Navy's Ivin Jasper makes triumphant return to Hawaii
Friday, November 27, 2009
So much has changed in the two decades that have passed since Ivin Jasper first made the long trip from the mainland, across the Pacific Ocean, to the University of Hawaii.
On Saturday, Jasper will be in the coaches' box at Aloha Stadium when Navy (8-3) plays at Hawaii (5-6). He is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Midshipmen, directing an offense that ranks third in the nation in rushing for a team that upset Notre Dame earlier this month.
But 20 years ago, he was a nervous 19-year-old flying to an unfamiliar place. Jasper grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, the second youngest of nine children. He was the first in his family to attend a four-year college and the only one to graduate.
In the five years he spent at the University of Hawaii, he met his wife, Donna, and his football mentors, Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo. Jasper was a redshirt freshman in the fall of 1989 when Johnson -- who coached Navy from 2002 to 2007 -- was the offensive coordinator and Niumatalolo -- who's now the Navy coach -- was a senior third-string quarterback.
"Going to Hawaii changed my life, without a doubt," said Jasper, now 39. "It's probably the direction I was supposed to go. I always think about it."
'He wanted more'
Jasper's father, Wardell, worked at a car wash; his mother, Gracie, held a series of jobs. The family -- which included seven boys and two girls -- lived in a subdivision in Watts.
"There's a train track that split the housing projects," Jasper said. "On one side were the Crips, the other side were the Bloods. I was on the Crips side, the blue side."
Said Jasper's wife Donna, who grew up in Orange County: "When you come from an environment like he did, you either stay in that environment or you look at your surroundings and decide that you want more. He knew he wanted more for his life, and I think it helped him because it pushed him."
Football was the catalyst. One of Jasper's brothers, Danny, gave him a football when he was 8 years old; when Ivin got older, Danny taught him how to drop back and throw the ball. Ivin would sneak into his parents' bedroom -- which had the family's only television set -- and watch games, keeping the volume low and sitting at the foot of the bed. He loved the University of Georgia, especially Herschel Walker, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I sometimes think, is football really what I'm supposed to be doing?" Jasper said. "But I was so obsessed. It has to be."
When he got to Jordan High, Danny made Ivin a bet: If Ivin became Jordan's starting quarterback, then Danny would give Ivin his car, a red Pontiac Firebird. Sometimes Danny would be driving through the neighborhood and see Ivin walking home; instead of offering him a ride, he'd tell him to start running, because he needed to stay in shape.
By his junior year, Ivin was starting at quarterback -- and playing defensive back and punting as well. But Danny never gave him the car.
"Nope. I had to use that motivate him," Danny, 45, said in a telephone interview. "I knew he loved that car. But I always told him, if he made it, I wanted a Mercedes-Benz. I didn't get my Benz yet, so I guess we're even."
Jasper's athleticism and strong arm drew the attention of college recruiters. Jasper initially planned on accepting a scholarship offer from the University of the Pacific, but Danny and his high school coaches persuaded him to play in Honolulu instead.
"Ivin was the first one to leave," said Bettye Jasper-Jones, Ivin's older sister. "When he chose Hawaii, oh God, that was so far away. But it turned out to be the best decision ever made."
Injuries slowed Jasper's playing career and killed any dreams he had of playing professionally; he bounced in and out of the Rainbows' lineup as a quarterback, and eventually moved to slotback. Jasper spent draft day in 1994 sitting on his couch, recovering from shoulder surgery, and he vividly remembers the call he got from Danny.
"He was like, 'So, what round do you expect to go in?' I felt like sinking into that couch that I was laying on and never coming up. I was heartbroken," Jasper said. "That was probably one of the worst feelings I've had in my life, knowing that I let him down -- because if anybody wanted me [to make the NFL], it was him."
Back to 'paradise'
Jasper graduated in 1994 with a degree in sociology with an emphasis in criminology -- Bettye, now 50, made her first trip to Hawaii to watch him receive his diploma -- and he returned to Southern California to work as a counselor at Boys Town. A few months later, Johnson invited him to return to Hawaii as a graduate assistant.
"I will never forget the day Coach Johnson called," Donna said. "Ivin didn't think twice about saying yes. It got him back into what he loved."
Jasper followed Johnson to Navy in the mid-1990s, to Georgia Southern and then back to Navy in 2002, where he's been ever since. He was promoted to offensive coordinator when Johnson left for Georgia Tech in December 2007. Niumatalolo calls Jasper "the best option quarterback coach around," and over the past two seasons, the Midshipmen have won 16 games while starting four quarterbacks.
Jasper is excited to return to Hawaii this week. His wife -- whom he met in an acting class on the first day of the fall semester in 1991 -- is meeting him in Honolulu; their three kids -- a daughter and two sons, ranging in age from 6 to 14 -- are spending Thanksgiving with their grandparents in California. Donna wants to rent mopeds and drive up to Diamond Head, like they used to do when they were students. Ivin wants to eat a chicken katsu plate for lunch.
At some point, Jasper will probably think back to that first flight he took to Hawaii, and how it wound up changing his life.
"It was unreal," he said. "To leave the ghetto, the 'hood, whatever you want to call it, and go to paradise? I flew in at night, got there in the morning and the mountains were all around. It was just beautiful."