By Mike Wise
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I found an old high school scrapbook in the basement last week and turned to the third page of faded newspaper clippings. "Radford 49, Campbell 45," the top of the box score read. The Rams had ended my beloved Sabers' six-game winning streak in Oahu Interscholastic Association basketball play, getting defensive help from a reserve junior guard named Kenny Niumatalolo.
Yes, that Ken Niumatalolo.
"I don't know if those were basketball games when we went to Ewa Beach; it was more like 'MMA' when we played you guys," the Navy Coach said of, uh, skill-challenged Campbell.
As we kept "talking story," a broken-English euphemism for shooting the breeze in the islands, it was easy to forget Niumatalolo is the first man of American Samoan ancestry to be named head coach at any level of college football, an authentic local boy who made good. He returns to his native Hawaii with his 8-3 Midshipmen to face his alma mater Saturday night at Aloha Stadium -- to the same place he once waited hours to catch a glimpse of a Heisman Trophy winner leaving the locker room.
The only reason I know this is because Darren Hernandez and I did the same thing in 1977, waiting forever for Tony Dorsett and Ricky Bell to sign our programs after the Hula Bowl. We then raced against kids from Hawaii Kai and Kahuku on the artificial turf, our programs folded into our back pockets, before taking "The Bus" home to Ewa Beach.
Unless the University of Hawaii scheduled a powerhouse, there were exactly two chances each year to meet a famous football player: Hula and Pro Bowl; that's it.
"I used to do the exact same thing," Niumatalolo said last week. "I still remember waiting for Archie Griffin underneath the dugout of Aloha Stadium. They wouldn't let us down, but I was kind of like leaning down with the top of my head over. I literally yelled, 'Archie Griffin!' It was so cool to talk to a two-time Heisman Trophy winner. I still remember that like it was yesterday."
When Navy employs that misdirection triple-option offense so well, it's fair to ask: How did a sports-addicted kid, raised 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland, grow up to one day be feted at the White House -- feted, no less, by another overachieving, sports-addicted kid raised 2,500 miles across the Pacific?
"It's mind-boggling to think about sometimes," said Niumatalolo, whose Samoan surname contains six syllables, which might also be a division I first for a coach. "I remember when I was selling newspapers as a young boy for UH games, I remember as a young kid at Aiea Elementary going to Pro Bowl practices and Hula Bowl practices, watching Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, guys like that. I never thought I'd be a head coach of a division I program."
Let alone one who took over for his triple-option rabbi Paul Johnson, Niumatalolo's former coach at Hawaii, who left for Georgia Tech in 2007. Niumatalolo proceeded to lead Navy to upsets over Wake Forest last season and at Notre Dame this season (the Midshipmen's second victory in South Bend in three years), to consecutive wins over Army and a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to pick up the Commander-in-Chief's trophy from a Punahou High School grad.
"It was interesting when [President Obama] just came up and said, 'Howzit brah,' " Niumatalolo said when the POTUS extended him a casual island greeting. "Just the way he said it, you realize he's from Hawaii. It's kind of cool to see the leader of the free world say, 'Howzit.' It was like, 'Whoa.' "
Because Niumatalolo was a part of Hawaii's first bowl team in 1989 and his greatest successes in the past 20 years have come in coaching, people forget that he quarterbacked a state championship football team his junior year. The Rams were heavy underdogs and beset by grief after their coach, John Velasco, died suddenly of a heart attack. The funeral was held four days before the OIA championship.
Then and now, football has always carried a grander purpose in his life -- especially in Annapolis, in which six pages of the team's media guide is devoted to genuine "Stadium Battles," from 1918 to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
"I love the leadership part of it, and hopefully helping them grow as men, as husbands, as fathers, as leaders in the Navy and the Marine Corps," Niumatalolo said. "Any component that the football side can help them grow in those aspects, great. I mean, because the football part -- anyone can teach people football.
"It's always tough, knowing that these guys will be in harm's way," he added. "You have great respect for them, because they're going to leave here and go protect us. It's a great honor just to coach them."
He said he plans to see his folks while in Honolulu and take his players to visit the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, about a 20-minute drive from where he starred in high school. And from the now-I-feel-old department, one of his six players from Hawaii, sophomore slotback Aaron Santiago, actually played for that same 13-year-old who collected autographs with me. ("You mean, Coach Hernandez?" Santiago said to me Monday night after practice in Annapolis.)
Mostly, Ken Niumatalolo returns home having broke a significant barrier for many local Hawaiian kids who now can be thought of as more than just exotic-looking, pad-popping football players in the mold of Troy Polamalu.
"Hopefully Polynesian guys won't only be known as football players; I hope they can also be thought of as coaches," said Navy's coach, the best living proof there is.