In the spring of 1975, Aloha Stadium was under construction. Cranes were swinging the brown steel against the sunny blue skies of Halawa, just east of Pearl Harbor. Six miles away in sunny Kalihi, The Damien Monarchs football team gathered on its practice field, a dust bowl still recovering from the ruts and hard pan created by heavy equipment for the Damien Carnival just a couple months prior. Second-year coach Jack Koury bellowed as he would throughout the pre-season up until the day of our first game, “In 40 years when they ask who won the first football game in Aloha Stadium, do you want it to be You?”
In his battle cry was more than the voice of a new coach searching for a gimmick to inspire harder, more focused practices; it was the voice of all Damien alumni and current students who were starving for its first winning football season in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu (ILH). Established in 1962, Damien Memorial High School was then an all-boy Catholic prep school competing with perennial powerhouses Punahou, Kamehameha, St Louis, and Iolani. Cradling many future NFL players such as Charlie and Kale Ane, Mosi Tatupu, David Hughes, Blaine Gaison, and later Manti Tèo, Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa, the pedigree of play at the “private schools” league has always been impressive.
In that spring of 1975 I earned the position of starting quarterback and would have the great honor of representing Damien at that position for both my junior and senior years. To say that the anticipation leading up to our first game was intense is not nearly descriptive enough. While the prospect of playing in a brand new 50,000-person capacity stadium was exciting in itself, the buzz around Aloha Stadium was the moveable sections that allowed for different configurations. Perhaps it was my sophomore chemistry knowledge gone awry, as well, but I seem to recall that the word on the coconut wireless network was the brown steel would eventually oxidize and appear as a shiny gold color. The notion of playing in a golden palace was quite exciting for all of us in the mid-1970’s.
After the University of Hawaii and the then WFL Hawaiians played their openers in Aloha Stadium, Damien would open the high school competitive slate in the first game (3:00 PM) of the ILH triple-header the following Friday, September 19, 1975. Damien had an exceptionally stingy, tough defense that would serve to keep us in every game that year. On my side of the ball, we ran an option offense. While my passing skills would remain suspect throughout my football career, my legs compensated for my “developing” arm. On this day, in the first high school game played in Aloha Stadium, Damien Monarchs defeated the Iolani School Red Raiders, 28-15. It was a sweet day for sure.
While I would certainly relish in the fact that I threw the first touchdown pass (high school) in Aloha Stadium to Frank “Bud’ Alvarado, and be the first quarterback to score a running TD, it is the team win that kicked off Damien’s first-ever winning season that remains the stalwart memory. After pre-season wins over Castle and Kahuku, we posted a 5-4 winning season, beating every other team in the ILH at least once, with the glaring exception of Kamehameha School. This inaugural winning season was the relief and release required for Damien ohana to finally celebrate a winning crusade on the gridiron.
While I would go on to claim that my athletic career ‘peaked’ in the first game of my junior year of high school, the host of other memories from my Aloha Stadium playing days remain strong as well.
The most painful memory was in the last game of my senior year when with 3 minutes to play in the game, I suffered a torn meniscus and strained MCL in my right knee. That ended my playing days as subsequent injury at Navy would lead to 6 knee surgeries including two total knee replacements.
My most traumatic memory was late in the fourth quarter while tied with perennial powerhouse Kamehameha. With two minutes to go, I scrambled left to extend the play to run down the clock; I then got tackled on the sideline and ruled out of bounds. Kamehameha got the ball and promptly marched down the field with less than two minutes and scored the go-ahead, winning touchdown. I am embarrassed to say at how much this has tormented me throughout the years, a reminder to put “Team’ before ‘me’.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Damien was 3-0 against Punahou during these two years. Please note that It is out of the deepest respect for the history of Punahou’s exceptional academic and athletic history that I cast this memory. It does not matter what continent I’m on, what time zone I’m in, or what language I’m trying to speak, if Hawaii sports comes up, this factoid opens eyes wide-open with stunned incredulousness. I am shameless with this memory.
As I prepare myself to stroll into the stadium where I was carried from in November 1976 I am filled with streams of emotion already bringing me misty-eyes and chicken-skin. I have immense gratitude for Coach Koury and Damien Nation for allowing me the opportunity to represent our great learning institution that has served as the bedrock foundation for not only my Naval Academy education, and naval service, but most importantly, has guided me as a husband, father, and grandfather.
I don’t have a definitive plan for my visit to the “Aloha from Aloha Stadium’ event this Saturday. While it would be fun to throw the pigskin again to Bud, or take some snaps from my center Ben Aina, I’ll likely go sit on the 18-yard line, near the south end zone, not too close to the sideline, to work on my “Kamehameha” demon. I have nothing but love and respect for my Aloha Stadium memories, my Hawaii roots, and of course my Damien brethren. And 48 years later, you, too, know who won the first game in Aloha Stadium.
Oh…Did I mention Damien went 3-0 against Punahou back in the day?