A football All-Star game in Hawaii is a pretty good way to end your high school career. Whether you’re a player from here or from the mainland, what’s not fun about that?
They get to put on the pads — in January — and do what they absolutely love to do but mostly only in the fall months.
On Tuesday at Kamehameha’s Kunuiakea Stadium, however, Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil reminded the All-Star players who are moving on to play in college that there is more to it than fun.
“Fundamentals,” he stressed to the players at the Polynesian Bowl practice. “You have a lot of fundamentals to work on.”
That was his version of a wake-up call, perhaps. These are the stars from all over the country and Hawaii, the latest crop of great senior athletes. But, he was making it known, there is a lot more work to do and that it’s not all fun and games.
“I’m here, No. 1 because of (former Hawaii coach) Dick Tomey and Terry Donahue,” said Vermeil, who is coaching Team Mauka against Donahue’s Team Makai in Saturday’s Polynesian Bowl at Aloha Stadium. “It was an opportunity to work with two people I respect and admire. And No. 2, to try to help continue to build this game into a quality All-Star game.
“It’s a learning experience. It takes a lot of work and concentration. Today is the first day they’ve been on the field together. It’s amazing, but it’s tough. It really is. Coaches have never coached together and it makes it a little tougher, but that’s what All-Star games are like.”
Vermeil, who won the Super Bowl as coach of the Saint Louis Rams in 2000 and went to the Super Bowl as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1981, appears to be having fun in his return to the football field.
“I haven’t coached since Jan. 1, 2006, but you know, I’m out here and I’m a yell leader,” he said. “Let the young kids coach, and some of these guys know each other real well. I’ve never coached this style of offense before, the zone read concepts. Tomorrow will be more efficient and we’ll do a better job.The next day will be better. We threw a lot of stuff at them today.
“It’s exciting to be on the field. I got mad at myself when I didn’t think of something that I should have thought of prior to getting on the field. In the old days, there was nothing you didn’t think about. I’ve been away for so long, and there are a number of things I forgot and got mad at myself for. I don’t know who these kids are yet, really. But I do know that if you’re patient with them and work with them, they’ll soak up the fundamentals. They need a lot of work and they need a lot of time and they need a lot of fundamentals.”
Brey Walker of Westmoore, Okla., who is an Oklahoma Sooners recruit, was hard to miss. He’s a 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive tackle.
“It’s nice out here in Hawaii,” Walker said. “A different atmosphere and I get to play with the best players in the country. My last opportunity to play high school football will be in Hawaii. Going on to play for Oklahoma is a dream come true.”
Kahale Huddleston, a running back who led Hilo to the state Division I (middle tier) championship, is also suiting up for the game, but it’s only a 50-50 chance he’ll play due to an ankle injury.
He sat on the bench for most of Tuesday’s practice.
“Last Thursday (in the JPS Paradise Classic) I ran the ball and my foot got stuck underneath and it bent,” said Huddleston, who plans to walk-on at Hawaii. “I heard a little pop and tried to walk and couldn’t. I may have to sit out. I was upset (about the injury) at first, but it is what it is. This experience has been good for me. It’s good to get back in the grind.”
Two Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) graduates who started their football careers in Hawaii — offensive lineman Jacob Isaia and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote — are back for the game before heading on to major college programs.
Gaoteote’s uncle is Ma’a Tanuvasa, the former Denver Broncos star who is a Mililani assistant and is an assistant coach for the Poly Bowl. Gaoteote will soon be off to play for USC.
“It’s always good to be home, come back to my roots and have as much fun as you can,” said Gaoteote, a former Mililani player. “Trying to chill and enjoy my time at home.”
Isaia, who started his high school football career at ‘Iolani and is going to play at Michigan State, said, “I’m so glad I was invited, so glad to end my high school career here where it all started and see the faces of everybody I’ve worked with when I come back here for camps and clinics. It’s really nice to be here.
“‘Iolani prepared me for life and college. That’s where I got the basics down in football and advanced at Gorman. It was great to see a familiar face in (wide receiver) Justin Genovia from ‘Iolani and I’ve played against some of the other guys like (defensive lineman) Samson Reed of Kahuku.”
Isaia appreciates that Vermeil has shown that he is dedicated to the boys this week.
“These (Vermeil and former UCLA coach Donahue) guys are true head coaches and they really want to help us out,” he said. “You can always get better. That’s the main thing I’ve learned is that you can learn something on the way. These coaches are learning as they go on, too. Fundamentals do come first.
“At Michigan State, they’re hoping I can start. The center was a senior and graduating and going to the league, so that spot is open. Three people including myself are going for it. I’m hoping to start there or get some playing time at guard.”
Kamehameha defensive end Jonah Kahahawai-Welch is another player out there enjoying his last hurrah at the high school level. He’s going to play for Hawaii and coach Nick Rolovich.
“I took my visit to Navy on Nov. 11 to watch the SMU game,” he said. “I loved it there, came back home and decided to go there. As soon as that happened, Hawaii came in to play and asked if I wanted to go on a visit. Home state, who wouldn’t want to? After that I did the pros and cons of each school, and the military wasn’t my thing. We’ve got a bunch of Hawaii guys going to UH — (wide receiver) Jonah Panoke, (quarterback) Chevan Cordeiro, (defensive back) Kai Kaneshiro. Good football players and local boys staying home. It’s going to change the program a lot, for sure. Coach Rolovich told us that staying home is going to be a great cause for the state of Hawaii. He was super stoked when I told him I committed.”