During Marcus Mariota’s freshman season at Oregon State 2 years ago, several of his teammates had Hawaii connections and several with Asian blood. See the players,
Koloa: MEET THE ISLAND DUCKS
You could call Oregon’s football team the Koloa – because eight Island natives are on the Ducks’ roster. In addition to quarterback Marcus Mariota, four are playing significant roles for Oregon: guard Mana Greig, tight end Koa Ka’ai, nose tackle Wade Keliikipi and end DeForrest Buckner.
At the press conference following the Ducks’ 51-21 dismemberment of then-No. 23 Washington at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, and having spoken to several of the Hawaii boys two days earlier and learning that as a group they proudly share their Island culture with teammates, I asked Coach Chip Kelly what the Hawaii players bring to the team as a group.
“Macadamia nuts!” he quipped, drawing a round of media laughter. “All these macadamia nuts keep showing up.”
Then turning serious, Kelly continued: “They’re awesome, have great attitudes, show a lot of poise. They have kind of a laid-back Hawaii attitude, but they’re really warriors, hard workers, and very consistent, not a lot of peaks and valleys.
“As a coach, it’s great to recruit in Hawaii. I hope to find more players like these guys.”
Star running back Kenjon Barner said of his Hawaii teammates: “They bring that ‘Hawaii cool.’ Marcus, all of them, have a cool demeanor about them. You get around them, no matter the situation, they never get stressed. So it keeps you level and cool too.”
Here’s a look at the other Koloa (Hawaiian for Ducks).
“I wanted an opportunity to get off the island, and I thought there would be more opportunities here,” says Keliikipi, who showed up for the interview in Oregon sweat pants and a black “Defend Waianae” T-shirt. “And I like the weather. Some people say it’s cold, but after 17 years in Waianae, whew, it’s hot. I like the cold better. I haven’t been home in a while, I miss it, but Hawaii will always be there. Right now my focus is football, so I don’t see myself going back to Hawaii anytime soon. (Not with the Ducks chasing dreams of playing in the national championship game in January.) But me and Mana, we speak Hawaiian and just promote the whole ‘kanak culture.’”
The younger brother of former UH running back Wes Keliikipi is a criminology and law major. “I’m almost finished with my major, so I’m thinking about getting a minor in business.” The nephew of the late HPD officer Charlie Keliikipi isn’t sure where that might take him, “but I wouldn’t mind being a parole officer.”
Like the other local boys in Eugene, he looks forward to packages from home – “Spam, cookies, whatever.”
Keliikipi saw significant playing time last year, including in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, and this year is the starting nose tackle in Oregon’s highly rated 3-4 defense, and against Washington State was voted defensive player of the game.
“The experience of playing at Autzen Stadium (which seats 60,000 and is regarded as perhaps the loudest stadium in college football) is unbelievable,” he says. “That vibe of thousands of people around you, screaming, chanting, you know they’re pulling for the team. Once in a while during time outs, our defensive line coach (Jerry Azzinaro) tells us to look around, look at the person to your right, to your left, look at who you’re playing with and all the people cheering up in the stands, and remember this experience. The atmosphere here is so big.”
With so many Island boys on the team, Oregon has become the No. 2 team for many fans in Hawaii.
“Yeah, my family back home says they’re seeing more and more ‘O’ decals on cars and people saying ‘Go Ducks!’” Keliikipi says. “Before, I never really took notice of that, but it’s great.”
MANA GREIG, No. 63, OL, 5-foot-11, 291 pounds, Jr., Saint Louis (Kailua):
“Coming out of high school, Oregon was the only school that offered me the chance to walk on – I came out here for a camp and really liked it,” he says.
Although he was a walk-on, when starter Carson York went down with a leg injury in the Rose Bowl, Greig stepped in and helped block the way to an Oregon win over Wisconsin this past January. But it wasn’t until moments after the Ducks’ spring game in April that he learned he’d earned a scholarship – when Kelly asked him and other former walk-ons to lead the school fight song Mighty Oregon after the game.
“We had no idea at all,” fellow scholarship winner Will Murphy was quoted in the Eugene Register-Guard. “Everyone went crazy; it was awesome.”
The son of Kimo Greig, an OCCC prison guard, and Cindy Sua, supervisor of the Temple Valley drivers license office (and catcher on the 1981 Kailua High state softball champs), Greig is majoring in “general social sciences” and after graduation says he’d like to “go back home to Hawaii and maybe work with my Uncle Darrell Ing – he serves warrants for the sheriffs.”
He and the others share their Island culture with teammates. “Me, Wade and Koa are always talking pidgin, and everyone picks up on that. Me and Koa talk Hawaiian, too,” says Greig, who took four years of Hawaiian language in high school. “It’s pretty funny. The other guys don’t know what we’re saying.”
Like Mariota, he played at Saint Louis School: “Marcus has always been quiet, leads by example. Now he’s doing the same thing over here – same Marcus.”
Undersized for his position, Greig consistently puts bigger guys on their backs. As Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says, “Mana is a grinder, he works hard and he packs more punch than you’d think for his size.”
Indeed, on Oregon’s last touchdown against Washington, Greig walled off two would-be tacklers, allowing Bryon Marshall to run for the score.
