16TH IN A SERIES
This summer, head coaches from all 28 Oahu high school varsity football teams are being asked to recount their football playing days.
One coach interviewed for this multi-part series pointed out what he thinks may be the value of this endeavor:
“A lot of times, you only hear about coaches when they’re getting released or are having a special season. It’s super hard to have a special season, so this should shed more light on them as people and their journey of when they were student-athletes. It’s going to bring more respect to the people who are doing this job. They didn’t all of a sudden become a high school coach because they coached Pop Warner. These guys have gone through it all, they’ve run the gamut of experiences.”
Some made it to the NFL. Others went to big colleges. Still others went the small-college route. They started as young’uns and got the bug, falling in love with football and taking pride in passing on their knowledge.
Along with the coaches’ look-back at their football-playing pasts, they also give their outlook on where their programs are at heading into the 2019 season.
COACH WENDELL SAY AND THE 2019 AIEA NA ALII
Wendell Say did not play football in the Jurassic Era days, but he did play in a a time when the thought of rehydrating was not on people’s minds.
“Kids nowadays are lucky,” he said. “We used to practice for four hours and we were lucky to get one water break. We used to take salt tablets at the end of practice. Nowadays, that’s a no-no. We didn’t have water bottles during games. During timeouts, the manager would run out with a bucket and everybody would suck on the corner of a towel. I don’t think the Department of Health would allow that now.”
Helmets were different then — in the early- to mid-1970s — too.
“We had what were called suspension helmets, some called them the rope helmets … ropes on the side kept it in place,” Say said. “Senior year, they came out with the water helmet. In the padding, it was liquid gel. The linemen didn’t like it because it was heavy.”
As a youngster, Say didn’t play youth football because it was unaffordable.
“I played baseball,” he said. “I was a little guy growing up. I didn’t realize I was as small as I was. I always thought I was normal size, but I guess I was a little patootie.”
Say played catcher, outfield and some infield but never pitched. He also ran track in high school.
“I was always the fastest among my friends at Leilehua,” he said. “They didn’t have a Mililani then so we were a very big school. A lot of military — close to 4,000 students altogether. That was second most to Kailua. After us it was Farrington. It was during the Vietnam war, so when the sprinters from Schofield showed up, they put me in distance running.”
As a freshman for the Mules, Say was 5 feet tall and 98 pounds.
“I played JV for a few years and going from playing in the park with friends to putting on the pads was a big eye opener,” Say said. “Contact. I had to learn how to play with pads and I was a late bloomer. There were so many guys going out for football, so there were always cuts. When they made cuts, they didn’t put it on a piece of paper. They called your name and said, ‘Try out next year. Eat bananas and drink milk.’ ”
Say, somehow, avoided what he called the “oof” moment of getting cut.
“I didn’t hear my name called,” he said.
Say, who graduated from Leilehua in 1974, played some running back, some quarterback and some defensive back in his early time with the program.
“I had great teammates and that’s the experience I want our boys to have,” he said. “It’s not the glory part. Shoot, what you do as a team is what you get. Just the memories you have with friends playing. We ran so much. Nobody was in better shape than us. Coach (Hugh) Yoshida, a Linfield guy, got everyone prepared and keyed on fundamentals. We were never the biggest, but he made us feel like we were bigger and stronger than others. Sophomore year, I went from 99 to 107 pounds. He had us lifting in the offseason, but we wouldn’t do a lot of free weights. Junior year I was 115 pounds.”
Some of Say’s teammates are still among his best friends, people like Alex Kaloi, Rick Wagner and Paul Dombroski.
“They were all great players,” he said. “It was a great time, a great experience. They’re my best friends.”
He remembers having to sneak out of his house to try out for football because his parents didn’t want him to play.
“My friends at the park talked me into going out for football,” he said. “It’s probably the best thing I ever did. I fell in love with the game.”
Say didn’t try out until his sophomore year.
“Junior year, I was still learning the game,” he said. “We had some great players, but coach Yoshida always said that the backups on our team could start at any other school. We had that much talent.
“I was mostly a reserve, a minute man. Senior year, I started some games, but there were a lot of good players and the competition was there. That’s what made it good. A lot of us ended up going on to play in college.”
