Commentary

No man is an island

Originally Published: September 27, 2007
By Chad Nielsen | ESPN The Magazine

He gave up NFL millions for this? A twin foam mattress without sheets on a bare tile floor? It looks like a dog's bed, except no dog lives in this cozy plank house. Instead, Colt Brennan, college football's most complete quarterback, lounges here, waiting out the early August heat in Kahuku, a two-stoplight town in rural Hawaii.

Colt Brennan
Jordan Murph/Icon SMIColt Brennan wears his passion for the islands on the side of his head.

Brennan is watching a Steelers-Eagles preseason game on a grainy TV, listening for Hawaiian names. That could have been him getting beaten up as an NFL rookie. Brennan came so close to going pro in January that he declared for the draft. After a junior year at Hawaii in which he threw for 5,549 yards and an NCAA single-season record 58 TDs, the lithe, strong-armed passer was projected as a midfirst-round pick. He signed the draft papers, faxed them to the league office and had 72 hours to change his mind. He spent those three days here, at this house, pondering his future.

Today, on a couch next to the mattress, a father holds two kids on his lap. Generously proportioned over a 5-foot-7 frame, Gerald Welch looks like he's more than three years removed from playing slotback at UH. Behind Welch, his mother, Guylyn Ornellas, leans against a wall plastered with poster-size family snapshots, a yellow plumeria blossom in her long, black hair. The 45-year-old matriarch and construction worker owns this home on Oahu's north shore and shares it with Welch, his wife, their two kids -- and Brennan, whenever he chooses. "We are a family," Ornellas says. "We love him, and he can do whatever he wants here. We just want Colt to be Colt." Brennan smiles.

Ohana, the Hawaiian word for "family," transcends blood relations. And it's that unconditional love and unquestioned acceptance that have restored Brennan's confidence -- not as a passer, but as a person. He made his way to Hawaii because he had nowhere else to go, dogged by a past that mainland society would not forgive. He remains here for one last season because, despite the fortune that awaits him, he's not quite ready to leave.

June Jones knows the value of a beach barbecue. Slouching in a chair in front of his desk, the Hawaii coach recalls how two families took him in when he arrived as a 20-year-old transfer QB from Oregon, in 1973. "Every day, every event, everything, they embraced me," says Jones, who'd go on to play for the Falcons, a team he'd coach from 1994 to 1996. "They became my ohana. Have been ever since."

Ohana is the intangible that helps Jones put together a team every season. He depends on it to keep so many of his players happy, the way other coaches count on boosters. Football at Hawaii is a shoestring operation. In 2005, the team brought in just $5.4M in revenues, compared with $8.5M at WAC rival Boise State. Oversize travel expenses leave just $60,000 a year for recruiting at a school that's 2,400 miles from the mainland. Boise State gets $143,000.

Colt Brennan
David Allio/Icon SMIColt Brennan threw for 5,549 yards and 58 TDs in 2006.

So Warriors recruiters can't afford to chase players they don't already know they can get. Counting on his fingers, Jones ticks off the profiles of typical targets: (1) Polynesian kids, (2) kids who have lived in Hawaii or have family here, (3) military kids with no permanent home, (4) kids recovering from injuries and (5) kids from broken homes. Then there's the rare kid from the penal system. "Some of my best players I've recruited out of jail," Jones says.

These are the players who benefit most from island love. That includes a favorite Brennan target, Davone Bess, who spent 15 months in a detention facility near Oakland after being caught unwittingly driving around some pals carrying stolen electronics. Jones shakes his head as he tells of watching video of Bess' acrobatics in the facility's 7-on-7 passing league.

And it includes Brennan. "My last trip to the mainland was for Colt Brennan," says Jones. That was in January 2005. As a Colorado freshman, in 2004, Brennan went to a young woman's room -- invited, he insists -- after a night of heavy drinking. The next day she accused him of sexual assault. This was during the CU sex scandal, and while a misdemeanor sexual-contact charge was eventually vacated, the courts ruled that Brennan had entered the apartment illegally and stayed after being asked to leave. He was convicted of burglary and trespassing, and as a first-time offender, he spent just seven days in jail. Cut from CU, he went to Saddleback College, near his home in Irvine, Calif. Being close to his parents (Betsy and Terry) was a comfort, but humiliations followed him: accusing stares, protests against his playing, social isolation. "It was hell," says Brennan. "The Saddleback school paper wrote horrible stuff about me. There were media and people in the community trying to get me kicked off the team."

Upon walking on at Hawaii, in June 2005, Brennan realized he had a chance to begin anew. As Brennan made his first walk from the UH locker room down the twisted path to the practice field, Bess jogged over and asked the new QB to throw him some balls. The two developed an easy rapport, practicing post patterns and timing routes while Honolulu's morning haze burned off. That evening they sat on the porch of Bess' home, watching the sun bleed orange across the sky, and traded stories. Slowly the two strangers -- a private-school kid from the O.C. and a survivor of Oakland's inner city -- became as tight as family. It was ohana at work.