Mana’s nickname is Sea Turtle – for the petroglyph tattoo on one calf.
He came to Eugene because “it’s the West Coast, and I didn’t want to go far from home. I visited, and I love it here.”
Academically, the son of Kamehameha Schools middle school principal Pua Ka’ai and retired Honolulu Fire Department battalion chief Bill Ka’ai (who played center for four years at UH and coached for 30 years at Farrington), is working on a “double major, sociology and psychology. I want to go to grad school, so I’m trying to graduate real quickly.”
Like the other Koloa, he counts on care packages.
“Mom tries to send me some goodies, Big Island Candies, Spam. Last night I had some guava jelly,” he says with a happy grin.
“Me and Mana, we talk Hawaiian on the field sometime – nobody knows what we’re talking about. It’s a lot of fun out there.”
Although he played at Kamehameha, and against Mariota, “every time Marcus saw me, he’d say, ‘Come to Oregon, come to Oregon.’ So here I am.”
And quickly becoming a favorite target as a tight end after spending last season at defensive end.
“When I came on my (recruiting) trip, there were a lot of local guys on the team, and I could see myself playing here,” Buckner says. “So even though it’s a long way from home, I still have a lot of local guys with me. And even though we’re from a lot of different schools, we’re close. When I visited, Koa was my host, and I could see myself being here.
“It’s funny, we talk some pidgin, and now you have other guys coming and trying to talk it. It’s pretty cool to share the culture.”
Like many students less than a month into his freshman year, Buckner has not declared an academic major, “but I’m thinking about sociology.” His career plans are likewise up in the air, though many at Oregon see an NFL career in his future. Buckner also starred in basketball in high school and helped Punahou win a state title last year, but at Oregon he’s concentrating on football and school.
Though seeing limited action because of an injury, Yim is significant because he and Mariota have been best pals since intermediate school at Saint Louis, and this year are roommates in an off-campus house also shared by Saint Louis classmates Colton Sisler and Taylor Troy.
“Yeah, we all graduated together,” he says.
“I’ve known Marcus since seventh grade, and over time we just got closer, so I was always at his house or he was at my house. He’s always pushed me to work toward the next level. That’s why I liked being around him.”
Asked what kind of roommate Mariota is, Yim says, “Oh, he’s the clean addict of the house!”
The son of longtime John Dominis general manager Al Yim, Bronson is an applied business and economics major, and hopes one day to “run my own company, maybe some kind of a sports business.”
He says he enjoys Eugene and campus life at Oregon: “I like the small town feel. There’s not a lot of distractions, so you can concentrate on school and football.”
But during the off-season, he and the other housemates enjoy “all the outdoor things you can do here, like rafting and fishing.”
Other Hawaii players suiting up for the Ducks this season include Isaac Ava (51, above), a sophomore linebacker from Saint Louis (Ewa Beach), and Keloni Kamalani (43), a junior linebacker from Kamehameha-Maui (Kihei).
Then there’s offensive lineman James Euscher. Not an Islander exactly, but he does hail from the Portland suburb of Aloha.
THE HAWAII CONNECTION
The Hawaii connection at the University of Oregon runs deep, starting with longtime associate athletic director Herb Yamanaka, who in 2009 was selected to the UO Athletic Hall of Fame.
Coming out of Honokaa High on the Big Island, he chose Oregon because, he says, “In those days they had a reciprocating rule, where Hawaii kids didn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition – so I paid $55 a term. Isn’t that something you’d jump at?”
After graduating in 1956 with a biology degree, he taught at Eugene’s Sacred Hearts Hospital nursing school for a while, and in 1960 founded Event Management, specializing in “everything it takes to put on an event – ticket sales, crowd control, cleanup, officials, press box.” Oregon sports were a primary client, and in 1977 he was hired as associate A.D.
Today, he and his wife endow the Herb and Donna Yamanaka Athletic Scholarship, with the recipient having five years to complete a degree. The current recipient is DeForrest Buckner, a freshman football player from Punahou. “We’ve had him over to the house for dinner, and he’s a real nice young man,” Yamanaka says.
Hawaii native Herb Yamanaka was selected to the Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009
He attends football practice every day, “and I make a point of saying hi to the Hawaii boys, giving them a high five or shaka.”
Here’s what his plaque in the hall of fame says:
“Few individuals have sacrificed so much for so many for the love of an educational institution as has one of the greatest ambassadors the University of Oregon will ever know. Through his countless contributions such as the spearheading of Oregon’s efforts for three decades of co-hosting the Far West Classic holiday basketball tournament in Portland, to helping manage a trio of Olympic track and field trials and numerous conference and NCAA national championship events on the Oregon campus, in addition to the cultivation of millions of dollars for intercollegiate athletics as well as his alma mater, Herb has graciously placed the needs of others above his own. Whether it was in his role as ticket manager, concessionaire, security coordinator or fund-raiser, his motivation has been one of simplicity . . . it has always been about the Ducks’ student-athletes because that is the way that former Oregon football coach and athletic director Len Casanova would have wanted it. The Hawaii native has worked under no fewer than 11 athletic directors in almost every capacity imaginable, yet the two characteristics that have remained unchanging throughout the years have always been his heart and dedication.” -d.c.