fighting for position
UH coaches give long, hard
looks to walk-ons during
the team's spring workouts
It was a sweet story, sure, the one about the Notre Dame scrub who finally got into a game for his 15 seconds -- and later, 15 years -- of fame after serving as a human tackling dummy on the Fighting Irish scout team.
But that's reel life.
None of the college football players at University of Hawaii spring practice -- not even the most anonymous scouts -- want to settle for "Rudy." They'd much rather be a Bob Gagliano or a Richard Johnson.
Not exactly Joe Montana or Jerry Rice, but Gagliano and Johnson fashioned decent NFL careers for themselves against all expectations other than their own. Hawaii coach June Jones knows all about them, and they are two of the reasons he gives everyone a long look.
Jones coached the Detroit quarterbacks and wide receivers in 1989 and 1990. Gagliano, a quarterback, and Johnson, a receiver, are the two most unheralded players he has been associated with who stuck with it to become successful pros, he said. They're not as famous as "Rudy," but they out-did him a thousand times over.
"Johnson played in the USFL out of Colorado, then he disappeared and sold insurance and became a computer guy. Then he reappeared with the Lions and broke their receiving records. That's coming out of nowhere, not playing football for five years," Jones said. "Gagliano was another guy like that. He played at about three colleges and made it with the Denver Gold of the USFL. Then we signed him at Detroit not expecting much and he ended up with a long NFL career."
Obscure players can make their presence felt at UH, too, Jones said. Safety Rich Miano and running back James Fenderson, who both began as unknown walk-ons at Manoa, worked their way to the NFL.
"We're going to have some guys come out of nowhere again," Jones said. "Who would've thought Chad Owens? Look where he is. It happens every year. There's always going to be a couple of those stories. Walk-ons sometimes become your best players."
Is there a secret formula for a not-so-blue chip to make it?
"Well, I would say it takes a little of everything," Jones said. "You've got to be smart, you gotta not make mistakes. You're going to get noticed if you don't make mistakes. And you've got to have some quickness. Play the game faster than your opponent and you have a chance to get noticed. That's true at every position."
Here are the stories of a few of this spring's Unknown Warriors, players who might never make it into a game, but for now are on the same track as many underdogs who made it to the pros:
>> Thomas Frazier was at home in Brockton, Mass., enjoying a day off from his job working with youthful offenders last November watching a game on TV. When he saw Hawaii beat Alabama, he decided to resume his college football career, and he knew where he wanted to go to do it.
"I wanted to get back into school, back to my education," said Frazier, a defensive tackle who had played junior-college ball. "From watching that game, I knew about Hawaii's walk-on tradition and I knew I'd get a fair opportunity. They talked about Coach Miano and some other successful walk-on players."
Frazier didn't know it until he met Miano later, but they had something else in common; they were both coached by Armond Columbo at Brockton High School, one of the most successful prep football programs in the nation. (Miano, a Kaiser High School graduate, moved to Hawaii when he was in 10th grade.) Frazier played on two state championship teams at Brockton.
"He's working hard," defensive line coach Vantz Singletary said of the 6-foot, 282-pound senior. "He's got a great attitude. He's working hard with the scout unit, paying his dues."
>> Kamana Kauahi isn't exactly a no-name, since his father, Kani, is well-known in Hawaii for his exploits at Kamehameha and UH and in the NFL, where he had a long career as a long snapper.
"He always gives me pointers," said the 6-1, 235-pound freshman from Seattle and Desert Vista High School in Phoenix. "We go over everything, and that really helps."
Legacy or not, walking on as an offensive lineman is tough at UH, especially for an undersized player like Kauahi. He hopes to battle his way past the scholarship behemoths with tenacity and smarts.
"I know I've just got to go full-out, can't take a play off," he said. "And know my plays."
Kauahi was a long snapper two years in high school, but UH has a recruit, Bryce Runge, coming in the fall for that spot. Kauahi could be a secret weapon at kicker, though. He played that position as a senior and kicked a 40-yard field goal. But Kauahi believes his future is on the line.
"I've always loved the offensive line," said Kauahi, who is competing at center. "I've been able to play that position better than anything else I've played."
>> Micah Lau is a 5-foot-9, 200-pound linebacker. There aren't too many of those starting for Division I college football teams. But shorter men have starred at the position in the NFL, like Sam Mills, who played in five Pro Bowls. Lau, a second-year freshman from Kamehameha, knows he has a long way to go, however.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can, go 100 percent and get on anything, special teams, kickoff," he said. "Hopefully I can open some eyes."
Lau thought about going to a smaller school where playing time would be more likely.
"I chose here because I wanted to play in front of home," said Lau, whose father, Mike, and cousin Leonard both played at UH.
>> Nolan Lee was offered scholarships from Division I-AA schools out of Niwot High School in Colorado. But the 6-4, 174-pound wide receiver was drawn to the placidity of Hawaii's beaches and the frenzy of its football team's attack.
"I really like the offense. They pass a lot more than we did back home," said Lee, who vacationed here with his parents two years ago. "I liked Hawaii, so I figured why not come out for school, too? I just want to play my best and hopefully I'll get a shot."
Receivers coach Ron Lee (no relation) said Lee is progressing well at the Z position, which is wide-open with the departure of starter Jeremiah Cockheran.
"He's got a good understanding of the offense after five practices," the coach said. "He catches the ball and runs good routes. For a tall guy, he's well-coordinated."