Sunday, October 20, 2002

Hawaii football player Kenny Patton and grandparents Linda and Joseph Bunch, a martial arts instructor, posed at a practice recently with UH coach June Jones.

Patton just a part of
an athletic ‘Bunch’

By Dave Reardon

When Kenny Patton picked up a loose football and sprinted across Aloha Stadium in a Hawaii Warriors uniform last month, he drew the attention of an entire state.

That's what happens when a kid becomes a prominent UH athlete, especially a football player who scores a dramatic touchdown four games into his college career.

Patton isn't much different than other 18-year-olds -- except that he is more polite, smarter and much more athletic than most. On the surface, he's normal, almost typical. Quiet and humble.


But the more you learn about his family, the more you think it was his destiny to be noticed, to become a part of our collective consciousness in one way or another, probably in sports.

If you were involved in local track and field in the 1980s, you know the names Joey and Elizabeth Bunch. The Radford athletes were state champions. Joey still holds the state record in the 800 meters, the same event in which he became the Pac-10 champion at USC.

Kenny Patton calls Joey Bunch "Uncle" and Elizabeth, now Patton, "Mom."

If you are a practitioner of martial arts in Hawaii you've probably met Joe Bunch. He is the chief instructor at Hawaii-Okinawa Karate-Do Shudokan. His championship titles are numerous, and he has taught karate to thousands of people in Hawaii.

Kenny Patton calls Joe Bunch "Grandpa."

If you watched a lot of TV in the 1970s you remember Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine. He was one of the Gong Show regulars, actually a stagehand whom host Chuck Barris enlisted to dance across the stage between acts.

Kenny Patton calls Gene Patton "Grandpa."

High school football fans in Southern California remember Sidney Patton, a fine quarterback and baseball player at John Muir High School in the early 1980s. Sidney marched in a parade once, representing the fifth generation of the first black family to settle in Pasadena.

Kenny Patton calls Sidney Patton "Dad."

Three generations. Four sports. Rooms full of trophies, pictures, plaques, ribbons, spikes, gloves, bats, kendo sticks, balls, helmets, pads, instructional books. ... and, of course, memories.

Most of the Bunches and Pattons -- including matriarch Linda, Kenny's 60-year-old grandmother, and 6-year-old Jennifer, Kenny's cousin -- are black belts, or on their way to becoming so. As are Kenny's sister and brother, 11-year-old Kaeli and 10-year-old Kerry.

They've always gathered on Sundays, at Grandpa Joe and Grandma Linda's house in Aiea. Now, the family has another reason to get together, Saturdays at Aloha Stadium.

"There's about 10 of us, it's become a big deal," Sidney Patton said. "Everybody in California saw the game when Kenny scored. Elizabeth's cell phone was blowing up."

Kenny was no stranger to Aloha Stadium before this fall. He and his Punahou teammates spent many an evening there two years ago. But Kenny didn't get into the games very often.

That was one reason he went to live with his grandparents Gene and Doris Patton in Altadena, Calif. There was a good private school, St. Francis, with a good football team, a school Gene had wanted to send Sidney, but couldn't at the time.

But there was a more important reason for Kenny to spend time with his grandparents. Gene Patton, the dancing machine, had recently had both legs amputated because of diabetes.

A man who America had thought of with a smile, was dealt another personal blow; three of his stepsons had previously died violent deaths.

Sidney and Elizabeth considered returning to the L.A. area to live, but leaving Hawaii proved too difficult a move to make for various reasons.

This family knows its martial arts. Front: Kerry Patton, Kenny Patton and Kaeli Patton. Back: Joey Bunch, Joe Bunch, Jeff Bunch, Linda Bunch, Sidney Patton and Elizabeth Patton.

Kenny's one-year visit worked out for him and his grandparents. Gene, a big sports fan, loved going to his grandson's games and watching him star for St. Francis. But it was the little things that mattered most.

"He was a joy," Gene Patton said. "We'd go out to the store and when we came back he'd cleaned the entire house by himself, without being asked. It was like nothing to him, that's just how he is. Imagine, a teenager, washing and folding all the clothes, making everything spotless."

Kenny Patton said it wasn't a big deal.

"My grandparents have always been there for me, the support was always there," he said. "It was my turn to help them."

Elizabeth Patton wasn't surprised.

"He's just always been real considerate. That's why he was there, to help out however he could," she said.

"He raised Gene's spirits a lot during a rough time," Joe Bunch said.

Joe Bunch knows all about rough times. His were in 1968, near Khe Sanh, the sight of the worst siege of the Vietnam War. His days and nights of worry about his young family thousands of miles away were interrupted by the Tet Offensive. An explosion ripped up his right knee when his unit was overrun.

"I wasn't even supposed to be there. I had just come from drill sergeant duty and they don't usually send you to combat after that," the retired Marine said.

Joe Bunch spends his days as a park ranger at the Arizona Memorial and his evenings teaching karate to another generation who will remember him as sensei.

"Once their mind is programmed to be successful in martial arts, they can be successful in anything," Joe Bunch said.

Kenny said his karate experiences have helped him in football.

"It got me in shape and kept me limber and made me competitive," he said.

Gene Patton is dealing with his disease, and in no way letting it get him down. A daughter is nearby to help him and Doris.

He is remembered by many for his part on that crazy TV show. His friends from 28 years of employment at the NBC studios visit him often. Just last week Murray Langston -- better known as "The Unknown Comic" dropped by. Gene introduced Kenny to George Clooney, who is making a movie about the Gong Show, last year.

"I've been working a little on the side, and I feel good," he said. "I feel blessed."

He was planning to get to Fresno to see Kenny play this Friday, but that fell through.

Joey Bunch and Elizabeth Patton, the best brother-sister middle-distance running tandem ever in the state, are teachers now, and both raising families of their own.

And they're all becoming Hawaii football fans.

"We've been USC fans because they did a lot for Joey," Joe Bunch said. "They helped him get his master's degree. Maybe we'll have to think about that again."

"Nah, they're UH fans now," Kenny said with a quick grin.

We'll find out next fall when the Warriors visit the Trojans.

It will be a big get-together for the Bunches and the Pattons. It will all be centered on the unassuming but talented college sophomore Kenny Patton, the newest star from two families of unassuming stars.

"I can't put into words how proud we are," Sidney Patton said. "We always felt like he had the ability, but to help the team this early is really a surprise.

"The funny thing about Kenny is he'll never tell you anything about how good he's doing. We have to read about it. When he comes home on Sunday we don't really talk about football unless he brings it up. He's just that way."

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