Some of the Mules at that time were Fialele Edra, the state lineman of the year who went to Arizona State, and Al Harris, who went to Arizona State and then played for the Chicago Bears. Kaloi and Wagner went to UH. Say and Dombroski went to Linfield.
Dombroski spent seven years in the NFL with Kansas City, New England and Tampa Bay.
“He was my best friend in high school and my roommate at Linfield,” Say said about Dombroski. “We were all close-knit and still hang out together. Alex is a doctor, Rick has a law firm in San Diego, Paul has a business in Tampa. When we get together, it was like we were never apart. Sports brought us together. The grind in football taught us to not give up. I still keep in touch with Al Harris. It was special. I always tell our kids that they are going to remember these days. You remember the names, you remember the guys, you reminisce a lot.”
Say recalls a lot of Hawaii players then, as now, went to Linfield.
“We had the (Hawaii) back of the year in the East (McKinley’s Pat Silva, now the Tigers’ head coach), the lineman of the year in the East (Farrington’s Arthur Trout), and the lineman of the year in the West (Waianae’s Hansel Kane). I gotta look for the Linfield picture and the Hawaii guys. There were 26 of us or something.”
As a senior at Leilehua, Say beefed up to 146 pounds and then in college he got up to 168.
“When I hit 145, lifting weights, I thought I was superman,” he said.
During his varsity years at Leilehua, Say was a running back, slotback and defensive back. In college, he played safety.
“Freshman year in college, they asked are you free or strong and I said free,” Say said. “I went over to that group and there were seven free safeties and six strong safeties. I was always smaller than everybody else, so I had to work harder than everybody. Compared to a 6-foot guy taking one stride, I had to take three strides. I worked on my speed and can happily say that I worked from No. 7 to No. 3 on the chart. I was the only freshman defensive back to letter out of 15 freshmen. The next year, the starting safety, Bubba (Frazier Sparrow), was 6-2, 225, ran a 4.5 in the 40 and hit like a Mack truck. He should have been D-I and he was a starter on the basketball team as a guard. We became great friends. I was a pain in his side. Whenever coaches said to run out there, I would run out there. Other guys would stand around. Bubba would always get mad because I always went full speed.
“In my first scrimmage, an all-conference wide receiver, 6-3, 210, came across and I cut him at the knees. He got up and threw the ball at me and said, ‘Why are you trying to hurt me?’ He wanted to fight. Bubba said, ‘Let me take over. I want to take a shot at the guy.’ I had that attitude. You gotta make your mark.”
Say proved himself as a tackler on special teams.
“My greatest accomplishment in college was being named the Northwest Conference player of the week freshman year,” he said. “I had five unassisted tackles and two assists against Southern Oregon.
“I was consistent. Coach (Ad) Rutschman loved my fire. Pat Silva was a quarterback, but he wasn’t going to get playing time as a freshman. He wanted to get in any way possible, so he asked if he could go special teams. They used to call him the silver bullet. We were trying to beat each other on who could be the first one down the field. I was coach’s tiger on special teams.
“With coach Rutsch, you learned so much. I love him. I can’t think of better mentors than him and coach Yoshida.”
And then came the moment of truth for Say, when he learned a valuable life lesson.
“Senior year, I got a chance to play,” he said. “There was a great freshman All-American who beat me out. I was so disappointed when I got called into the office. They told me he was 6-1 and I was 5-6. It soured on me that I mentored him. He ended up taking the spot.
“It was the greatest learning experience I ever had. My DB coach Mike Riley (who eventually became the Oregon State head coach) would tell me I knew the defense better than him. I was a player coach for him, but I let the guy down. I told them I was leaving because I had bursitis in my shoulders and tendinitis in my knees. I basically quit. It’s the worst decision I ever made. Over time, you think about it. You gotta realize life goes on no matter what. I never quit ever again.”
As a player at Leilehua, Say recalls going head on with a 6-3, 250-pound player from Campbell.
“It was Tootai Petaia in my junior year when I was 115 and he broke my face mask,” he said. “The thing was flapping. But we beat Campbell (56-8).
“I went through the highs and lows and learned from all of it and built lifetime friendships. That’s what sports is about.”
After college, while playing basketball with some friends, including Marco Min (a former Linfield quarterback), Say, who was teaching at Aiea, got asked to coach.
