The wind comes diving down the cliffs of the Ko’olau Range, funneling through the Palolo Valley and over the football field of Honolulu’s St. Louis School, winner of Hawaii’s last three state championships. During practice, quarterback coach Vinny Passas prefers that his charges throw into the teeth of that wind.
Considering its small population, Hawaii has long been overrepresented in the NFL and college football. Part of that has to do with chromosomes: Many islanders are large, powerfully built men with low centers of gravity. Part of it has to do with culture: A number of these guys are members of Polynesian families in which selflessness and respect for elders are emphasized. They’re good teammates. For decades, the best players from this state tended to be leviathan linemen and headhunting linebackers. But lately, Hawaii has turned into an unlikely cradle of quarterbacks.
In the spring of 2015, I went to Honolulu for a story on Marcus Mariota, who’d won the Heisman Trophy and would be selected second overall in the NFL draft. While watching a practice at his alma mater, St. Louis School, I saw a sturdily built sophomore uncorking one beautiful throw after another into the wind. Two and a half years later, as a freshman at Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench in the national championship game and threw a walk-off 41-yard touchdown pass.
Tagovailoa is the latest in a chain of superb Crusaders quarterbacks, including Mariota, Jason Gesser, and Timmy Chang. All have been mentored by the quarterback-whispering Passas, renowned for his sublime blend of instruction on mechanics (he insists on a high release point) and leadership (it’s okay to be soft-spoken, if your play speaks for you).
The championship-clinching strike thrown by Tagovailoa was a play identical to one he practiced ten times a day at St. Louis. He had been working with Passas since he was nine. The coach is especially adept at distilling into bite-size lessons the tenets of the Crusaders’ run-and-shoot offense, which requires receivers to adjust their routes after the ball is snapped, depending on the defense they see. The run-and-shoot has spread to all corners of the island. A week before Tagovailoa introduced himself to the nation, upstart Central Florida capped a 13–0 season, led by McKenzie Milton, a product of Oahu’s Mililani High.
The tradition continues. Dillon Gabriel, who broke many of Milton’s records at Mililani, signed with Central Florida. Sol-Jay Maiava, from Kahuku High on the North Shore, has committed to BYU. All of these talents were mentored by Passas, playing for him at St. Louis or attending his “Get Better” clinic. It is thanks to him that Hawaiian youth who want to play quarterback now have role models from their state at the highest reaches of the game.
These kids now have the wind at their backs.
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