(Here’s the long version of this morning’s story on Kamehameha safety Pono Choy, who committed to Eastern Illinois over the weekend. The print version is right here.)
This isn’t a typical new year in the life of Pono Choy.
It’s not the same for Dino Babers, either.
Choy, a senior safety at Kamehameha, was under the college recruiting radar until Babers called after last season. As of this weekend, the standout defender gave an oral commitment to Eastern Illinois, where Babers is the new head football coach.
Choy, who has increased his weight from 175 to 185 since football season ended, had dreamt of playing college football. He landed in Charleston, Ill., for his official visit this past Friday.
“It was cold. It rained a little, sleet. They said it was too cold to snow,” Choy said. “But the team is really tight. The coaches are really passionate.”
The Rainbow connection was in play. Babers, a former defensive back at the University of Hawaii (1979-80), never lost touch with friends in the islands. In fact, his defensive coordinator is another former Rainbow player/Baylor assistant, Kim McCloud. Kamehameha coach David Stant is another former ‘Bow (’87-’89).
It was Babers’ visit to Hawaii last summer that made the difference for Choy. Their paths crossed at the Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance’s Junior Rank summer camp, before Choy’s senior season. Babers was the wide receivers coach at Baylor.
“He was coaching the receivers and I made a couple of plays (on defense),” Choy said. “I told him I wanted to play at the next level.”
It wasn’t so smooth for Choy, though. Baylor was already on the hunt for a national championship, focusing on blue-chip, prototype athletes.
“They told me I’m not the guy they’re looking for at a big Division I school, but (Babers) made some calls for me,” Choy said of interest that eventually came from Colorado State.
Choy emerged as one of the state’s top safeties in the fall. Baylor rose to national prominence, and after the season, Babers landed his first head coaching job.
“When he got hired at Eastern Illinois, he called. He said I was the first guy he called,” Choy said. “He wanted me to trip. They offered me during the visit. I called my mom from Eastern and she was pretty happy.”
Mom happens to be Nalani Choy, one of the angelic voices of Na Leo. She attended college in the Midwest.
“I went to Ohio for college,” she said. “Pono had other (walk-on) opportunities, but he went up there and he loves it. Dino really respects the quality of the players here.”
Of course, what comes with a first offer is sometimes followed by a bandwagon of other recruiters, particularly in the week before and after letter-of-intent signing day — Feb. 1.
“If there are other schools, I’d still have to stay loyal to Eastern. They gave me a chance when no one else did,” Choy said.
EIU, alma mater of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. Choy, who has been working out nonstop to add bulk and gain more speed, is gearing up for the competition.
“Coach is recruiting a lot of guys from Texas and Chicago,” he said.
He can add Hawaii to that list. And it all started with a camp.
“I heard about (Junior Rank) through Aunty Doris,” he said, referring to Doris Sullivan of Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance. “I usually go to anything that she’s doing.”
Choy’s position coach at Kamehameha was Dr. James Nakamura, who is also one of the top defensive coordinators in the state.
“Coach Doc is one of the best coaches I ever had,” Choy said.