COURTESY OF KAULUKUKUI FAMILY
Thomas Kaulukukui pounded poi on his grandmother's poi pounding board in 1993.
Tommy Kaulukukui was a legend who was as big as it got
IN Hilo, when the 20th century was still settling in, a small boy carried the water buckets, helped out the coaches, tagged along. He did all the little tasks. He was the team manager. Too small to play.
One day, after starter after starter had gotten hurt, the coach got desperate, asked who knew the plays. Tommy Kaulukukui raised his hand.
By the time he graduated from Hilo High School, in 1932, he'd become the team captain. By 1935 he was an All-American, already a legend. He still hadn't grown much, maybe 5-foot-5, 145, but he was as big as it got. His No. 32 is still the only football number retired by UH.
Yesterday, UH's first All-American died at age 94.
"It was the classic story of the waterboy becoming the star," son Thomas Jr. said.
HE WAS PLAYING piggyback once, when he was 7 or 8, and there was a horrible crash. Tommy Kaulukukui fell down badly on his hip. He never went to the doctor, and years later they discovered his right leg had ended up 1 1/2 inches shorter than his left.
But with that came a stutter step like you've never seen. He was quick-fast, like Chad Owens.
"He could lurch to that side better than anyone in the world," Thomas Jr. said.
Years later, in the adult leagues, word got around that you had to overplay Kaulukukui to that side.
Too bad nobody told that to UCLA.
GRANTLAND RICE WAS a myth maker and a poet. He saw greatness and he immortalized it. Why were the 1920s and '30s sports' "Golden Age"? Because Rice told us so. It was Rice who wrote: "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again."
On a November day in Los Angeles in 1935 Rice saw Tommy Kaulukukui return a kickoff 103 yards. The Coliseum shook, Rice named him "Grass Shack." Another legend was born.
Of all the stories about that great run, maybe this is the best: In the late '70s, Thomas Jr. was helping coach the Kailua JV. He asked his father about the kick return, and Tommy Kaulukukui grabbed a napkin, drew it up. Thomas Jr. told his team the story of that run against UCLA, put in the play. Promised steak dinners if the Surfriders ever scored. That very week, an 88-yard TD.
In eight games, they scored kick-return touchdowns three times.
That play just kept growing through the years.
The way the boy who was too small to play football just kept growing, too.
All the kids that he coached. All the lives that he touched.
"We're talking about services," Thomas Jr. said. "We're trying to find a place big enough."