An unknown University of Hawaii football team was a prohibitive underdog against UCLA in 1935 when fans gathered in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to see Bruins All-Coast halfback Chuck Cheshire put on a show.
Cheshire had previously run for a 93-yard touchdown, a mark that still endures as the longest in Bruins history, was wrapping up an All-America season and would become the first UCLA player taken in an NFL Draft.
But by the time spectators and media left the Coliseum that November night the talk — even for those who couldn’t pronounce his last name — was about the growing legend of Tommy Kaulukukui.
Playing halfback for the Deans, as UH was known in those days, the 5-foot, 4-inch, 140-pound Kaulukukui gathered in a kickoff in the end zone and raced into Hawaii lore and the national consciousness, returning it 103 yards for a touchdown and what remains the longest return in UH history.
On Saturday, Hawaii returns to play the Bruins in Los Angeles for the first time since Kaulukukui’s exploits. Instead of being obscured by time, the passage of eight decades serves to underline just how remarkable Kaulukukui, who died in 2007 at age 94, was as an athlete and a man.
By the time he was finished returning kicks, running, receiving and passing that night in an eventual 19-6 loss to UCLA, Kaulukukui had accumulated 310 all-purpose yards (a 20-yard touchdown run was called back by penalty) and a legion of admirers.
Kaulukukui deflected much of the praise, crediting his blockers.
The game was one of UH’s first to be heard widely on radio, and effusive praise from sportscasters and sportswriters — “Nobody who saw you run for (103 yards) for your touchdown against the Bruins will forget it. And your name is apt to be in the record books when you no longer see print,” Braven Dyer of the Los Angeles Times wrote — helped propel Kaulukukui into becoming UH’s first football All-American.
Grantland Rice, the dean of sports writers, nicknamed Kaulukukui “Little Grass Shack” after a popular song of the day, an indication of how little was known about Hawaii in the quarter-century before statehood.
“My dad never said much about that nickname, but he realized people (on the mainland) didn’t know much about Hawaii in those days,” said his son, Thomas Jr. “They probably wondered if we even knew the rules (of football).”
For Kaulukukui, one of 13 children in a Hilo family prominent in sports, playing football meant overcoming an early childhood injury that had left one leg shorter than the other. Characteristically he viewed the situation “not as a disability but as an ability others didn’t have,” Thomas Jr. recalls.
The difference left him with a bit of a lurch that he learned to use as an advantage to make sharp cuts as a ball carrier. Decades later a hip specialist would marvel at the musculature that had accumulated, his son said.
After a stellar career at Hilo High and with college too expensive of a proposition, Kaulukukui played in a barefoot football league and worked two jobs before a former teammate persuaded UH to recruit him.
A letter to the family announced he would receive an athletic scholarship. But, Thomas Jr. said, when his father arrived in Manoa he was told there was no such thing. Instead Charles Hemenway, a member of the Board of Regents, set him up with housing and a job as he did a number of men who became known as “Hemenway’s boys.”
Kaulukukui earned 17 letters at UH across football, basketball, baseball and track, captained several teams and became student body president.
After his playing days he served as an assistant coach for a couple of years before pursuing a masters degree. To finance his graduate studies at the University of Iowa, Kaulukukui asked Hemenway for a loan of $10,000, vowing to pay back every penny, and a promissory note was drawn up.
When Kaulukukui completed his degree, returning home to finish at UH, Hemenway handed him the diploma and an envelope, where Kaulukukui found the note marked “paid,” according to his son.
“My father told him, ‘That wasn’t the deal Mr. Hemenway. I’ll pay you back.’ ”
Instead Hemenway asked him to “pay it back by doing service (to the community),” Thomas Jr. said.
Tommy Sr. returned to UH as head coach for six years (1941, ’46-50), compiling a 42-19-3 record, and as athletic director (1949-51). He began Pop Warner football in Hawaii, coached at ‘Iolani, served as a U.S. Marshal and was an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.
“Service was something my dad believed in and handed down to the rest of the family,” said Thomas Jr., a former judge who is a cultural consultant to Nick Rolovich and has offered the UH coach his father’s napkin-diagrammed kickoff return. A nephew, Scott, headed the Na Koa Football Club and other members have made their own contributions.
“Seventy-five years later, we’re carrying on with his wishes,” Thomas Jr. said. “That’s part of his legacy, too.”
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com or 529-4820.