Monday, August 3, 2009

The Sack Man Scareth

Al Noga struck fear in the hearts of everyone, often with just a glance.

Al Noga sacked quarterbacks with his stare. He was a pitbull in pads. His bark was spine-chilling, his bite was bone-crunching.

His swim technique would make Michael Phelps blush. He stunted on the field, grunted off of it. I'm scared to even write about this guy. Hopefully, he doesn't read the paper. If he does, he needs to know that it was the Star-Bulletin, not me, who didn't pick him No. 1.

Noga is still the only UH football player to be named as a first-team Associated Press All-American. Pro Football Hall of Famers Michael Irvin and Rod Woodson were on that team. So were Deion Sanders and Brian Bosworth, a pair of colorful characters who would surely turn pale if Noga lined up opposite of them.

Bob Hope almost swallowed his tongue after the University of Hawaii defensive lineman stared him down on national television. The elderly comedian had merely made a harmless joke at Noga's expense while introducing him as part of the All-America team.

The Samoan Sack Man burst onto the national scene during Hawaii's 1986 season, his junior year. He didn't tackle whoever had the ball, he undressed them. Aside from his AP recognition, Noga was the Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year in '86. That's the same year BYU's Jason Buck won the Outland Trophy, awarded to the best college football interior lineman by the Football Writers Association of America. Noga should have won it. Snubs like that are part of the chip that sat upon Hawaii football's shoulders for so long. Noga did his best to knock that chip off by knocking out opposing players.

As for his own players ...

"I think his teammates all feared him," is how Bob Wagner, Noga's coach at Hawaii, remembers it. "Not feared him in a crazy way, but in a tough way with respect."

That respect was evident in Noga's teammates electing him as a team captain prior to the 1987 season. Then again, as Wagner recalls, they may have had little choice.

"Al comes to me prior to his senior year and says he wants to be captain. I tell him the players elect the captain. Al says, 'They'll vote for me.' ... I believe it was pretty unanimous."

Even the coach himself was not immune to Noga's steely determination. Former Hawaii player Shawn Ching recalls a film session during the 1987 season when Wagner called out Noga for loafing on the field. Wagner told Noga to stand, and then told Noga he wanted him to lose weight and get in shape. "Coach, I'm not losing weight," was Noga's response. He then sat down ... end of conversation.

Ching was a true freshman during Noga's senior season, 1987. An offensive lineman on the scout team, Ching found himself paired up against Noga on a consistent basis.

"I had an Al Noga baseball card on my bulletin board ... with an X across his face," says Ching, who admits he would scheme up ways to (legally) work over Noga in practice. "Never happened."

"He abused the crap out of me ... showed me no mercy," said Ching, who remembers wondering if he would survive to make it to the training table on one particular practice day.

It was during a Noga audition before a large gathering of NFL evaluators. They had heard the stories, read the press clippings, studied the game film.

Here's some of the noise Noga was making that brought the scouts to Manoa:

This recap from Hawaii's 1986 win over UTEP: "Al Noga led the fierce Rainbow pass rush which knocked out two of UTEP's quarterbacks with serious injuries. In all, Noga had nine tackles and three sacks."

After the game, UTEP coach Bob Stull coined a phrase for what Noga did to his team. Stull said UTEP got "Noganized."

Two weeks later, Noga and company sent New Mexico's quarterback to the hospital, where he stayed overnight. He did not play again the rest of the season.

On the first weekend of November 1986, Noga was named WAC defensive player of the week after making just three tackles against Utah. The Utes ran away from Noga all night, but so great was his presence that he still won the award. Utes coach Jim Fassel would later say of Noga, "His athletic ability and intensity on the field makes him one of the premier defensive players in the country ..."

A week after Utah and before 50,000 at Aloha Stadium, Al and brother Pete Noga combined for 28 tackles and three sacks against BYU. The Cougars' two eventual first-round NFL draft picks, Shawn Knight and the aforementioned Jason Buck, combined for 10 tackles and one sack. Hawaii lost the game, but Al Noga was named the game's outstanding lineman for the fourth time in eight games.

"One of the great pass rushers we have ever played against," was then-BYU coach Lavell Edwards' assessment of Noga. The highest of compliments considering the pass-happy offense employed by Edwards' Cougars.

Former Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney echoed those sentiments, saying Al Noga is "the most exciting defensive lineman I know in college football."

Noga's own assessment of himself as told to the Star-Bulletin in 2002: "(I) never had loads of talent, but I was a hard worker and a quick learner. ... I had to push myself over and over with hard- core training and hard-core conditioning."

Part of that motivation came from his brothers, Niko (1980-83) and Pete (1983-86), who also played for Hawaii. It was Niko Noga whose inspired play led to the UH fan chant of 'No-ga, No-ga, No-ga.' Al Noga has said that Niko was the "complete package" and Pete "had the most natural ability."

All three brothers would eventually carve out jobs in the NFL. After Noga's senior season, 1987, the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft. He played for the Vikings, Redskins and Colts before finishing his NFL career back in Minnesota in 1992.

Noga also played in the Arena Football League.

Noga's name is still atop several statistical categories in the Hawaii football record books. In 1986, he set the Hawaii single-season record for forced fumbles (6), tackles for a loss (31), and sacks (17). Those, as well as the career marks for forced fumbles (15), and tackles for loss (70) belong to Noga. If they kept a stat for knockouts, the record would be retired under Noga's name.

"That 1986 squad had one of the best defenses the WAC has ever had ... to this day," says Wagner, who was the defensive coordinator that season. "We played Al wherever he could have the most impact."

Noga's impact on that 1986 defense helped Wagner land the head coaching job the next season when Dick Tomey left. While Wagner can't remember the last time he saw Noga, he says he knows what'd he'd do if they cross paths.

"I'd give him a hug."

There are plenty of Hawaii fans who would like to do the same. First, you have to find Al Noga. Then, you have to muster up the courage.

ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor Neil Everett covered University of Hawaii football in the 1980s and 1990s as KGMB's sports director.

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