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Sunday, August 12, 2007

1972 thriller a 'country' classic

By Dennis Anderson
Special to The Advertiser

Andrew Mitsukado, executive sports editor of The Advertiser at the time, called it "the most sensational high school game seen in these parts in years."

Rod Ohira, now a news reporter for The Advertiser, covered the game for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. "I think it was the most thrilling game I covered" in more than 20 years on the high school beat, Ohira said last week.

It was the 1972 O'ahu Interscholastic Association football championship playoff, and the first time two "country" schools had played for the title since Honolulu's public schools joined the OIA three years earlier.

The official crowd count at Honolulu Stadium was 17,868, but every seat in the 22,000-capacity wooden stadium on South King Street was filled, and late-arrivers were turned away. (For comparison, the University of Hawai'i vs. San Jose State game two nights later drew 14,912.)

High-school football was king on O'ahu in 1972, and it didn't get any better than Leilehua against Kahuku the night before Thanksgiving.

Leilehua had beaten Kahuku, 22-0, in a preseason game, but the Red Raiders had won their first seven conference games and the Eastern Division championship before being stunned by Kalani the week before.

"It was a blessing in disguise," Kahuku quarterback Molia Salanoa remembered. "We were getting too good for our own good. The loss was a humbling experience."

Leilehua, in its third season under coach Hugh Yoshida — the future University of Hawai'i athletic director — came into the playoff game as the unbeaten Western Division champion.

The Mules dominated for three quarters and led, 22-14, entering the last quarter. But Salanoa and the Red Raiders' other all-state players — halfback Paufai Finai and his brother, top OIA pass receiver Pisa Finai, offensive linemen Wayne Fonoimoana and Clayton Rowland, defensive tackles Paul Nunu and Rocky Mataalii — and their teammates were not beaten yet.

"We talked about it and said we could do it," recalled fullback Mission Ili last week. Minutes later, after Kahuku had recovered a Leilehua fumble on the Mules' 29, Ili started the comeback on a 1-yard TD dive over the right side.

But a pass for the two-point conversion that would have tied the score was incomplete, and Leilehua still led, 22-20.

The final three minutes were crazy.

Paufai Finai scored his third touchdown of the game, on a 30-yard pass from Salanoa, and the quarterback ran for a two-point conversion to put Kahuku ahead 28-22.

Leilehua charged back and regained the lead with 1:11 remaining. Mules receiver Rick Wagner made a sensational catch of a pass from Alex Kaloi to the 1, and Kaloi muscled into the end zone on first down.

For the second time in the game, Wagner broke a tie with his conversion kick, putting the Mules ahead, 29-28.

It looked hopeless for the Red Raiders when the kickoff return was smothered at their 5-yard line. They had been outdone in every statistic, including being outgained 358 yards to 193.

But Salanoa rolled left behind a convoy of red-shirted blockers and broke away.

"Coach (Famika) Anae said to go up field as far as I could and go out of bounds," Salanoa recalled. "Everybody executed and I had a clear field, escorted by Clayton Rowland."

At the 50, the only Mule defender left was Sam McDowell, who already had recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass.

"I had nothing left in the tank," Salanoa said. "Sam came from across the field, I tried to cut back but I tripped and went down."

McDowell had stopped Salanoa's run after 85 yards at the Leilehua 10.

"Molia was so tired after the long run that he was on his knees," Pisa Finai recalled last week. "I thought he was going to faint."

Neither team had any timeouts left; Kahuku had no time to huddle.

When the teams lined up, Pisa Finai saw that Wagner was defending him.

"He was one of their best players, but I was bigger and taller than him."

He says he yelled to Salanoa, in Samoan so Wagner wouldn't understand, "Throw 5 and out."

"I faked in, ran five yards and out, and the whole side was empty," Pisa Finai said.

Salanoa didn't see the winning catch. A hard rush by all-state defensive end Fialele Edra put him on his back.

But defensive back Wagner had fallen down, and Salanoa threw it to the exact spot where Pisa Finai was standing in the diamondhead end zone, Ohira reported.

