If, or when, one day the great sport of football is permanently banished from the face of planet earth, it is probable that future humans will find a way to legalize the game on Mars.
Or some other galaxy. The passion for football is, well, almost impossible to completely describe. It is magnificent. It is all-consuming. It is, as we saw tonight at Aloha Stadium, sometimes the lowest possible common denominator between friends, frenemies and, in the bleachers behind the NorCal All-Stars bench, downright hostiles.
It was, as Hawaii East All-Stars coach Joe Wong said, something that “shouldn’t leave a mark” on what was a game of awe-inspiring plays by some of the best football players in Hawaii and Northern California. Hawaii East rallied for a 26-14 win in the JPS Paradise Bowl championship game. It was a remarkable performance by two massively talented teams. There were future Division I college football stars lined up on both sides. And yet…
When the game was suspended by officials with 2:59 left, minutes after a near-riot blew up in the bleachers between fans of both teams, it was not really a shock. Surprising to an extent because adults are supposed to be role models, but at a high school all-star game? This isn’t the first time fans and/or players have gotten out of line, whether it is here or anywhere else. It was brutally ugly in the bleachers, visible for all to see, including the many toddlers and elementary-age keiki who came to see brothers and cousins playing a game.
That sinking feeling in my stomach, the one I last truly felt way back in intermediate school (yes, kids, they were called “intermediate” back then, not middle) while a bully was wrongly accused by a bigger bully of picking on a small child, then kicked and stomped mercilessly for minutes on end. Like tonight’s all-star extravaganza hosted by Junior Prep Sports, the moments before that beating, we ninth graders were signing yearbooks. It was calm and, with the school year nearly done, as light a mood as could be imagined.
Aloha Stadium, tonight, well, it was a mix of great football and mind-boggling, hyper-aggressive taunting and post-whistle shenanigans. It started to get testy in the second quarter, while the game was still a tight defensive battle. For all the defense, though, it was a great spectacle without anything extracurricular.
By the time the half ended, one Hawaii East player had been ejected, making a spectacle of himself on live statewide TV, trying to bully NorCal players after the whistle. Maybe he was incited to a fervor by trash talk, maybe not. But it looked and felt like Hawaii East didn’t have control of him at all.
The second half started with nothing but good football on both sides, once again. Maybe we get through the night without any more ejections. But by the time Hawaii East’s lead was down to 20-14, things got chippy again. A NorCal player got ejected after pummeling Hawaii East quarterback Alaka‘i Yuen on a 44-yard TD pass, leveling him unnecessarily and knocking him cold. Yuen, who suffered a neck injury more than a year ago playing for Moanalua, was down for several minutes and eventually got up and walked off the field. By then, the chaos had completely escalated in the bleachers, where fans of both teams were forced to sit together; the bleachers on the opposite side were closed.
Within seconds, one fight spread and fists were flying everywhere. Multiple skirmishes and innocent onlookers being within inches of getting hit. It got worse and worse. NorCal’s players began to walk toward the lockers. Hawaii East coaches sprinted across the field, their red shirts clearly vivid as they rushed into the bleachers to protect and stop the fighting. It lingered on for minutes, and there was just one police officer visible. Somehow, there were no serious injuries after the madness had quelled.
In the end, even with the plethora of flags and the two ejections, what happened on the field was mild compared to what adults did in the stands.
“Cooler heads prevailed,” Wong said. “It was real chippy out there. We were down 7-0, we kept our composure and our guys represented Hawaii well.”
That might be debatable, though on the whole, Wong is right. After the one Hawaii East player was ejected before halftime, there weren’t a whole lot of behavior-related penalties. Quarterbacks Yuen and Taulia Tagovailoa were superb. They got more time to throw the ball, but there was more to it.
“It was a matter of being more comfortable in the pocket,” said Wong, a former standout offensive lineman at BYU who is also varsity head coach at Kailua. “Our quarterbacks made the adjustment.”
NorCal’s pass rush was a force of nature in the first half with three sacks. Nick Sagaiga, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound mountain with speed was a constant threat. His right leg injury late in the game was probably a factor as Hawaii East drove for its final touchdown.
The video will show that Hawaii East’s receivers, from Isaiah Freeney (8-yard TD), Kame Kim Choy-Keb-Ah Lo (65-yard TD), Andrew Valladares (26-yard TD) and Mark Lagazo (44-yard TD) benefited from outstanding footwork by their QBs, and great second-half line protection. But for sheer talent and skill, they proved themselves against NorCal’s best defensive backs with all four TDs after halftime. Hawaii may draw far more scouts today for more than linemen and linebackers, but slotbacks and receivers remain underrated by college recruiters.
Ronnie Rivers, the Fresno State-bound running back for NorCal, just a magnificent athlete with heart and the kind of explosiveness off a cut on a dime — I haven’t seen it quite like this at the prep level in a long time. And he doesn’t seem like a 170-pound senior at all. Runs like 210.
“When we do assignment football, we did well. They might have all the (college) offers, but we dominated their front,” Wong said. “They’re 3, 4 inches taller than us, and our guys took it right to them. They showed they can just march down the field on anybody.”
Jordan Brookshire, the New Mexico-bound slinger, seemed tentative at first coming off the bench. But he was elusive, smart and pinpoint accurate. He was swamped by a great pass rush and still escaped like a surfer zipping out of the chute at Pipeline. He made that 8-yard TD run look easy, and it brought NorCal within 20-14 with 3:14 left.
But a few moments later, after Yuen took that illegal hit on the last TD pass, all heck broke loose in the bleachers. Wong points to the lack of etiquette, an ejected NorCal player described by onlookers as whooping it up in front of the crowd and riling everyone up after knocking Yuen out. There was, of course, no postgame handshaking.
“You never see that in Hawaii. If one of our guys tried that, we would take care of that,” Wong said. “We can’t control what happens outside the field.”
NorCal coach Victor Galli says it was some Hawaii fans who wouldn’t stop initiating tension.
“Their fans, they’re chirping at our kids. We’re visitors. Can you be friendly? From the minute we walked off the plane,” he said. “This is a wonderful event, but man, we’re here to play football. It was out of hand.”
Galli said the same thing happened when NorCal travelled to Hawaii last year.
“They have a good football team. We have a good football team. We’re controlling our kids and telling them, ‘Don’t retaliate.’ It’s hard to hold them back. The refs did their best. It’s not cool. Play hard, don’t fight. Not the disrespect.”
Galli’s disappointment, to be sure, was not with everyone.
“Most people in Hawaii are great. I know JPS worked really hard to put this together. Robert (Faleafine) and JPS worked their (tails) off, but it only takes a few to escalate things. We took this the last two years. They’ve got to change the way they do it,” he said.
With that, NorCal’s players, coaches and fans began to leave through the front of the stadium. With police escort.