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Friday, July 24, 2009

Noga stood his ground vs. the best

By Kalani Simpson
Special to the Star-Bulletin

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 24, 2009

In 1982, the best center in the history of college football was playing his final regular-season game. It would be the end of a storied career, and to top it all off, it would happen in Hawaii. A nice little trip to paradise.

Just one problem: Lined up across from him was a super-quick, super-strong, super-competitive, super-intense superman who just happened to be wearing a 54 on his chest instead of an "S."

I remember everything about that game even if I now remember none of it (I was 11). The excitement. The drama. The heartbreak. The giddiness. The pure giddiness that they were doing it, oh, my goodness, they were doing it!

I remember the next pickup football game (at school?) all of us kids just looking at each other, not saying a word, not needing to, looking at each other, eyes shining, all feeling the same thing, it building until we would burst with the giddiness, until someone just couldn't keep it in any more:

"Goal-line stand!"

We all wanted to be Niko Noga. We all WERE Niko Noga.

Hawaii fans still talk about the night Niko lined up across from the great Dave Rimington, and the Rainbows had Goliath on the ropes. Of course they do.

But the way you know it's real (even as the actual details are fuzzy now, or long lost) is that, when that particular game is brought up, even Nebraska fans will mention, unprompted, that Hawaii had that great nose guard. What was his name? Yes, Niko Noga vs. Dave Rimington really happened. There are even a few Nebraska fans who still talk about it, too.

IN 1982, NEBRASKA came into Aloha Stadium 10-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country (its only loss was early in the season at eventual national champion Penn State in a game featuring a slew of controversial calls). The Huskers would lead the nation that season in offense and scoring offense, averaging more than 41 points and 518 yards per game. Nebraska's offensive lineup would include four eventual first-round picks (and a notable second-rounder, Roger Craig, who had to move to fullback to crack the lineup in his senior year). They would end their careers with three Outland Trophies, two Lombardis and a Heisman. They were one of the most talented teams of the decade.

And if not the most famous, the best of them all was Rimington, a guy they would name a trophy after, a guy who is on every All-Century team. He is the only player to win the Outland -- meaning he was the best lineman in college football -- twice. He was so dominant they say it was as if he was offside on every play. And he was the center. He was once named Big 8 offensive player of the year.

And he was the center.

But on that night, Niko Noga was the noseguard.

"Niko was a real hard competitor," Rimington said a few weeks ago, looking back.

Hawaii was playing Tomeyball that season, having beaten Utah 10-7, Cal State Fullerton 9-3. Classics. The Rainbows came into the game at 6-4. But on that night, magic was happening. The Hawaii defenders were playing the game of their lives, making stop after stop after stop, and Niko was leading the charge.

"I knew he was going to play pro football," Rimington would say. "We both were going at each other pretty good and he was going all the time."

The Rainbows led 10-0 at halftime, and entered the fourth quarter up 16-7. They had the Huskers on the ropes. It was electric.

"He had his brothers in the stands," Rimington said. "I can remember them screaming at me."

Dave Rimington loved it. He loved it then. He loves it now.

It was electric.

And then ...

...Well, this is a nostalgia piece. Let's just end our story at the high point. You know what happened next.

After the game Niko Noga went into the Nebraska locker room, found Dave Rimington, congratulated him. Congratulated him on the game, the night, the comeback, the win, the battle, quite possibly on being Dave Rimington. He strode right into Nebraska's locker room, found Dave Rimington, to share one more moment, after the battle they'd shared.

For Rimington, the details have faded; like many of us, he remembers the feel of that game (a real knock-out fight) more than anything else. But that heartfelt postgame handshake with Niko Noga:

"I'll always remember that," Dave Rimington said.

IT'S TOUGH TO get across the FEEL of Niko Noga in those days, what he meant to us, his presence, the way he played. Maybe the best way is through a memory shared by Robert Kekaula. You should read this with Robert's voice in your head (if you have to, turn on the KITV news). Robert remembers being a kid, watching the old "Dick Tomey Show" hosted by the late Les Keiter, the opening. Included in the montage was footage of Niko Noga running, maybe timing a 40.

"He was wearing shorts and one of those old UHAD T-shirts," Robert writes in an e-mail. "It was cut-off, maybe right below his chest, and as the saying goes, he was 'ripped,' I mean muscles bulging everywhere.

"It freaked many of us out, because wearing green and looking like he did, I swear to God it was the frickin' HULK running on the field."

You can hear Robert saying it.

He closes with this: "It was both spooky and exciting."

Yes. That captures the feeling perfectly: Niko was the player you would watch run a 40 (on television!), and you would not only be psyched, and inspired, but also a little bit afraid.

I've been asked about ranking Niko ahead of Al (I had him at No. 2, behind Levi Stanley, just ahead of the guy with the islands on his head; Al was No. 4, followed by ... oh, never mind). Al was ... there are no words. He surpassed our wildest dreams. But Niko ... as Al himself told the Star-Bulletin's Nick Abramo in 2002: "Niko will always be the guy who started the tempo, the one who had UH fans chanting 'No-ga, No-ga, No-ga.' "

He was the original No. 54. With the next one, we knew it was coming.

I don't know that they should retire the number. Maybe it should always be in circulation as a legacy, a remembrance, a gift. But whoever wears it should have to go through a seminar or something, maybe watch hours of KHNL (not KFVE) highlights, in order to truly know what it means to be given the honor of wearing that shirt at UH -- the equivalent of being given Superman's "S."

Or maybe the newest No. 54 could just sit down with me and Robert, and watch the opening of the old "Dick Tomey Show." The three of us would sit there, the chicken skin washing over us, awed, and inspired. And just a little bit afraid.

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