"Next thing I hear people screaming," Salanoa said. "All I heard was cheering, but I wasn't sure who was cheering.

"Then I looked into the end zone and all I could see was red-colored (Kahuku) shirts coming over the wall. Then I knew Pisa had caught the ball."

"Oh man, it was top of the line for me — the best catch I ever caught," added Finai, who played at BYU and three seasons of professional football.

There were six seconds left in the game. Amani Magalei's point-after kick made the final score Kahuku 35, Leilehua 29.

Salanoa concedes that Kahuku caught a huge break when Kaloi, Leilehua's all-state quarterback, was knocked out in the first half.

He kept playing, but wasn't the usual Kaloi. "I don't remember anything at all about the game," Kaloi said. "Normally, I can tell you every play we ran."

He spent that night in Tripler Hospital.

"Alex Kaloi was Colt Brennan before there was a Colt Brennan," Salanoa says. "Alex was ahead of his time. If he had not been hurt he would have torn us up."

The Advertiser named Kaloi the state back of the year the next day.

"It was a great game," said former sportswriter Ohira, "and you know, it set the tone for all those wild finishes Kahuku has been known for in Prep Bowls and state championship games."

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Kahuku quarterback Molia Salanoa has coached other quarterbacks at his alma mater since 1997, helping the Red Raiders win eight OIA and five state championships. Three of his five sons, Major, Marcus and Ross, played on championship teams at Kahuku. His two younger sons, Reed and Roman, hope to as well. He has been married to his wife, Colinda, for 32 years. He works in landscaping at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i, and also has an evening job at the LDS Temple in Lai'e. "That's the joy of living in Hawai'i," he said. "It's a full day, but a fulfilling day."

Leilehua quarterback Alex Kaloi was Hawai'i's starting quarterback for three years, until he broke his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae in the first home game of his senior year in 1977. "I was in traction for weeks, and it ended my career," he said. He became a dentist, and has a practice in Wai'anae. Kaloi and his wife, Jan, live in Wahiawa. Their three daughters, Janelle, Kim and Heidi, won seven state tennis championships among them, and all played on major college teams in California.

Kahuku fullback Mission Ili, whose fourth-quarter touchdown put Kahuku back in the game, played two years at Eastern Arizona junior college. Ili works as supervisor of buildings at BYUH. His goal is to put on sports camps in Samoa.

Kahuku's Pisa Finai, who caught the winning touchdown pass, went on to play two years at BYU, two years for Montreal in the Canadian Football League, and a year for the Los Angeles Express in the American Football League. He then turned to professional boxing, and says he reached No. 5 in world heavyweight rankings, but says, "there was too much politics. I couldn't get a fight to move up higher." He lives in West Valley City, Utah, and has been an assistant supervisor for United Parcel Service for 15 years. He named one of his sons for the quarterback who threw him "the best catch I ever caught" — Molia "Mack" Finai played three years for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Another son, Malosi, played four years for Arizona State and is a movie stunt man, while two younger boys play at Granger High in Utah.

Pisa's brother, Paufai Finai, who scored three touchdowns in the 1972 championship game, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Paula. He is retired.
Paul Dombroski, one of a handful of two-way players for Leilehua in 1972, played defensive back in the National Football League for seven years, and now lives in Odessa, Fla.

Wendell Say, a junior at Leilehua in 1972, has been the long-time head football coach at 'Aiea High and still lives in Wahiawa.

Leilehua's Rick Wagner, one of the players about whom Advertiser executive sports editor Andrew Mitsukado wrote, "heroes were made and unmade in this thrilling struggle," was an academic All-American at Hawai'i and is a lawyer in the San Diego area.

Al Harris, an underclassman at Leilehua in 1972, got a lot bigger and was a consensus All-American at Arizona State – one of three ever from Hawai'i high schools — and played in the NFL.

Sam McDowell, whose great tackle prevented Salanoa from a 95-yard touchdown run, still lives in Wahiawa.

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