Noga got exposure via the back channels


POSTED: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tommy Kaulukukui was third yesterday with 213 votes for greatest University of Hawaii football player ever. There may be that many people left alive who saw him play for UH in the mid-1930s, but I don't think they're all participating in the fan balloting for the Centurions project.

Which brings us to this: How much do you consider honors and superlatives bestowed by others? In cases like Kaulukukui, most of us depend on the eyes of scribes long gone and the second-hand memories of folks who knew folks who saw him play. Uncle Tommy got a lot of mileage out of Grantland Rice's evaluation. But as we learned, there's much more to Kaulukukui than one timely 103-yard kickoff return.

He is the only of the final five I never saw play. But after going through his scrapbook with Tom Jr., I feel like I have. “;I was water boy when he played after his UH days,”; the son says. “;I'd get that bucket back and it'd be full of blood, snot and teeth.”;

I hope in a few decades I can relate memories of Gary Allen, Colt Brennan, Jason Elam and Al Noga that vividly. For now, I go back to a day in 1986. My job at the Star-Bulletin was copy boy, between street hawker and assistant to the intern in the pecking order and below both in importance to the operation. Like Prince says, I was busy doing something close to nothing, but different than the day before, hiding out in the sports department.

I waited to talk with Dick Couch, who was on the phone. I liked Dick because he was kind, and shared tales of the locker room—such as how he'd end up in intellectual postgame discussions with Jim Donovan and Jesse Sapolu, on his way to Allen. Sometimes the shy star would get away; Donovan and Sapolu blocked for their tailback off the field, too.

Dick hung up the phone. “;Well, New York knows all about Al Noga.”;

Before Couch came to Hawaii, he'd worked at the Associated Press in New York. He rubbed big-time shoulders with colleagues like Herschel Nissenson, the AP's college football editor, the guy Couch had just talked with for half an hour.

At one point the words, “;as good as anyone in the country,”; emanated from Couch, and that probably registered with the man responsible for vetting the preeminent college football All-America team.

One of my gigs that fall was stringing a few words on UH football games for AP. Since the offensive numbers rarely impressed, I'd lead dispatches with the words “;Al Noga”; followed with “;knocked out two quarterbacks ... “; or “;dominated again ... “; I had no idea if anyone read these accounts too short to call stories, since this was pre-Internet and it would be around 4 a.m. in New York. Way too late for most deadlines.

But Couch had a lot to do with the naming of UH's only AP first-team All-American, the way Grantland Rice is a big reason Tommy Kaulukukui's name resonates in college football circles beyond Hawaii.

“;He played against some very good teams, and did a lot of damage,”; Couch said of Noga.

Even after his talk with Nissenson, Couch was surprised he made first team.

“;How does a guy from Hawaii get past those (New York) dudes?”;

For a second, he'd forgotten he was previously one of “;those dudes.”; And Herschel Nissenson trusted Dick Couch's word that Al Noga, out in the middle of the Pacific, was worthy.


Reach Star-Bulletin sports columnist Dave Reardon at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), his “;Quick Reads”; blog at starbulletin.com, and twitter.com/davereardon.