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Gaison walked the walk


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POSTED: Sunday, July 19, 2009

His legs keep pumping hard, churning mile after mile, day after day.

Before his job as co-athletic director at Kamehameha begins each morning, Blane Gaison is up at 4 a.m. and running the hills of Kapalama Heights. He's never known the meaning of surrender. Those furious legs keep propelling Gaison, whose two touchdowns helped Kamehameha win the Prep Bowl in 1975 under coach Cal Chai.

A storied career at the University of Hawaii preceded four seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. For fans, Hawaii's emergence from an era of D-II opponents like Texas A&I to D-I prominence was that much sweeter with homegrown products like Gaison. Before signing with UH, he had visited the campus with top recruits such as Brad Anae, Tom Tuinei and David Hughes.

“;Charlie Kaaihue shared with us that we could really make a difference. We all decided to stay home,”; Gaison said of the former UH assistant and ex-Oakland Raiders guard. “;The opportunities to go to the mainland were there. I come from a very close family. If I went away, my family wouldn't be able to see me play.”;

After one miserable season, however, he was ready to leave.

“;My parents saw that I was unhappy,”; Gaison said. “;They supported whatever decision I was going to make.”;

The legs that launched him to UH were ready to churn again, this time to Boise State with Hughes. But a strange thing happened before Gaison could fly away. A man named Dick Tomey tracked him down. In the end, Gaison stopped running just enough for the new coach to reel him back in. In the end, Hawaii's struggling football program—on the brink of failure—turned around and became a Western Athletic Conference title contender.

Tomey, a relative unknown as a UCLA assistant, took the reins in Manoa and took them to heart. He arrived in the islands ASAP.

“;One of my major projects was to let him know there was going to be a new program. I wanted him to consider staying,”; Tomey said, chuckling at the memory. “;I remember calling him on the phone. He didn't know me from Adam, just a haole guy from UCLA. He kept saying we couldn't get together because he was going to the country.”;

What Tomey assumed was a faraway location turned out to be Kaneohe—a 20-minute drive from town—and, eventually, he caught up with Gaison.

RECRUITED BY SEVERAL Division I programs, Gaison didn't know what to expect from the new UH coach. He had already been contacted by athletic director Ray Nagel, who was charged with upscaling the department.

“;I heard from very influential people in Hawaii who were concerned with the future of UH,”; Gaison said. “;But my bags were packed and I was ready to go to another school.”;

Upon hiring Tomey, Nagel called Gaison from the mainland.

“;I was an 18-year-old kid, done with my first year in college. I'd had a bad experience,”; Gaison recalled. “;Who's this coach? I don't know.”;

Tomey flew in from Los Angeles.

“;Blane and I talked, and from the first time we talked, I realized he had tremendous leadership qualities,”; Tomey said. “;At that time, he was a quarterback and defensive back, and I don't think I made him any promises about where he'd play.”;

Gaison remembers a simple, yet life-changing, meeting.

“;He drove to my house, spent an hour there and laid out his plan. He said, 'I'd love for you to reconsider.' He thanked my parents and then he left,”; Gaison said. “;He went back to the airport and went back to L.A.”;

Gaison's father, George, was a military man who always endorsed a policy of action rather than verbiage. Father and son were impressed.

“;The next day, Ray called and I asked for Dick's number,”; Gaison said. “;I unpacked my bags and went back to UH.”;

Tomey doesn't say much else about the meeting. On a quiet night in Windward Oahu, he secured a huge win before he even stepped on campus. More than 30 years later, he still won't brag about it.

Gaison has kept close ties with Tomey.

“;You could see his genuineness. What he said is what he meant. From the time I've known him—and I'm not the only one—he's a coach we all came to love for who he is. We always talk. Next to my dad, he's probably the most influential person in my life.”;

Gaison, a nephew of legendary running back Herman Wedemeyer, later became the Stan Bates Award winner as the top scholar-athlete in the WAC.

Steering the defense from his safety position, Gaison was a coach on the field. No. 11's intelligence and versatility provided Rainbow Warriors fans with some of their greatest memories. Few athletes can go most of a season without taking a snap under center, then lead a team to victory over established programs.

