Advertiser Staff Writer
At the University of Hawai'i in the 1980s, dormitory students would cross a nearby stream by walking over three or four huge stone slabs laid in a line leading to the opposite side.
How those slabs — each probably weighing well over 500 pounds — got there was a mystery, but some students had a theory that eventually developed into somewhat of a legend:
"Maybe," students said, "the Noga brothers hauled them down from the mountain and placed them into the streambed, one by one."
In the midst of UH football's coming-of-age era between 1980 and 1987, Falaniko, Pete and Al Noga epitomized a tough, strong, undersized, but overachieving defense that stalled some of the nation's top offenses and thrilled near-capacity crowds of 45,000-plus at Aloha Stadium.
"They were a tremendous family who made such a difference in our program," said Dick Tomey, the current San Jose State coach, who was UH's head coach from 1977 through 1986. "All three Noga brothers were great people — hard-working players who competed with high energy."
Bob Wagner, who was Tomey's defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in 1987, said the Nogas fit perfectly into the Rainbows' scheme.
"We approached defense aggressively; people talk about weapons on offense, but we talked about having weapons on defense," Wagner said. "And all three Noga brothers were definitely in that category. They all were difference-makers."
Falaniko Noga first made his mark as an All-State defensive lineman at Farrington, but what opened many eyes was his performance during the 1980 track and field season.
At 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, Noga was a state champion in the shot put. But maybe more impressive was his ability to also compete in the 200-meter dash against some of the state's fastest runners.
"If you ever saw him run track, it was like watching Hercules," said Boyd Yap, an All-State running back for Kaiser that year. "His physique was phenomenal, he was chiseled, even in high school. And as big as he was, he ran the 200 just like the other sprinters. It reminded me of what a terrific athlete he was. It was a sight to see."
Noga joined UH's football team that fall and earned first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors as a true freshman nose guard. His extraordinary athleticism was on full display at New Mexico on Oct. 18, 1980.
In that game, Noga set a school record with five tackles for loss (for 47 yards, including three sacks) among 15 tackles overall, forced a fumble, deflected a pass, and also blocked a field goal and an extra point to help the Rainbows win, 31-18.
"He was just a gifted athlete, very explosive," Wagner said. "We did a lot of movement stuff up front, and a lot of angling. He played at only 220 pounds, maybe 225 or 230 later on, but he had so much quickness and strength. He was a heck of an athlete."
Noga repeated as a first-team All-WAC selection in 1981 after recording six sacks and five blocked kicks and was named a first-team Sophomore All-American by Blue Chips Magazine. He was selected in the eighth round of the 1984 NFL draft and played eight seasons as a linebacker for the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.
His son, Falaniko Jr., was a standout linebacker for Farrington in 2001.
Pete Noga came into UH with much less fanfare as a walk-on from Farrington in 1982, and Wagner said he did not blossom into a major contributor until his junior season (1985).
"He was shorter (5-11) and lighter (215 pounds) than Niko and Al, and he kind of was in their shadow," Wagner said. "But he was a real tough guy, and he had a great motor. I was not only his defensive coordinator, but also his position coach at outside linebacker, and we had to slow him down in practice sometimes or else he would have hurt some people."
Pete eventually earned a starting job as a junior and was named second-team All-WAC as a senior. And he developed an intimidating presence on his own.
"We played at Fresno State (in 1985), and it was a really hot day," Tomey recalled. "(Bulldogs coach) Jim Sweeney yelled out to Pete and said, 'How's the heat?' And Pete said, 'I love it — turn it up some more!' That's when Sweeney said, 'Uh-oh. It's going to be a long afternoon ...' "
The game ended in a 24-24 tie, the only blemish on Fresno State's 11-0-1 season.
'SAMOAN SACK MAN'
Al Noga came to UH as an All-State defensive lineman out of Farrington in 1983, and redshirted his first season.
By 1984, he earned a starting position — while wearing Falaniko's No. 54 jersey — and in 1985 was named first-team All-WAC at nose guard.
Then, in 1986, the 6-1, 254-pound Noga put together perhaps the greatest season by any defensive player in UH history.
He had a school-record 36 tackles for loss totaling 136 yards, including a staggering school-record 17 sacks, and forced a school-record six fumbles.
Playing across Michigan All-America lineman Jumbo Elliott in the season finale, Noga wreaked havoc on the Wolverines' offense all day on national TV. He became UH's first Associated Press first-team All-American.
"Brigham Young had (defensive lineman) Jason Buck, who won the Outland Trophy, but the WAC coaches voted unanimously for Al as WAC Defensive Player of the Year," Wagner said. "His junior year was incredible. His first-step quickness was phenomenal and I thought he was much more physical than Niko. He played nose guard, tackle and defensive end, and he was effective up and down the line."
Noga repeated as a first-team All-WAC selection as a senior despite some injuries and a weaker supporting cast, Wagner said. He was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 1988 NFL draft.
Noga played seven seasons with the Vikings, Washington Redskins and Indianapolis.
UH football recently has been largely centered around a wide-open, high-scoring offense that gets most of the headlines and attention.
But in the 1980s, it was the defense that often got fans excited with admiration.
"Hawai'i was somewhat of a blue-collar state, and the fans respected toughness," Wagner said. "It was a different mentality back then, and we had to play against BYU when they were leading the nation in offense. But we would hold them to 13 points, 18 points."
Another Noga brother, George, later joined UH football in the 1990s and wore the same No. 54 as Falaniko and Al.
"The funny thing is, George might have been the most heavily recruited out of all of them," Wagner said. "But I think part of that is because of what Niko, Pete and Al did before him."
The Nogas of the 1980s, after all, were the stuff of legends.