Turning improbable into 'pro'


POSTED: Friday, July 03, 2009

There is a play Hawaii defensive backs coach Rich Miano shows his players. It looks like something from a video game. Dick Tomey, with 50 years in the coaching business, says it's the second greatest he's seen, right after Jim McMahon's impromptu left-footed punt.

A screen of three blockers is aligned between a safety and a ballcarrier. “;I had three choices. Under them, through them or over them,”; says the DBs coach.

Cue that weird “;Six Million Dollar Man”; noise. The defender—who happens to be Rich Miano—hurdles the blockers, lands on the guy with the ball, taking him down.

The players already know Miano's improbable story. Now they've seen what some talent mixed with lots of hard work can make possible.

“;They see me,”; Miano says. “;They think, 'If that guy can make the NFL, I can.'”;

“;YOU'RE GONNA WALK on and you're gonna get carried off,”; said a high school teammate 30 years ago, when told of Miano's plans to play at the University of Hawaii.

Well, at least it was better than his first day of practice at Kaiser, when another braddah greeted him with, “;Eh, haole, move your pads before I blast you!”; Yet another veteran Cougar, Bryan Almadova, was already benching 225 pounds 10 times. It was a locker room full of studs and Miano wondered if he'd made a big mistake. “;These were the guys I was going to play with, in my one year of high school football?”;

He stuck with it and even gained some cred as the 1979 season went along. Miano intercepted two passes to help the Cougars upset Kamehameha in the Prep Bowl.

Ron and Cal Lee had been right. Ron knew an athlete when he saw one, even on a diving board. Cal knew he belonged on defense.

Miano planned to go on to a small college on the mainland, continue to learn the game. But when his brother, Robert, died in an accident, it changed everything.

“;There was no way I was going to leave my family. My family was devastated,”; he says. “;I attribute my success to him.”;

SOME FROM THE mainland assimilate quickly. Some never do. Rich Miano, a 15-year-old from Brockton, Mass., thought he'd fall into the latter group.

“;I'd never lived anywhere else. I had my first girlfriend,”; Miano recalls. “;When my dad said we were moving to Hawaii, it was a shock and a disappointment. I cried every day. When we got here, it was culture shock. I hated it.”;

He might as well have been sent to the moon. At least no day exists there when the local kids are allowed to beat up the white ones.

In his new environment, Rich did nothing. His Boston accent didn't exactly mesh with the Kaiser pidgin, so he remained quiet. He lettered in moping.

“;Then I realized my whole protest wasn't going to work, we weren't going back to Brockton,”; Miano says. “;I joined diving.”;

That's where Ron Lee, the football head coach, found him. Ron's brother Cal, the defensive coordinator, fit him for a helmet.

“;He was raw, like a raw fish, and to his credit he worked hard,”; says Cal Lee (now, along with Ron, Miano's colleague on the UH coaching staff). “;I'm not saying he came on and was tearing up the league. Leroy Lutu made him look like a child two or three times. But that was in September. It's not how you start, it's how you end.”;

WHEN MIANO auditioned for UH defensive coordinator Bob Wagner, he was to secondary play what William Hung was to singing, without the perverse fame. He was terrible, couldn't backpedal correctly. “;(Wagner) wanted so much to laugh, he had to turn around,”; Miano says. To top it off, he wasn't even academically qualified.

He made grades in the summer and, despite the bad workout, Miano somehow got on the fall camp roster—or so he thought.

“;My name's not on the dinner list, my name's not on the dorm list, my name's not on the equipment list.”;

Of course that wasn't going to stop him.

“;Nobody ever outworked me, I was obsessed,”; he says. “;I wanted acceptance in Hawaii. I wanted to be good so people would like me.”;

Gradually, as his knowledge caught up to his athleticism and work ethic, he evolved into an actual player—a very good one.

“;He wanted to learn everything, a sponge,”; says star cornerback Dana McLemore. “;He was big, strong, fast and smart. He was just young and hadn't played at that level.”;

He got his first real playing time as a sophomore in 1982, in at safety for injured Louis Santiago against BYU. Miano picked off a Steve Young pass.

“;After that I never missed a down.”;

He kept improving, and became a fan favorite because of how hard he hit. And there was his name—some people thought it was Japanese; the outsider was mistaken for a local, until he took his helmet off.

“;I would tell people, 'Yeah, I'm hapa, I just pull to the haole side.'”;

By then, it didn't matter. He was accepted.

THEN, THE PROS. Surviving one of the world's most competitive job markets, where 30 is over the hill. Despite being drafted by the Jets, odds were heavy against him because the USFL had just folded. “;There were 20 different kinds of yogurt in the cafeteria at training camp. I made it my goal to be there long enough to taste them all.”;

He made it by being the player coaches rely upon, the one who doesn't err on or off the field.

Now he's married to a local girl, Lori, mother of his children, Kupa'a and Siena. He works at a job he loves, trying to show others how to do what he did.

“;This is not Disney,”; he says. “;I'm not Vince from 'Invincible,' I'm not Rudy.”;

Actually he's got Rudy beat—by college stardom and 11 years in the NFL.


Dave Reardon is the Star-Bulletin's sports columnist. Tomorrow we unveil No. 27.