Little Big Man


POSTED: Thursday, July 30, 2009

In my long-ago West Coast newspapering days there was an L.A. press box legend that one sportswriter complained that it took him longer to type Tommy Kaulukukui than it did for the University of Hawaii halfback to return a UCLA kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown, then a Coliseum and still a UH record.

Tommy also had a 39-yard touchdown run called back in that November 1935 game, won by the home team Bruins 19-6 while football fans in Hawaii crowded around radios, listening in as Kaulukukui also made touchdown-saving tackles from his safety spot and was the focal point on offense at tailback in the single-wing.

Plenty of reporters were there to see the Bruins and their star, Chuck Cheshire. They came away with an even better story, of a team they barely knew existed, led by a diminutive star with a long name.

Bruins Ace Is Outshone by Little Tommy, screamed one headline. One of the greatest backs to ever trod on the Coliseum turf, gushed Jack James of the Los Angeles Examiner.

Five-foot-four when fully stretched, 145 pounds when fully fed, Tommy had firmly stamped University of Hawaii football on the mainland map in one day.

Incidentally, the typographically challenged scribe was lucky not to have been assigned a benefit game at the old Termite Palace between a local eleven and the old Army Air Force team. The local squad had a complete backfield of Kaulukukuis—Sol at quarterback, Jimmy at fullback, and Joe and Tommy at halfback.

Tommy remembered that Joe took a kickoff back 90 yards for a touchdown in that game. He said Joe used the same diagrammed blocking scheme he had employed in his Coliseum run.

Then there was the time all 10 Kaulukukui brothers got together as one team for a benefit basketball game. Conversely, Tommy once played all nine positions in a baseball game.

BORN IN KALIHI in 1913 and raised in Hilo, Tommy was the fifth of 15 children. He attended Hilo High, where he was an all-around athlete, even performing with a Hilo all-star baseball team against a visiting major league squad that included Babe Ruth, an experience Tommy regularly related.

He was student body president in his senior year, a prelude to a lifetime of leadership in sports and in the community.

For four decades and more his name was virtually synonymous with football in the islands.

His wartime service as an Army officer earned him the gratitude and eternal comradeship of veterans of the 442nd. His calm, determined voice during 14 years as a founding force and Trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, tamed many a potentially turbulent time.

And he mentored many, passing the torch as molders of men to such stalwarts as Jimmy Asato, who went on to be head coach of the UH football team himself; Eddie Hamada, who followed Tommy as 'Iolani head coach and wrote a storied career; and Hugh Yoshida, who coached a state championship team at Leilehua High and as athletic director at UH helped to usher in the June Jones era.

Tommy was the first of his family ever to attend college, although he had no intentions of doing so.

As Tommy told the story, he was playing in a 135-pound barefoot league between his jobs as a stevedore and working in the Hilo foundry when he was spotted by a scout from the Manoa campus. Famed composer and former UH football player Albert Nahalea sealed the deal, according to Tommy's son.

“;Coach Proc Klum offered me a scholarship, sight unseen,”; Tommy recalled, and he joined the Rainbows as a 21-year-old freshman. And so began the legend.

Tommy won 17 letters in five sports—football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis—a record that will never be approached. On the football field he ambled with a little limp, a result of a childhood fall from an uncle's shoulders. Instead of hurting his athleticism, Tommy—and most opponents—agreed that one leg being about an inch shorter than the other helped him.

IN A 1937 game at Honolulu Stadium against Denver, as Tommy remembered, UH had fourth down and forever on its 10-yard line. Tommy was to punt when he thought he spotted an opening, and decided to run instead. “;But the opening closed, so I reversed field, circled back through the end zone and ran up the left sideline for a first down at about midfield. We ran out the clock from there and preserved a one- or two-point victory.”; (Actually one, the score was 7-6.)

All Denver players reputedly had a shot at tackling Tommy on that run. Some had two.

His gridiron exploits caught the attention of famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, who named Tommy to the Board of Football All-America team. He was the first Hawaii player ever honored with an All-America accolade.

He hung a nickname on Tommy: “;Grass Shack.”;

Rice may have thought he was doing something nice, and son Tom said Tommy didn't care about the moniker one way or the other. But it was all wrong for Tommy, as it implied of a lazy life under the tropical sun.

To those who played with and for him, or worked with him or wrote about him, Tommy was the polar opposite.

He spoke softly and always to the point, but his quiet manner covered a core of energy. You could almost feel his mind cutting to the chase, hunting for a way to solve the problem at hand, searching for a way to win.

Following the Pearl Harbor bombing, Tommy served as an Army officer in a work battalion composed of young men of Japanese ancestry who were not allowed to volunteer for military duty. Many of these men later fought with the 442nd, and invited Tommy to reunions here and on the mainland for decades after.

TOMMY WAS AN assistant coach for several years at Michigan State, then returned to coach 'Iolani in 1960.

Hugh Yoshida remembers playing for Tommy there, “;He had this little limp, you know, and you could see why it was so hard to tackle him in his playing days. He was soft-spoken, and commanded respect. When he said something it was a good idea to pay attention, because you would learn something.”;

Hugh says the main lesson he learned from Kaulukukui was, “;how to deal with people.”;

Steve Kuna, who played football at UH, later worked with Kaulukukui at OHA. “;He was a calming force amid a chaotic OHA in its formative stages. Kuna said, “;As a trustee he was in the middle of what was often a Wild West show, but Tommy never aggravated someone on the other side of the issues. Everyone knew he did what he thought was right for the people.”;

And throughout his long and meaningful life, Tommy was regularly asked to reminisce about his Coliseum run.

He always said it was a designed play, and once when Tommy Jr. was the special teams coach for the Kailua JV, he asked his father about it.

“;Dad diagrammed the play for me,”; said the son, who promised the players a steak dinner if they scored on a kickoff. “;We had three touchdowns on kickoff returns that season. I bought a lot of steaks.”;

Kaulukukui and his wife, Felice, had three children. He made time to spend with his lifelong friends from the Fighting Deans, including Bill Ahuna and Tony Morse. He died in March 2007, leaving a legacy of quiet leadership, universal respect and athletic greatness highlighted by a tremendous run in 1935.


Retired Star-Bulletin columnist Jim Becker also enjoyed a long tenure as a sportswriter and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. He has followed UH football since the early 1950s, and knew Tommy Kaulukukui for many years.