Kalani graduate Gerela giving back with the Aggies
The former Steelers kicker returns to the islands with New Mexico State this weekend
When the New Mexico State football team last visited Hawaii, Roy Gerela was busy adding to his collection of Super Bowl rings.
It was November 1978 and Gerela was the kicker on the Pittsburgh Steelers team that dominated the decade and would win a third Super Bowl title at the end of that season.
New Mexico State at Hawaii
Where: Aloha Stadium
When: Tomorrow, 6:05 p.m. (Gates open at 3 p.m.)
TV: Live, pay-per-view (Dig. 255). Call 625-8100 on Oahu or (808) 643-2337 statewide. Delayed, Sunday 10 a.m., KFVE
Radio: KKEA-1420 AM
Stadium security: No weapons, coolers, noisemakers, backpacks, umbrellas, outside food/beverages. Fanny packs, purses, handbags subject to check.
He was nearing the end of a career in which he twice led the AFC in scoring, was part of one of football's most storied teams and helped revolutionize the craft of place-kicking.
But even with all he's experienced in football, some of his favorite memories in the game extend back to the two years he spent playing at Honolulu Stadium as a Kalani High School standout in the 1960s.
"I had probably the best time of my life going to high school in Hawaii at Kalani and playing football," Gerela said as he prepared to return to the islands this week as an assistant coach with New Mexico State. "People treated me great and I couldn't ask for anything better."
Gerela is now the quality control coordinator for the NMSU football team, which faces Hawaii for the first time in nearly 27 years tomorrow at Aloha Stadium. Kickoff for the Western Athletic Conference game is set for 6:05 p.m.
The Aggies arrived on Oahu yesterday and Gerela is looking forward to catching up with old friends and teammates, including UH linebackers coach Cal Lee.
Gerela and Lee played together on the 1963 Kalani squad that went 3-3-2 in the old Interscholastic League of Honolulu. Gerela had just moved from the mainland and enrolled at Kalani as a junior and played running back and defensive back, while Lee was a senior center and linebacker for the Falcons.
"He was a quiet guy, but he'd always be smiling," Lee recalled.
Gerela, also a catcher on the Kalani baseball team, remembers Lee as a strong leader and recognized some of the traits that would later help Lee build Saint Louis into a football powerhouse as the Crusaders coach.
"He was a very serious guy and a great motivator. He practiced like it was a game and expected everybody else to," Gerela said. "He had a lot of passion for the game, very knowledgeable, tough son-of-a-gun and he played with a lot of heart and a lot of desire like it was his last game ever.
"When he took over at Saint Louis and won all those championships, it didn't really surprise me at all because I knew he would prepare his boys just like he would prepare himself."
Another member of that team was Boisse Correa, now Honolulu's chief of police.
"I remember he (Gerela) was very tenacious, whatever he did he did very well," said Correa, who is also friends with one of Gerela's Pittsburgh teammates, running back Franco Harris.
After graduation, Gerela went on to New Mexico State, where he punted and played defensive back. But it wasn't until his senior season that he stumbled upon the talent that would lead to a lengthy career in the NFL.
Gerela played soccer growing up in Canada and saw Pete and Charlie Gogolak and Jan Stenerud forge successful NFL careers as the first kickers to use the soccer-style technique in an age when straight-on kicking was the norm.
"I went out there and teed it up and hit the ball a long way," Gerela said. "I said if I work on this thing I could develop it and who knows where it's going to take me."
He was the first soccer-style kicker in NMSU history and his prowess led him to a career that included two Pro Bowl selections and helped alter the game's approach to kicking.
"It was still the age of the pioneer and people were still trying to figure it out and wondering if it was going to stick around or if it was a fad," he said. "More people took to it, now all these kickers now are soccer-style kickers."
After a torn groin muscle ended his career, Gerela found his way back to Las Cruces and coached with the Aggies for five years before a coaching change in 1997 left Gerela without a spot on the staff.
He remained in Las Cruces and returned to NMSU this season when Hal Mumme took over the Aggies program. He is now helping kicker Conor Foley and punter Brad Evans refine their technique.
"He really knows his way around the kicking game and special teams and he's been a huge help right there," Mumme said. "He's a New Mexico State grad and has great love for the school. We're just happy he's part of it."
Gerela's return to NMSU also reunited him with Woody Widenhofer, the architect of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense in the '70s and now the Aggies' defensive coordinator.
"Sometimes I see him in the locker room or on the field. I just shake my head and I say I just cant believe that he's here," Gerela said.
Although the Super Bowl wins Gerela and Widenhofer shared highlight their careers, Gerela can still pinpoint his favorite game back in high school and cherishes the memories of his island days.
"Our rival was Kaimuki because we played in the Calabash Bowl with them every year," he said. "One game when I was a junior I intercepted a couple of passes, scored a touchdown, kicked off really well, had a 39-yard punting average. So I prided myself on playing a complete game and winning that bowl.
"You look at the players you played against, people like Charlie Wedemeyer and Bob Apisa. When I played there I felt coming away from Hawaii that people in Hawaii can compete with anybody on the mainland in any sport."