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On the field, though, the love didn't flow quite as freely. Hawaii lost its 2005 home opener to USC 63-17, and despite Brennan's 4,301 passing yards that fall, the Warriors finished 57. The QB judged himself more harshly with every loss. And the off-season didn't bring brighter days. In spring 2006, Honolulu was battered by storms that flooded houses, scattered debris and spilled millions of gallons of sewage into Waikiki's waters. Brennan's mood matched the skies. He had always chased football -- from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., to college prep at Worcester (Mass.) Academy, from CU to Saddleback and finally to Hawaii -- as if his happiness depended on the game. But as he watched film in the Warriors' offices that wet spring, he couldn't lift his spirits.

For the 10 months he'd been on campus, Brennan had analyzed his behavior and changed his habits the way he might adjust his rhythm on a deep post. He'd tried to fit in with the island culture, working at being both outgoing and humble. It wasn't easy. At heart he was a cocky kid who had unflinchingly followed in Matt Leinart's footsteps as Mater Dei's QB. Suppressing his inner smart aleck was hard work. "I was trying to win people over," Brennan says. "I wanted to be really liked." But every time he met someone, Brennan wondered: What do they know about me? What do they think of me? He was terrified that another public misstep, no matter how slight, would end any chance at redemption.

Now, with rains pelting the athletic department windows, Brennan tried to recall the last time he'd felt happy. He surprised himself when his thoughts took him back to the day of that drubbing by USC, when he accepted a teammate's offer to head to Kahuku for a barbecue at Welch's. It was the first time the two met, and when Brennan left, Welch offered an open invitation to return.

So when the sun finally broke through in April 2006, after 43 straight days of rain, Brennan set out for an hour's drive through the mountains that divide the island's populated south from its rural north. Each coastal town along the Kamehameha Highway was smaller than the last. Just past Kahuku High School, Brennan turned into a quiet neighborhood and parked in Ornellas' front yard. Stepping inside the house, he was immersed in a sea of 20 or so kids, none older than 4, all running, laughing and shouting. Only a few were technically family, but all called Ornellas tutu, Hawaiian for "Grandma." Later the entourage moved to the beach, where Welch barbecued while the kids ran wild. Brennan just sat in the sand, watching the food cook as the hours passed by like minutes.

Colt Brennan
AP Photo/Ronen ZilbermanColt Brennan has thrown 12 TDs in 2007.

After that day, Brennan returned to Ornellas' home too many times to count. Other families accepted him into their ohana -- the Cazimeros, O'Neils and Funakis -- but Kahuku became Brennan's hideout, a place where no one judged him for his play or his past. One day, as Brennan climbed from his Jeep, Welch's kids ran to hug him, crying, "Uncle Colt!" It was then that Brennan knew he was part of the family.

And while Brennan is as close as ever with his parents, who fly in for several games a season, they can't stay long enough to see what ohana means to their son. "They never get to see this," he says. "I don't think they know the security it gives me." With that sense of belonging, Brennan says, "football started to be easy for me." He came to Hawaii with an accurate arm, fluid mobility and a quick release that Jones likens to Dan Marino's. After one season, Brennan had perfected Jones' run 'n shoot scheme and could read D's like flow charts. Last year, he raised his game to such a level that it seemed as if the field were his PlayStation. Three miles of passing yards and a record number of TDs were only the beginning. He also set a single-season record for passer efficiency rating (186), as well as new marks for passing yards (9,850) and TD passes (93) in two seasons.

Suddenly NFL scouts took a serious interest; some were rumored to have him in the top 10 of the draft. Brennan was torn, weighing the prospects of an NFL fortune against leaving the corner of the world where he felt most at home. He postponed the decision as long as possible, filing for the draft at the deadline. A press conference was scheduled for Monday morning, Jan. 15, then postponed until Tuesday afternoon. But that one was canceled too. Nobody knew where Brennan had gone.

On the opposite end of the island, Brennan had borrowed a skateboard from Ornellas' driveway and coasted to a market for some raw tuna. Everybody there knew him, but nobody asked what his plans were. Good thing, too, since he didn't know. As the sun set, Brennan sat on the beach with Welch, thinking about what he wanted. He decided the world could wait another day for his decision. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, Brennan stepped up to some microphones in an untucked button-down shirt. The room fell silent as he broke down, pounding the podium and wiping his tears with the meat of his palm. "My heart lies here, in Hawaii," he said. "I like the person I'm becoming here."

Brennan knows what's at risk. Call it the price of redemption. He's paying Hawaii back with what he hopes will be the best season of his life. In three games (he missed Charleston Southern with a sprained ankle), he's thrown for 1,262 yards and 12 scores. His presence makes the 4-0 Warriors a favorite to become the next non-BCS conference team to force its way into a major bowl. Not that his life hinges on such things. Musing about next year's draft, Brennan says, "The first thing I do when I sign my contract is buy me a house in Hawaii."

And someday, in some corner of that house, there will probably be a ragged twin mattress, ready for the next wayward mainlander in need of ohana.

Chad Nielsen is a college football contributor to ESPN The Magazine.