Deep down in his soul, there’s nothing Alaka‘i Gilman loves to do more than compete.
It began roughly a decade ago, battling on the turf of legendary Laie Stake North Park, more commonly known as Laie Park. A row of competitors, in the trenches, lined up to do battle. Back then, he and his teammates were a bunch of 8-year-olds who loved football — and pogs. Along with practice and games, many of the keiki would bring their tubs of pogs to compete and claim their prizes.
“You would see kids lined up all around here, all around here playing pogs. Usually kids will roll up with their bucket and kind of flex on everybody,” Gilman said, pointing at the asphalt edge of the park’s basketball courts.
Gilman, Punahou’s standout free safety, shared his pogs with older brother Alohi. Each time, their collection grew heavier and heavier with victories over other North Shore kids. It’s a tradition at Laie Park that still lives each summer, a trend that comes and goes across the islands. For Gilman, it’s a memory that runs even deeper than football.
“Just playing pogs with my friends. After practice, we would come here and play pogs until late. I wasn’t the best, I would say, but I won my share of battles. I’ve still got an ice cream bucket full of pogs,” he said.
That tub of pogs is still in the Gilman home, even though Alaka‘i is busy with studying, football and chores, and Alohi is busy with life as a starting safety for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. There is probably no risk of the tub disappearing soon, not with two younger brothers on the way up.
Gilman remembers the annual Christmas Bowl, a flag football extravaganza at Laie Park.
“There’s kids all over, elementary to intermediate to adults playing in the Christmas Bowl here. It’s probably one of the most competitive times of the year in this town,” he said. “It’s not really flag football. It’s, I’m going to hit you in the process of grabbing your flag. Everybody here expects that. They don’t expect anything less.”
With Gilman as one of the leaders of a relatively young defense — roughly a dozen Buffanblu players who graduated last June are playing Division I college football now — the metamorphosis is underway. Punahou is playing some of the best defense in the state.
“He enjoys every part of football. The physical aspect, the camaraderie, and he also enjoys studying the game, preparing cerebrally, as well as physically,” Punahou coach Kale Ane said. “We watch film, make adjustments and things like that, so you can’t go rogue, but we trust him to make calls, to anticipate things.”
The quest for perfection, the attention to detail, is a big reason why the Buffanblu have shut out three of five opponents so far. They went more than 13 quarters into the season without surrendering a touchdown. With a 45-0 win at Long Beach Poly (Calif.) last week, Punahou (5-0, 3-0 Open Division) is permitting a scant 3.6 points per game.
Gilman has already committed to Washington State.
“I think he’ll probably play safety, but he has the capability to play the rover position,” Ane said. “He’s physically tough enough to do that, and it fits his mind-set, as well.”
Following in the footsteps of Alohi, who was an All-State safety at Kahuku, Gilman has thrived in a life that includes 4 a.m. wake-ups, driving teammate and best friend Solatoa Moeai from Laie to Punahou, and arriving back home after classes and practice by 9 p.m.
“It’s a rough one. Manti (Te‘o) and Robby (Toma), Semisi (Uluave), they did it every day,” said Gilman’s father, Asai. “They’re different people. It’s a mind-set. The drive is brutal.”
“My dad has this acronym, P.O.G.,” Gilman said of the coincidental crossover with his childhood hobby. “Be passionate, optimistic and grateful.”
Asai Gilman, who coached his sons and runs clinics out of his DB Tech Academy, is all in, too. But there’s a price. No girlfriends. No toying around with video games. In fact, the family went without a TV for years.
“All my kids, I told them straight up, with sports, you’re so passionate, you need discipline to be focused. If you want a girlfriend, or for our daughter a boyfriend, that’s going to take you out of your focus,” he said. “They’re in seventh, eight grade and I said, ‘You need to commit now. If you don’t commit to a relationship, it’s going to be better for you.’ Alaka‘i and Alohi took it to heart.”
That’s why each day, in or out of season, there is a plan, a schedule and a purpose for practically every activity. There are rest days when the keiki do their chores. On Sunday, Gilman was busy catching up with a sky-high pile of homework once his chores were done. There’s just no time for a social life.
“I told Alaka‘i, if you want what you want — a Division I opportunity and beyond — you can’t deal with these kinds emotions of a relationship, something you lack the skill set for,” Asai said. “You put in two, three hours of work into practice and training every day, that’s a part-time job. Do your best, be the best. Dominate. If not, just come home and do your chores because you’d be wasting your time. Time is valuable.”
Punahou football • Senior • 5-11, 185
Q&A / Favorites
>> Favorite place: Laie Park “That’s kind of where I grew up in this culture, what this place has built, kids with competitive and hard-head mind-sets where they going to to go out and lick you, and do their best to run you over and tackle you, throw you to the ground, whatever. That’s why there’s so many crazy athletes that have come out of this place, this small part of the island that are so worldwide known. A place like Laie Park.”
>> GPA: 3.6
>> Athlete: Brian Dawkins (Hall of Fame safety, Philadelphia Eagles)
>> Hobby: Surfing “Growing up, my family’s been big water people. We surf a lot, especially in the summer. When the conditions are good, we’ll go to Turtle Bay or travel down to Haleiwa.”
>> Movie: “The Benchwarmers” “Everybody has watched it, or they should have by now. It’s about three old guys who create their own baseball team and play against little kids. They’re about 40-something years old. It’s a funny story about bullies and stuff.”
>> TV show: “Hawaii Five-O” “I’ve watched all eight seasons of it. I know a couple guys who’ve been extras on the show. I would do it if I have time.”