Football
Hula Bowl served as potential final game at Aloha Stadium


 



HALAWA — Some time after the final whistle of Sunday's 75th Hula Bowl, Rich Miano was finally able to appreciate his surroundings.

Miano, the game's executive director, gazed up into the empty stands of Aloha Stadium, the 46-year old venue in Halawa that has been home to high school, college and professional football and so many more memorable events over the years.

Sunday's Hula Bowl — which the Kai team won by a score of 15-13 over the Aina team — could have very well been the last game held at Aloha Stadium, which has been on unstable financial footing due to the coronavirus pandemic and exorbitant annual maintenance costs.

For Miano, the memories go back more than 40 years, to his high school playing days at Kaiser. He then went on to play football at the University of Hawaii and had an 11-year NFL career before eventually going into coaching, both at UH and later at his high school alma mater.

"I've been so busy this week and so the nostalgia thing and the thought of all the memories since 1979 for me to be in here for so many different events from concerts to Pro Bowls, to UH games, to coaching, to playing, to Polynesian Bowls, to Hula Bowls," Miano said.

"I mean, I know there's people that have been in this place longer than I have, but I've had such great memories here it would literally make you tear up and I always felt like even to this day it's still iconic because of how special it's been, how many great events have been here, so yeah, this is a tremendous amount of my life and my children's life growing up have been here at Aloha Stadium," he added.

Like Miano, Kapolei football coach Darren Hernandez also has a long-running personal connection with Aloha Stadium. In addition to their coaching exploits, Miano and Hernandez have also been regular fixtures on UH and high school football television and radio broadcasts.

"A lot of memories," reflected Hernandez, who was the special teams coordinator for team Kai. "I played high school football, played college football here, coached high school football many, many times here, coached high school All-American games, coached the college all-stars and then I've called many games for radio and TV for high school and college, so man, this is part of my soul here, the Aloha Stadium."

Outside of the team locker room, Hernandez shared a moment with his former UH teammate and Kai offensive line coach this week, Leo Goeas.

"I was just sharing with my good friend Leo, we played together at UH, that we were on the field together as players and if this is the end, here we are going out as teammates on the coaching staff, so it's kind of cool," Hernandez said.

Another local product who was able to play on the Aloha Stadium turf — perhaps the very last one — was UH offensive lineman Taaga Tuulima, a 2016 Iolani School graduate from Ewa Beach. Tuulima started at center for team Kai Sunday. He was one of two UH representatives in the game — wide receiver Rico Bussey was the other — but the only one of the 100 total players originally from the state of Hawaii.

"For me personally it feels really special to be the only local boy, born and raised in Hawaii, to be able to say that I played in the last game at Aloha Stadium," Tuulima said. "I was the only local boy to play this last game in the stadium and that means the world to me."

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Tuulima also saw time at both guard positions after halftime. He played left guard in the third quarter and then slid over to right guard for the fourth quarter.

"It was fun and it was good to get some film. I don't feel like I was nervous at all. I was just using what my coaches over the years have taught me and applying it to the field and again, just having fun with it," Tuulima said.

Bussey also started for the Kai team and ended up finishing with four catches for a game-high 61 receiving yards. Bussey caught a 16-yard pass from Memphis quarterback Brady White on the first play of Kai's second drive for the game's first first down, but the drive eventually stalled and led to a punt.

In the second quarter, Bussey pulled down another 16-yard completion — this one from Mississippi State's K.J. Costello — just one play after the Kai defense recorded the game's first takeaway on an interception by Notre Dame defensive back Nick McCloud off of Northwestern QB Peyton Ramsey.

Four plays after the Costello-to-Bussey hook-up, Kai cashed in on the turnover with David Cote's 33-yard field goal to cut the Aina lead to 7-6 with 2:35 left in the first half. The same pair connected on a 25-yard pitch-and-catch in the final minute of the first half, which eventually led to a 52-yard field goal try by Cote. His kick had the distance, but missed wide right for the final play before halftime.

"Rico balled out today. I don't know what his stats were today, but I know he came in clutch on a couple series. Rico balled out for sure," Tuulima said.

Aina held a 7-6 lead at the intermission, but Kai marched 67 yards in six plays to open the second half, capped by a 2-yard TD run by Coastal Carolina's C.J. Marable. The PAT was no good, but Kai took the lead for good at 12-7 with 9:12 on the clock in the third quarter.

Kai made it 15 unanswered points with Cote's 24-yard field goal — his third of the game — to stretch its lead to 15-7 with 3:22 remaining in the third. Aina cut into the Kai lead with Carlo Kemp's 64-yard interception return for touchdown with 1:48 to play in the game, but potential game-tying two-point conversion that followed was no good when Peyton Ramsey's pass fell incomplete.

"I thought it was exciting and I thought it was a little more crisp than last year, in terms of guys throwing the ball, guys catching it, good tackling, good hitting and really, I liked the pace of play," Miano said. "I loved the excitement at the end of the game, where it really came down to a couple of dramatic plays and it was a monumental and I would say an exponential improvement from last year."

