SB FILE / SEPTEMBER 2003
Ikaika Curnan was Hawaii's leading tackler in 2003, including 10 in a rout of Rice. But the next season he injured his ankle.
Hawaii’s Curnan persevered
The linebacker went from defensive leader to role player because of an ankle injury
When Hawaii linebacker Ikaika Curnan reflects on his college football career, two victories stand out -- for two very different reasons.
San Diego State at Hawaii
Where: Aloha Stadium
When: 6:05 p.m., tomorrow
TV: Live, Oceanic Cable, pay-per-view (Ch. 255). PPV delay at 10:30 p.m. Free on KFVE (Ch. 5) Sunday at 10 a.m.
On Nov. 29, 2003, Curnan was in on a game-high 15 tackles as the Warriors beat Alabama 37-29. It was the signature moment of his career. Although it wasn't a great Crimson Tide team, Alabama is Alabama and the win will go down as one of the biggest in the history of the UH program.
"That was my most memorable game," Curnan said.
On Oct. 9, 2004, Hawaii celebrated a 48-26 win over Nevada. But Curnan, UH's leading tackler from the previous season, limped off the field in the first half with what, at the time, was thought to be an ankle sprain. He tried to play through the injury, missing just three of the remaining nine games. It never fully healed, and it was discovered later that several bones in the ankle area were broken.
"He played all those games with broken bones. That gives you an idea of what kind of pain tolerance he has," UH linebackers coach Cal Lee said.
Curnan was encouraged by postseason surgery, but he never regained the quickness that helped him make 121 stops as a sophomore in 2003. The Saint Louis School graduate from Kauai -- once the Warriors' best defensive player -- was relegated to the second string this fall.
Curnan has played in all 11 games and made 19 tackles this year. He is listed as a backup to sophomore Brad Kalilimoku and freshman Solomon Elimimian at inside linebacker. Curnan did make one of the biggest plays of this season, forcing a San Jose State fumble at the UH 1-yard line that was recovered by teammate Kila Kamakawiwo'ole. Hawaii won 45-38.
In some significant ways, Curnan's career parallels the Warriors' story of the past few seasons. He and his classmates from the 2001 recruiting class have helped UH to a 40-24 record going into their final game, tomorrow night against San Diego State (5-6) at Aloha Stadium. They were there for 10 wins in 2002 and nine in 2003. They participated in three bowl games. They battled through injuries last year. This year, they dealt with transition that left some of them, like Curnan, watching more than playing -- and watching more losses (seven) than wins (four).
Curnan has managed to smile through it, working even harder than he did when he was relatively healthy and starting. Injuries are nothing new to him; he'd dealt with knee and elbow ailments before the ankle.
Now, he's thankful for the occasional opportunity to contribute as a role player in short-yardage situations and special teams. And he's had time to reflect on the real reason he went to college.
"A lot of trials and tribulations, adversity. It's just been that kind of year, or two years. It's been a good learning experience for me. I learned a lot, grew a lot. It was good for me. You just have to try to be as positive as you can," said Curnan, who is on track to earn a sociology degree in the summer. "Shoot, five years here. I'm glad I'm still in school. Getting the degree is the main thing. I'm here for a paper."
He does catch himself wondering how things could be different if not for the low block that mangled his ankle.
"Definitely. It goes through my head a lot. It bothers me a lot, but I try to not let it take over me," Curnan said. "At times it did, but you can't dwell on things. You just got to move on and keep your head up and stay focused and be positive. You can't be negative."
Hawaii coach June Jones said Curnan's size (5-feet-9, 220 pounds is his ideal playing shape) probably would have limited his NFL opportunities. But his knack for finding the ball carrier might have gotten him at least a free-agent look.
"It's very frustrating, for me and him. His ankle injury probably cost him his career and I feel bad for him because he was playing at a really high level those early years and when he broke his ankle, the surgery and everything really set him back and he's probably not 50 percent of where he was," Jones said. "He's a winner. He's positive. In life when you have adversity, it's how you handle the adversity that shows what kind of person you are and he's handled it well."
Curnan was a USA Today high school All-American at Saint Louis, where he, UH teammate Tanuvasa Moe and Washington captain Joe Lobendahn all started at linebacker for Lee, who was the Crusaders' head coach. USC and Wisconsin were among the schools that recruited Curnan.
His teammates will remember him as an outstanding player and an even better person.
"He's one of the greatest people I've ever met. He took it all in stride," Moe said. "This year, he had to come in and be on the back burner and he never said one thing about it. He never complained. It inspired everyone because everyone knows what kind of player he is. Every time Solomon makes a play, Ikaika's one of the first people to give him five."
Senior center and team captain Derek Fa'avi said Curnan found ways to contribute despite not playing.
"He's a good role model and an inspiration. You can't take away what he did for the program," Fa'avi said. "He gave it his all. No complaints. He didn't say a word. He just kept going. I think that's something we can all learn from."
High praise: Reggie Bush couldn't remember Leonard Peters' name, but the USC star had some kind words for the UH safety in an ESPN.com "SportsNation" chat with fans today.
A fan asked Bush who the best player he faced this year is.
"As for the toughest player, I don't know. The guy that sticks out is #42, the safety for Hawaii, he was just everywhere, involved in everything. I don't know his name but he was fast and he was a great player and every time I got tackled, he was there," Bush answered.
Peters made five tackles but suffered a knee injury late in the 63-17 loss to USC on Sept. 3 and has not played since. The senior will apply for an additional year of eligibility.