“They said Aiea was looking for DB coach,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot.’ They had me come out and meet the coach, Ray Higa, and he hired me and I’ve been here ever since. This is my 40th year as a coach and I’m going into my 28th as head coach. I’ve loved every minute. I love the community and I love the school. I’ve been fortunate that I could stay at the same school for so long.
Say started coaching defensive backs.
“You’re still young and you are trying to instill character,” he said. “When I coached DBs, I wanted solid, hard hitters. I’m proud to say for every year in my 12 years as an assistant, we had a first- or second-team all-star DB. Some years we had two.”
Recently, Say ran into one of his Leilehua teachers, Mrs. Norma Nakasone.
“She was telling me that she always follows us,” he said. “She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I still think of you as a teenager at Leilehua.’ ”
A year ago, Na Alii had a good group of 13 seniors, according to Say, and he will miss them.
“Not just athletically, but good kids,” he said. “Exactly what you pretty much want your kids to be as far as attitude and character. Our goal was to win all of our games. We came pretty close. We had the lead in most of them. We never gave up. There are more kids out for the team this year and hopefully there will be more to come. The seniors this year are setting the tone for the rest on how hard they gotta work and the importance of working out and staying healthy to prevent injuries.
“The focus is getting better from last year. I think we’re on the right track. I’m kind of excited. We have a lot of good, young players. Some need time to develop, but if they develop early it will be a big plus.”
2019 AIEA NA ALII AT A GLANCE
>> 2018 record and finish: 2-6-1 (2-5 OIA Division I)
>> Head coach Wendell Say’s staff:
— Amosa Amosa (offensive coordinator)
— Chris Taiese (defensive coordinator)
— Mika Liilii (JV head coach)
— Nelson Maeda (receivers)
— Tom Castillo (receivers)
— Al Distajo (running backs)
— Pono Kalua (offensive line)
— James Mane (offensive line)
— Krome Agbayani (offensive line)
— Kevin Chang (defensive line)
— Brian Kealoha (defensive line)
— Benny Morn (linebacker)
— Al Sefronio (defensive backs)
— CJ Tausaga (defensive backs)
— Kainoa Raguindin (defensive backs)
>> Approximate varsity and JV numbers: 45 varsity, 40 JV
>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections returning: None
>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections lost to graduation: Zach Kalahiki-Basque (third-team WR)
>> Players with Division I FBS college offers: None
>> Among 2019 key returnees: Kayson Castillo, Sr., QB, 6-1, 170; Dylan Soberano, Sr., WR, 5-8, 170; Molia Wongsee, Sr., DL/OL, 6-1, 310; Maalo Auvaa, Sr., DB, 5-9, 180; Dan Soranaka, Sr., DE, 5-10, 180; Chase Kanae, Sr. DE, 5-9, 175.
>> All-time state championships: 1 (2003, D-II)
>> All-time Prep Bowl (1973-1998) championships: None
>> All-time OIA championships: 1 (2003, D-II)
>> 2019 conference: OIA Division I
COMING NEXT IN “GLORY DAYS”:
Part 17: Coach Sterling Carvalho and the Kahuku Red Raiders
Previously in the series:
>> Coach Darren Johnson and the 2019 Campbell Sabers
>> Coach John Hao and the 2019 Castle Knights
>> Coach Eddie Klaneski and the 2019 Damien Monarchs
>> Coach David Tautofi and the 2019 Kaimuki Bulldogs
>> Coach Kale Ane and the 2019 Punahou Buffanblu
>> Coach Mike Fanoga and the 2019 Waianae Seariders
>> Coach Bryson Carvalho and the 2019 Waipahu Marauders
>> Coach Mark Kurisu and the 2019 Leilehua Mules
>> Coach Pat Silva and the 2019 McKinley Tigers
>> Coach Kili Watson and the 2019 Nanakuli Golden Hawks
>> Coach Tim Seaman and the 2019 Kaiser Cougars
>> Coach Daniel Sanchez and the 2019 Farrington Governors
>> Coach Scott Melemai and the 2019 Kalani Falcons
>> Coach Lincoln Barit and the 2019 Waialua Bulldogs
>> Coach Savaii Eselu and the 2019 Moanalua Na Menehune