Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Things going as
planned for O’Donnell

LET'S review. Earlier this year Brother Gregory O'Donnell shocked the Interscholastic League of Honolulu and gave we in the sports media some much-needed June excitement with the revelation that his underdog Damien football squad would forfeit its two games against powerhouse St. Louis.

This was a bold move. It shook some foundations. It hit the wire, made national news. It got people everywhere, including in both the Damien and St. Louis camps, all wound up. It had Hawaii buzzing.

And at the time, we wondered: Did he know what he was doing? Was he walking blind into a minefield?

He was either very, very, very smart ...

Or not.

We waited. Time told. Smart won. Count it up:

>> He got people's attention, including the ILH, St. Louis and every media outlet in the state, pointing out what he saw as a big problem.

>> He got that problem fixed, at least temporarily, with classification in the ILH this season, and renewed talk of classification statewide.

>> He got people to use the words "Damien" and "football" in the same sentence, over and over and over again, igniting interest in the sport not just around the island, but also on his own campus. (See below.)

>> He showed the Damien parents, in no uncertain terms, who was boss.

>> And, later, that he was a reasonable man who would listen to their concerns.

>> He got a few members of his team to mouth off, and now they've got to stick to it, back it up and band together. Likewise, agree or disagree with O'Donnell, people came out of the woodwork to proclaim themselves Damien football boosters. Now they, like the players, have to put their actions where their mouths are. At first, O'Donnell may have triggered some anger and protest -- but the final result is more enthusiasm for Damien football than there has been in years.

>> And in the end, he got to slip back and play the game after all. He didn't even have to actually forfeit anything.

It's nothing but win-win-win-win-win.

And with the new schedule, it looks much less likely that he'll have to ride in the ambulance with any of his Damien boys after all.

"That was the motivation," he says of his team's avoiding getting humiliated, injured, blown out and beaten up. "I had a few other thoughts," he admits. "But they were just thoughts. They weren't the motivation."

O'Donnell got everything he wanted. Every single thing. And a few things he didn't even know he wanted. Safety concerns, sure. And more. Much, much more. It was one of the best "throw-in" deals in history.

Oh yes, O'Donnell turned out to be very smart. He knew what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing.

IT WAS PLANNED. For months. Meticulously, he pored and pondered. Brother O'Donnell talked to people, laid out his plans, got their input, listened to their advice. More than a few people knew what was on his mind.

But did St. Louis know? No, THAT was meant to be a surprise. THAT was part of the plan.

O'Donnell is a planner. Every strategy is carefully thought out. Every action has a purpose. Every move means something. He could be a chessmaster or a hunter or a coach. This is a man who sees the bigger picture, a man who's always thinking of the next step.

He tells of an ILH meeting in which he casually mentioned that he didn't appreciate the onside kicks, the time-outs to set up a long pass, the little digs here and there, the lack of sportsmanship as he saw it. He says he got sympathetic-pat-on-the-back responses to the tune of, "Well, we know St. Louis can be like that sometimes."

Who said anything about St. Louis? "None of those things were done to us by St. Louis," O'Donnell told his ILH counterparts, and went on to give specific examples, one after another, on what each school had done to Damien. Zing! Trap sprung. Point made.

O'Donnell is a smart man. And a competitive one. On the field, in that St. Louis mismatch, the forfeits were his only way to win. St. Louis could get its victory -- but only officially. Only on paper. Damien would stand fast and give up nothing more. No blood. No satisfaction.

This was O'Donnell's way of standing up to the injuries and the lopsided scores. Damien's way of taking aim at a system that often resulted in annual beatings and brutal mismatches and humiliating defeats. O'Donnell decided that something had to be done. No more 84-0.

"You do what you think is right," he said then. "We'll do what we think is right."

It just might have changed the face of Hawaii high school sports.

BROTHER O'DONNELL tells stories. You've all heard the one about his riding in the back of an ambulance to the hospital with an injured player, but he's also got them from the other side of the spectrum. Of being on the inside of a St. Louis-like power, knowing what that's like, hearing the rumors and innuendoes of scholarships and recruiting and running up the score.

"Everybody knows," he says of whispers of conspiracies and secrets and cheating. "But they really don't know. If everyone was on scholarship at St. Louis that everybody says, they'd have four kids paying tuition."

O'Donnell has faced the same accusations and heard the same stories in his career, and here he tells another tale of receiving a phone call that said his school had stolen a transfer player illegally. He checked it out. He called the other principal, told her it was clean. She said, "That's good enough for me. I trust you." And the two schools were OK. That's the kind of trust O'Donnell wants to see in the ILH.

But they have things to overcome first. When O'Donnell was at O'Dea High School in Seattle (which is currently undefeated in its last 68 regular season games; the motto on its football Web site is, "With Tradition Comes Responsibility"), he called the coach into the office.

There were complaints that O'Dea was running up the score. The coach said they weren't. That when your team is too good, it's impossible not to.

But O'Donnell wouldn't hear any excuses then, and that's why he feels like he already knows the other side of the story now. "They're going to hate us!" he told the coach. "I don't want people hating us."

That's one thing O'Donnell doesn't like about the current situation. The hating.

BUT NOW football season is here and the St. Louis game is on and the masterstroke has worked beyond all belief. The kids should be safe, or as safe as kids in shoulder pads can be. Damien is fired up -- players, parents, alumni, everybody. And O'Donnell looks like a genius.

Except for one thing: the mismatches are still here, and some games will still be over before they start, and one end of the ILH is receiving overtures from the Big Sky Conference, and the other has a real good, uh, speech and debate team. The current plan is a one-year solution. Next year starts fresh again. What are they to do?

So O'Donnell's work isn't done. He's talking, crusading, planning, thinking again. Ways to cut down on those runaway maulings. How to match up teams of comparable strength. Patching up the OIA-ILH rift. Grasping common sense by the throat in bold, forward steps.

But the topic that burned so brightly in the summer has died down, and O'Donnell would like to get it started up again. He knows what he's doing -- he massaged the story through the media the first time ("care and feeding," he calls it). He's smart enough to find a plan to get it going again, to keep the conversation alive somehow in the news, and ...

Ooh, he's good. He's very good.

Kalani Simpson's column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
He can be reached at

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