 1,500-year history of sumo; Carl (Bobo) Olson, who won the middleweight crown in 1953; Sid Fernandez, who helped pitch the Mets to a World Series victory; Michelle Wie, everybody's favorite teen prima dona on the LPGA; and my personal favorite, Kurt Gouveia, who not only won a Super Bowl with the Redskins and a national title with BYU but also popped a skinny flanker coming across the middle during my senior year at Campbell High School, where the proud Sabers finished 0-7-1. Back then we didn't call him Kurt; we knew him as "Ola." Did I mention former big league middle reliever Mike Fetters was my hoops teammate as a freshman in high school? Or that his pain-in-the-neck brother James might have been the best athlete who never went pro? Yeah, well, we got your Hawaii trivia right here.

Seriously, outside of maybe Texas and Ohio, there is more passion for football in that state than anywhere. You wouldn't know it because the locals, as they say in pidgin, "no get big head."

They say New York is a cultural stew, but the islands are a true melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities and complexions. Much of it is governed by humility. Polynesian and Asian cultures give their people an attitude bordering on bashfulness. You don't brag on yourself. To see fans streaming onto the field after the Boise State game was beyond stunning. Local people don't do such things. It's not the island way.

So you'll forgive me for getting excited about Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Beating BYU on the day Ty Detmer won the Heisman was big. Blowing out Tom Izzo's No. 4 Michigan State was large a couple of years ago. But a game of this magnitude in the 50th state has never happened before.

So, mahalo nui loa, aloha or something like that.

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