Football’s island charm | Brian Ching, Oahu and how Hawai‘i gained a World Cup spot

A runt’s reputation attached itself to soccer in its beginnings on the Islands. Jack Sullivan, called “Mr. Soccer” for his involvement reaching back more than 30 years, says he and others in 1974 started training with 225 boys on a field outside a jail. “We aren’t a traditional sport,” says Sullivan, referring to the games in which Hawaiians have excelled over time, including swimming (Duke Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe), weightlifting (Tommy Kono), canoeing (Toots Minvielle) and golf (Jackie Pung, Michelle Wie). And how could we forget surfing? Hawai’i also has produced a gaggle of players, especially linemen, for the National Football League.

Kai after the goal against Japan on May 9. “I am representing Hawai‘i and the United States,” she says, “and, of course, that means a lot.” (Copyright © Brad Smith, ussoccer.com)

Sullivan, a mainland transplant like much of the Islands’ population, settled here in 1957, two years before Hawai‘i achieved statehood. He switched to soccer from coaching baseball because, according to Leila Wai of the Honolulu Advertiser, “he didn’t like the children being scared of making a mistake such as striking out or dropping a ball.”

Here is a sport [soccer] where you eliminate those things. You don’t have these negative things for timid kids. It creates responsible people with self-worth and the confidence to play other sports.

The Hawaiian soccer apparatus, as of 2004, incorporated more than 27,000 boys and girls as well as adults as active players. Registered leagues exist not only on Oahu, but on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, Maui and Kaua’i. Naturally, development of players is facilitated by the climate, but also by a preexisting sporting pipeline that emphasizes high school athletics. A long list of Hawaiian baseball players have used their high school years to gain attention from farm teams in Major League Baseball, eventually advancing to the top level. “When you ask someone from the Islands where they went to school,” writes magazine Island Scene, “they will usually answer with the name of their high school, even if they went to college.”

Sullivan, 70 years old when this picture was taken in 2004, grew up playing ice hockey in Boston. “Anything that has to do with soccer, he’s right in the middle of it,” said friend and sports broadcaster Les Keiter. (Deborah Booker | Honolulu Advertiser)

Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association executive director Keith Amemiya reaches back into island history to help explain the competitive mentality:

Hawai‘i student athletes are prized by colleges because they’re known for their toughness, hard work, and team-oriented outlook. Hawai‘i athletes are known for a warrior-type mentality of never giving up. People from Hawai‘i are known for having big hearts in that they are very generous, but also in the way of being very proud. I think because we are an island state in the middle of the ocean, we always feel we have to prove ourselves. Nobody wants to embarrass everyone back home.

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