NOTRE DAME'S MCCLOUD EARNS HARDWARE

With his second interception of the night late in the contest, McCloud locked up Defensive MVP honors for team Kai, as selected by media members covering the game.

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound cornerback from Notre Dame came up clutch with his pick off of Tulsa QB Zach Smith with under five minutes remaining and team Aina driving deep into Kai territory. McCloud jumped the pass along the right sideline and snagged it at the Kai 9-yard line before returning it 33 yards.

"I just thought how the game was going they were trying to throw a lot of hitches so I was just trying to be patient and make a play on the ball really," said McCloud, a second team All-ACC pick this season.

McCloud had just one interception this year for the Fighting Irish all season. His teammate at Notre Dame, safety Shaun Crawford, was a member of team Aina this week. Still, the pair were able to spend much of the week together and reconnect once more after the game.

"Oh yeah, of course. He just congratulated me on having a good game," McCloud said of Crawford, a captain for the Fighting Irish. "It's just good talking to him. I've been with Shaun the whole weekend so it's been really good to just have some time with my teammates over here."

McCloud and Crawford were also teammates at Notre Dame with a trio of players who played their high school football in Hawaii in defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (Kapolei '17), linebacker Marist Liufau (Punahou '19) and defensive end Jordan Botelho (Saint Louis '20).

"Myron, Marist, Jordan, all those guys are just very good and they're down-to-Earth guys, very hard workers, they're going to work hard so I'm expecting some big things out of all of them coming up this year," McCloud said.

The rest of the game MVPs were Coastal Carolina RB Marable (Kai offense), Iowa RB Mekhi Sargent (Aina offense) and Michigan DL Carlo Kemp (Aina defense).

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OH, CANADA

Placekicker David Cote certainly made his case for offensive MVP honors for team Kai after he converted field goals of 32, 33 and 24 yards in the win.

Cote was one of three international players in the game, but the lone Canadian one. Two others — Kai defensive back Kengo Bono and Aina DB Yuya Watanabe — made the trip from their respective Japanese college programs, Kansai and Hasei. Cote represented Laval University in Quebec City.

"It was a pretty awesome week. The whole organization did a very good job with all the COVID stuff and everything to keep us safe and healthy and with this group of guys it's been a really nice week," he said.

College football in Canada utilizes the same set of rules as the Canadian Football League. Cote explained some of the differences he faced this week.

"It's a little bit different. Our goalposts is right on the goal line and the balls are different, I think that was the biggest difference with the ball size and everything, but it went pretty well considering that," Cote said.

Cote made good on three of his four field goal attempts Sunday. His only miss was from 52 yards at the end of the first half. He also hit the left upright on his lone PAT try of the night after Marable's short TD run early in the third quarter.

"It was just about getting his confidence, he was doing great in practice," said Hernandez, the Kai special teams coordinator. "I give a lot of credit to Brian Egan, the kicking coach. We were able to get everything squared away and once (Cote) got his confidence down he was fine."

VANDY'S MEYER A PART OF HISTORY

Cote's journey to Hawaii for the Hula Bowl was a long one, to be sure, but his long snapper on team Kai, Vanderbilt's Scott Meyer, also had an interesting journey to the 50th state in more ways than one.

Meyer, who is originally from Alpharetta, Georgia, started out his collegiate football career at the University of Alabama. His teammate there?

Tua Tagovailoa.

"He was my holder actually during that 2017 season," Meyer said.

Meyer said that if he had any preconceived notions about the 808, they were all positive. And they were directly influenced by Tagovailoa and the aloha spirit that he took to Tuscaloosa.

"The biggest one was just that everybody was so nice. Everybody I've always met from Hawaii has always been so nice and everyone I've met here has been so nice," Meyer said. "It's a very close culture, like everybody is family-oriented — I think that's really cool — and he also brings those beach-weather vibes, too and I mean, Hawaii has been everything I expected it to be and a little more. It's just beautiful and because of him it's just all been great."

Hula Bowl executive director Rich Miano pointed out that due to a technicality with Meyer's COVID testing after already arriving in Honolulu, he had to fly back to Los Angeles, re-take the test and then immediately get on a return flight back to Hawaii.

"He came on his own even though we paid for him, but he wanted to come a few days early," Miano said. "You look at the adversity he had to go through to get here and you know, everybody has a story, but these kids, to get to this level — one step away from their dream — it's just wonderful to get to know these young men a little better."

Despite the travel difficulties that he endured, Meyer has been appreciative of being in the 50th state for the very first time.

"It was awesome. The Hula Bowl put on a great week for us. We had a lot of great practices, a lot of scouts were here, it was awesome and I think everyone played well and practiced well and it was just a great opportunity to experience the island, experience Hawaii, the tradition, the culture and also to experience some more football," he said.

But perhaps the highlight of Meyer's entire college football season was being a part of the history that was made by Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller earlier this season. Fuller became the first female to play in a Power 5 college football game when she kicked off to start the second half of a game against Missouri in late November. A few weeks later, Fuller became the first female to score points in a Power Five game when she converted an extra point against Tennessee.

