Sports, that wonderful, horrible, meaningful, meaningless, inspiring, cynical, beautiful entity, just completed another wild feat. It took 2,390 miles of ocean and shrank it. It urged Hawaii and the United States mainland into a fresh realm of spiritual juxtaposition. It continued to redefine, according to Hawaiians, how Hawaiians perceive themselves.
Apparently, you just can’t beat that damned sports.
Last Saturday, a 24-year-old quarterback in his first NFL playoff game threw a touchdown pass to himself, commanded a wacko second-half comeback in a loud road stadium and forged a clinching-play block that deserves to prove unforgettable. On Monday, a 19-year-old quarterback entered the College Football Playoff national championship after halftime, redefined the tenor of that humongous game, became its most valuable player and threw a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass so eye-pleasing that it will prove unforgettable.
That first quarterback moves on to New England this NFL playoff weekend. That second quarterback moves on toward one of the most important annual exercises known to the nation: Alabama spring football.
Somehow, both Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans and Tua Tagovailoa of the Alabama Crimson Tide attended Honolulu all-boys Saint Louis School, that rare place of which the school president, Glenn Medeiros, might say in passing, over the phone, “It actually overlooks Waikiki.”
Improbably, there’s more. Five days before Mariota’s visual delights in Kansas City, another “M.M.,” McKenzie Milton, quarterbacked the University of Central Florida to a Peach Bowl win over Auburn, which cemented UCF (13-0) as the only unbeaten team among the 129 playing top-rung college football.
Milton attended Mililani High, also on Oahu.
It does not have a view of Waikiki.
Hawaii has annexed a football giddiness generally unavailable to states ranked No. 40 in population (a stat that further credits Hawaii). While Tagovailoa thrived in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, citizens told of audible bursts of cheering ringing up and down Honolulu streets. “It’s the year of the Hawaiian quarterback in America!” tweeted local sports host Kanoa Leahey.
It’s heady and emotional for Hawaii and for Polynesians who breathed football in preceding eras when distance mattered more in general. The first eight days of January 2018 represent another crest, even though Saint Louis School had previously produced Timmy Chang, who threw for about one million yards at the University of Hawaii; Jason Gesser who, at Washington State, shared Pacific-10 Conference offensive player of the year honors with Carson Palmer in 2002; and Jeremiah Masoli, who graced a Rose Bowl for Oregon.
“For me, it’s the fact that we are continuing to push the envelope forward,” said Jesse Sapolu, who went from Hawaii to 15 San Francisco 49ers seasons (1983-97) at center and guard. “Even with the success I had, I didn’t like the fact that we are known just for linemen when we came from the islands. . . . A lot of people thought we aren’t strong in the skill positions. But now with the quarterback position, to have three successful performances from kids from a little island, all in the span of a month at the highest level, it confirms that we’ve got to keep pushing the envelope.”
Said Ma’a Tanuvasa, a retired defensive end who won two Super Bowls with Denver in the late 1990s: “I think it’s only going to get better for kids who are younger than these guys.”
In primordial days, the 49ers drafted Sapolu in the 11th round, at No. 289 overall. An estimable San Francisco sportswriter, Ira Miller, evaluated the San Francisco picks in print and dismissed Sapolu as a kid from Hawaii getting one nice, free trip to California. For years thereafter, Sapolu and Miller joked about it.
“People thought we weren’t ready to come in there and compete on the big stage,” he said. “Even though there were people before me, it was still in its pioneering stages. . . . It’s the unknown. People still had this image of Hawaii back then as palm trees and kids liking to surf. They didn’t know the kids here were big and thick and naturally strong. Once we got trained a little bit . . .”
By now, Sapolu and Tanuvasa are busy helping orchestrate the Polynesian Bowl, a two-edition-old, national high school all-star game on Jan. 20, with Dick Vermeil and Terry Donahue as coaches. The night before that, there’s the induction dinner for the fifth class for the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, whose induction choices would seem to be burgeoning. Sapolu remembers when he’d study a 49ers schedule, check for when he might see fellow Polynesians from other NFL teams, and anticipate reunions every three or four weeks. By now, he noted, the New Orleans Saints, still alive in the playoffs this weekend, have six Polynesian players on their roster alone.
By now, Medeiros, the Saint Louis School president, has noticed another fresh wrinkle.
Referring to the atmosphere at school, he said: “I would like to say it’s been completely different, but ever since Marcus is doing really well, we’ve been experiencing this for a few years, since Marcus winning the Heisman. They’re very excited, but it’s not as if it’s a situation where they’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’ve never been through a situation like this.’ ”
Tagovailoa’s surging performance, from Alabama’s 13-0 deficit to its 26-23 overtime win, “validated that this really not a fluke, it’s not an anomaly.”
National quarterbacking stardom from Saint Louis School: routine!
The school sits up on Kalaepohaku, which Medeiros called “a large hill or a mountain, one of the two” — this week, surely a mountain — and which Mariota mentioned in his Heisman speech with, “To the men of Kalaepohaku, and the Saint Louis brotherhood, thank you for teaching me to be always mindful and faithful.”
It hatched in 1846, overseen by Marianist Catholics. Its first 10 years of teaching came in the native Hawaiian language. It has 880 students, K-through-12. It’s 53 percent native Hawaiian, Medeiros said, plus other Polynesian students. It’s on its third campus, built of adobe in 1926. It shares its mountain with Chaminade University. Its students graduate in white tuxedos. They graduate finally not with the turning of a tassel, but with the turning of a lei, red and blue, school colors of the Crusaders. Thursday was “Tie Thursday,” on which the lads wear ties.
In the second coaching stint of its venerable head coach, Cal Lee, with its quarterback coach, Vinny Passas, Saint Louis just won another state championship, and wound up No. 5 in the MaxPreps.com national rankings. People know about it now, even if in Polynesian culture, as Sapolu said and Tanuvasa echoed, “Humility’s a big thing,” and Tagovailoa’s post-game humility coaxed just as much pleasure as his exploits.
“I don’t know how Coach [Nick] Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tagovailoa said.
Well, it’s 2018, a year of instant video transmission, the year of the Hawaiian quarterback. So, as a flawless garnish to that year, a radio caller on Thursday to ESPN 900 Maui’s midday show, “Let’s Talk Sports With Kanoa Leahey,” epitomized the eccentricity of the sports fanatic.
In that apparently insatiable need to speculate about what comes next, the caller, on with host Jordan Helle that day, referred to Taulia Tagovailoa, a high school quarterback in Alabaster, Ala., near Birmingham.
Said the caller, “It’s amazing that he has a younger brother who’s supposed to be better.”
It sounded lunatic, of course, yet also like a thousand hoping calls in a thousand hoping towns, in the 48 states on the U.S. mainland.
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