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Kid Lightning


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POSTED: Friday, June 19, 2009

He was lightning, this kid. That's how we remember him. Matthew Harding was so fast at the snap he would race the ball back to the punter, and there were times you would swear it was a tie. There were times he hit the punter before the poor guy could even flip the laces—Harding had no choice; it wasn't roughing. It was a sack. He was early, not late. He actually got there too fast to block the kick.

He was like lightning, this kid.

That's how we remember him.

Matthew Harding's career—and his penchant for producing big plays—started, well, quickly. Sept. 26, 1992. It was Harding's third game with the varsity. BYU. He blocked a punt (the pattern was set) to set up a UH touchdown, and the 'Bows were rocking, up 29-10 early in the fourth. But then the Cougars came back with 22 unanswered points, and we'd all seen some version of this before. Another nightmare. Another BYU heartbreak. As if to drive the point home, after BYU had taken the lead, Hawaii fumbled in its own red zone with just under 5 minutes left. It was happening again. Another BYU heartbreak. The game was pau.

“;Darrick (Branch) came off the field and threw his helmet, he was so frustrated,”; Harding said.

Assistant coach Buzzy Preston saw it and snapped.

“;He said, 'I'm not going to have it.' He looked at me and said, 'Next time we go out on offense, you're in.' I maybe played three offense plays up to that point. I don't even know my plays!”;

The next play, BYU fumbled.

“;Stew Williams picked it up,”; Harding said.

Harding looked at Preston, then, as the sideline went crazy. “;He looked at me and he was like, 'Go.' Everybody in the huddle looked at me like, 'Are you lost? What are you doing here?' I went to Brian Gordon in the huddle, I said, 'What do I do?'

“;He said, 'Just run down the field,' “; and Harding did. “;Next thing I know Ivin (Jasper) threw it to me.

“;That ball just came out of the sky.”;

It was good for 57 yards and a miracle; the Rainbows went on to win it 36-32 on a Jasper to Marlowe Lewis pass with 37 seconds left. Harding's catch will be talked about for as long as there are people alive who remember what it was like when Hawaii played BYU.

“;There was a third-and-10 play later on that drive that Darrick caught to keep the drive alive,”; Harding said. “;I always tell Darrick that play was bigger than mine.”;

Wait. Darrick got back into the game?

“;After I made the catch, everybody's going back into the huddle, going, 'Yeah! Yeah!' And Darrick comes running in and goes, 'Get out, get out.' “;

Harding laughed. They're friends to this day.

Harding said he always saw himself as the kid who showed up weighing 148 pounds (he said people asked him if he was on a tennis scholarship) with something to prove.

All of those blocked kicks? Film study, he said.

All of that speed?

“;I used to run a lot of wind sprints in high school,”; Harding said. “;A lot.”; One more time: “;A lot.”;

He remembers himself as a grinder, not a gazelle: “;My body,”; he said, his 148-pound body, “;was just a piece of meat.”;

He was a special teamer at heart. He loved making tackles, covering kicks. He's Hawaii's all-time leader in kickoff returns and kickoff-return yardage (he led UH in all-purpose yards for two seasons) because he just kept doing it, year after year after year.

In 1994 against UTEP he broke a finger blocking a punt, then trainer Eric Okasaki fixed it at halftime, and Harding blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter with the same hand.

In four years, he never missed a game. Of all his accomplishments, he's proudest of that.

Still, there's no denying the magic. Harding may describe himself as a battered, beat-up, hard-working pick-up truck, but go through the miracles.

In 1992, lightning struck again and again. He had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a 47-45 win over Fresno State (remember, the Bulldogs would go on to tie the 'Bows and BYU for the Western Athletic Conference crown). Against Wyoming, he and roommate Rob Blakeney combined for a punt block and touchdown that set the tone for a rout that clinched the WAC title.

In 1994 at Cal, the 'Bows were down 7-0, on the mainland, against a Pac-10 team. Then Harding drew a holding penalty on a punt rush. On the very next play, he blocked it—touchdown. Then, Blakeney (who was devastating from the other side when opponents doubled Harding) got one and Harding took it for a touchdown and UH never looked back.

It just kept happening, again and again and again. Big play. Impossible play.

It happened so often, “;After a while the guys on the team are like, 'Do something crazy for us. Block a punt.' “;

Harding would try to tell them it wasn't as easy as it looked.

“;It's so rare,”; he said. Except it wasn't. It happened again and again and again, and often, just when the 'Bows needed it most.

“;For me,”; Harding said, “;it was always about heart.”;

He tells that to his students now. He's a high school history teacher in California, and he assists in coaching football and track. He has a daughter, Makena (as in the beach on Maui). He plants plumeria in his yard. He said his mom will sometimes lapse into pidgin. He attends at least one UH game a year (At the Sugar Bowl, he and Rodney Glover, Michael Carter, Kelly McGill and Blakeney stayed up talking story late into the night).

He still has all his old UH game tapes and he shows them to his players all the time. He shows them to show that even a 148-pounder can do the impossible. He shows them to demonstrate the route running of Darrick Branch; to show the quarterbacks Michael Carter's footwork.

He shows them to show his players a magical team from a magical time. “;We were all unselfish,”; Harding said. “;We didn't care who caught the pass or who scored. Someone different did it every time, and it was better that it was someone different every time. We were all unselfish, and we all got along.”;

 

Former Star-Bulletin sports columnist Kalani Simpson lives in Nebraska. We reveal five more UH football greats tomorrow.