"That was amazing. You know when it first happened, like when she first joined the team, we didn't really expect much of it, but then when they announced it and we saw how much it blew up, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is a lot bigger than football,' " Meyer recalled.  "Then when she made those kicks, when we were getting ready to go out there, you know she was calm and collected and when that happened, I saw that kick — I've seen that kick a thousand times because it's everywhere — and she's really been an inspiration to little girls and just to be a little bit part of that it's been awesome."

Fuller even took part in the inauguration of President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20.

MILITARY ACADEMIES WELL-REPRESENTED

Among the 100 players that took part in the game were four individuals representing all three Division-I football-playing service academies.

Army Westpoint linebacker Jon Rhattigan and Navy cornerback Cameron Kinley were teammates on the Kai team, while Air Force's Parker Ferguson and Navy's Peter Nestrowitz were teammates on the Aina offensive line this week.

"We were all in touch and talking about shared experiences, so it was cool," Rhattigan said. "We talked a lot about our experiences and we helped each other out throughout the week, so it was good to be teammates with Cameron Kinley and compete against Navy and Air Force once more time as well."

It was not Rhattigan's first time to the islands. His last time here was in late November of 2019, when Army visited Aloha Stadium for a game against the University of Hawaii.

"I came last year when we played at Hawaii so I've been in this locker room and everything," Rhattigan reminisced.

The hometown ‘Bows came away with a 52-31 win that time, but Rhattigan was happy to team with a couple of former UH players in Taaga Tuulima and Rico Bussey to help team Kai to the win Sunday.

"It felt great and I had an awesome experience this whole week and it was really nice to be on the winning team and to cap it off with a victory," he added.

Due to the rigid COVID restrictions, the players and team held no public appearances during this week's festivities, but Rhattigan said the four service academy members were well aware of their surroundings.

"Last year our team we went out to Pearl Harbor and visited that and it was a great experience for all of us and just to be in the islands and know that there's a big military presence and I'm sure there was a lot of military people watching the game and that makes us very thankful and grateful for all the support and we really want to represent the military the best that we can," Rhattigan said.

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LEARNING FROM LEGENDS

While former NFL head coaches Rex Ryan (Kai) and Mike Singletary (Aina) led both coaching staffs, many of their assistants were familiar faces.

In addition to Hernandez as the special teams coordinator, the Kai staff included, among others, UH offensive coordinator G.J. Kinne (quarterbacks), former Saint Louis coach Matt Wright (linebackers) and former Campbell and UH receiver Samson Anguay (running backs).

Hernandez enjoyed his time working with Ryan as well as offensive coordinator Mark Sanchez during the week.

"Rex Ryan is a beauty, I mean he's a good fun guy. He really makes it fun for the kids and he lets them play. He treats them like adults and he's just such an innovative mind for defense," Hernandez said. "We made a halftime adjustment, he just drew it up on the board at halftime, we implemented it and we stopped their run in the second half so he's just a pro and the way he approaches the game — light-hearted, fun, a great sense of humor — so it was a lot of fun being out here."

On the opposite sideline, Kaimuki coach David Tautofi served as tight ends coach for team Aina. He has relished the opportunity to learn from the likes of Ryan and Sanchez, as well as Singletary, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Aina offensive coordinator Jim Zorn, another former NFL head coach.

"It's a first class experience when you get to have conversations with guys like Singletary, Ryan, Sanchez and Zorn, these are guys that we used to see on Sundays coaching teams or playing and some of the legends they've become and now they're actually here on the island and for a moment in time you're on same platform as these guys, just an honor to get a peek into a different world," Tautofi said.

Among the other local coaches on the Aina staff were UH assistant Abraham Elimimian (defensive backs), Kamehameha coach Abu Maafala (defensive line), Pearl City coach Robin Kami (special teams coordinator) and former Kahuku and Kaiser defensive coordinator Sola Soliai (linebackers).


WHAT'S NEXT?

The Hula Bowl was first established in 1946, with the first game played in 1947 and held annual until 2008. The game was held in Aloha Stadium from 1976 until 1997 before it moved to War Memorial Stadium on Maui for eight seasons. The Hula Bowl returned once more to Aloha Stadium from 2006 to 2008, but was not held for 12 years until it was resurrected by Miano and owner Nick Logan last year.

The Kai team beat the Aina team, 23-7, before a crowd of 5,500 at Aloha Stadium in last year's edition of the game. However, there is some uncertainty about the future of the game, given the circumstances that surround Aloha Stadium.

Miano is optimistic that the game can still take place. Ideally in Hawaii.

"We hope that the University of Hawaii can build a facility for next year where it's new turf, like they say, new scoreboard, upgraded press box, all those things — if they can play there, we can play there — if not, if it's still under construction then Kamehameha's (Kunuiakea Stadium) an option and then if not, the ninth island (Las Vegas) would be an option," Miano said.

He added that Logan is committed to making sure there is a Hula Bowl in 2022 — wherever that may be.

"He and I have talked about if we have to get Allegiant Stadium or Sam Boyd in Las Vegas," Miano said. "We don't want to take this game away from Hawaii, because it's the Hula Bowl, but if there's nowhere to play then we have no option."



Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].


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