Gaison's return to quarterback, all because of injury problems to UH's top two slingers, yielded victories over Colorado State and Arizona State. The win over ASU, which had left the WAC to join the Pac-10 the year before (1978), was a demonstration in Tomey's pillars for success: defense and a ground attack.

“;He'd hand it off to Gary Allen and David Toloumu. Gary ran for 150 yards,”; Tomey said, noting the stellar play of a defense that kept Arizona State to its lowest offensive output in seven games.

The Sun Devils, who featured future NFL quarterback Mark Malone, had to play it safe to an extent. Gaison had already shown, in a win over CSU, that he could throw the ball. A third-down completion to tight end Jerry Scanlan was clutch.

“;That play was the most shocking thing. That game was totally off the wall,”; Gaison said. “;(Scanlan) was the third option, and we never worked on it. After the game, Coach Tomey said, 'How did you see that?' “;

Gaison never relinquished his duties at safety. That defensive unit put a lid on opponents, allowing 12 or fewer points five times. UH had its second winning season in a row and set the course for the once-ailing program.

What has lasted beyond wins and plays, Gaison said, are relationships.

“;One of the neatest things about playing at the collegiate level is there's a brotherhood that forms. I had friends from across the country,”; he said.

One of those friends was offensive lineman Ed Riewerts, who wasn't quite ready to let go of his life as a Rainbow Warrior after that season-ending win over Arizona State. That moment turned into a walk around the field with Gaison, which became an annual tradition known as the Senior Walk.

“;It was really Nelson (Maeda's) deal. After his senior season (the year before), he took a walk after the last game. He was probably the only one still in the stadium,”; Riewerts said.

Maeda, now a teacher and football coach at Castle, passed the notion along.

“;So about halfway through the season, he mentioned it to Blane—take a walk around the field,”; Riewerts said. “;I was standing in the tunnel, thinking what a cool experience this has been. Then Blane came up behind me and said, 'Eddie, let's take a walk.' We went walking and there was nobody in the stadium except when we got to the opposite end.”;

At the north end zone, below the main scoreboard, was Gaison's grandmother.

“;He says, 'Hi Grandma,' and she said, 'Hi Blane, hi Eddie.' I guess as we were walking around the stadium, and I heard about this later, Jim Leahey was up there (in the press box) doing his post-game show, and he made a whole big thing about me and Blane walking around the stadium: 'They're friends and captains, I wish you could see this.' “;

By the time Leahey had finished his show, fans had returned to the stadium and Joe Moore, who was a sports anchor then, interviewed Riewerts.

The brotherhood still lives. Gaison has great memories of many former teammates, including roommate Mike Stennis, who died in 2003.

“;I cherish the relationships we had. Coach Tomey had an emphasis on family and the team. He fit into our culture and community,”; Gaison said. “;He allowed the community to take ownership. Knowing you had a little part of all that, I really cherish that.”;

GAISON REMAINS active beyond his AD duties. When he's not coaching paddlers at New Hope Canoe Club, he has key roles with the Hawaii Interscholastic Athletic Directors Association, National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and National Federation of State High School Associations. Then, there are old friends who ask for advice on fitness because, well, Gaison is living proof that daily exercise—consistency—provides results.

“;My dad always told us, 'I'm not interested in what you say. I'm interested in what you do.' People will listen to what you say, but they'll watch what you do,”; he said.

He's lost track of how many calls he's gotten from friends, but the advice is basic. Start with walking—with a spouse or brother or sister, or just the family dog. Or walk knee deep in water at the beach. Twice a week workouts turn into three, four, five sessions over time.

Gaison limits his plate lunches to one scoop of rice per meal, and he leans toward skinless chicken and grilled fish, but he's not a fan of radical diets.

His wife, Donnalei, sets the tone at the dining table.

“;Whatever my wife makes, that's what I'm eating,”; he said.

Gaison was inducted into the UH Sports Circle of Honor in 1999.

Daughter Pilialoha was crowned Miss Hawaii in 2007. Son Kepa, who was part of Kamehameha's 2004 state championship team, is a starting linebacker at Utah.

 

Paul Honda is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter. Tomorrow we unveil No. 11.