Today Brian Cabral is a kupuna, a respected elder.
But 36 years ago, the legendary Colorado linebacker and long-time assistant coach was just a wide-eyed kid from Kailua, Hawaii, trying to adjust to college life in Boulder.
"I think for every freshman it`s the same, it`s hard being away from home. The farther away you go from home, the harder it is," Cabral recalled during a recent interview with the Camera. "When people don`t understand you when you`re trying to speak your version of English, we call it Pidgin English, they don`t know what you`re saying. They don`t understand you. The food is a little bit of an adjustment, the culture is a little bit of an adjustment. ...
"You feel like here in the mainland you`re on an island."
Cabral was able to adjust to his new surroundings under the Flatirons and began to thrive.
In 1976, he was a captain on CU`s Big Eight championship team, finishing that memorable season with 13 tackles in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State. He graduated in 1978 and began a nine-year NFL career that included winning a Super Bowl in 1985 as a member of the Chicago Bears.
For many young Hawaiian males, Cabral inspires hope as they attempt to use football to realize their dreams.
"I`m an island guy that left the island to go to college. I`m an island guy that went on to the NFL," Cabral said. "I`m a kid that grew up on the beach and ultimately got to where every football player wants to get to."
On Saturday, CU will host Hawaii at Folsom Field. The Buffs will open up the 2011 season in a rematch with the Warriors at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.
The series means a lot to Cabral, who has always recruited his home state very well and coached some great players from Hawaii, including recent Buff standout Jordon Dizon. The All-American linebacker, who is now a member of the Detroit Lions, used to say hisNo. 1 motivation at CU was "not to disappoint my (position) coach."
Cabral explains what the game of football means to players from Hawaii this way:
"Football on the islands is bigger than life. High school football, Pop Warner football, it`s big. It`s a very physical culture and that`s why they love the game of football. ...
"We`ve brought the right guys to CU. They`re physical players, they love contact, they love the game. That`s why you recruit Polynesian kids, that`s why you recruit Hawaii."
Rainbows to Warriors
Hawaii began playing football in 1920. Then called the Rainbows, the program completed back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1924-25, outscoring their opponents 606-29 -- including a 13-0 victory over CU on Jan. 1, 1925, in Honolulu -- during the 18-game span.
In 1935, Hawaii running back and future coach Thomas Kaulukukui became the program`s first All-American. His No. 32 is the only retired number in the school`s football history. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the Rainbows did not play from 1942-1945.
In 1955, a year after a 50-0 loss to Nebraska in Honolulu, the Rainbows traveled to Lincoln and upset the Huskers 6-0. In 1975, Aloha Stadium -- site of many NFL Pro Bowls -- was built and became Hawaii`s new home field.
In 1992, Hawaii won a share of its first-ever WAC championship and also captured its first bowl game victory, a 27-17 triumph over Illinois in the Holiday Bowl.
"As long as I`ve played here or coached here we`ve never played Hawaii," said Cabral, who wore his lava lava wrap to celebrate his 300th game as a Buff last season during CU`s 35-34 win over Texas A&M.
"We`ve played in Hawaii for a bowl game, but we`ve never played Hawaii. That`s a different challenge. Hawaii has a great history."
More recently, former Hawaii head coach June Jones (now at SMU) and quarterback Colt Brennan (NCAA career touchdown passes leader) led the Warriors to their first outright WAC title in 2007 and an appearance in the Jan. 1, 2008, Sugar Bowl, where they lost 41-10 to Georgia.
"In high school, I did start following the Warriors," said CU offensive lineman Sione Tau, who is from Honolulu. "The Warriors have been doing a lot of good things, so I`m pretty excited about the game, it`s going to be awesome. First of all, to play against friends and old rivals from high school will make it a pretty exciting game. I`ve also heard lot of people from Hawaii are coming in for the game."
Hawaii opened up the season with a 49-36 loss to USC in Honolulu and pulled off a dramatic 31-28 victory on Saturday against Army, 4,995 miles away in West Point, N.Y.
With the WAC scheduled to lose Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada to the Mountain West, there is talk about Hawaii perhaps going independent in football as BYU will next season. Despite the fact that major programs are willing to make the trip to paradise, Cabral believes it would be tough for the Warriors to compete at a high level without a conference affiliation.
"I`m not sure about that. It`s very difficult for them on the islands financially, although the support is very awesome," Cabral said. "Independently, I don`t know the plusses and minuses. Hawaii is a hard place to live economically, it`s a hard place educationally, it`s even harder athletically on a football program."
Hawaii is scheduled to visit Boulder again in 2014 with the Buffs traveling back to Honolulu in 2015.
The next generation
Two of the Buffs` best defensive players this season, linebackers B.J. Beatty and Michael Sipili, are from Hawaii. They will see a lot of familiar faces on Saturday, considering the Warriors` 2010 roster includes 46 players from the Aloha State and a handful of others from American Samoa.
"For me and some of the guys from there, it`s exciting. Back when I was home for the summer I was laughing because when I left I didn`t think I`d ever play against anybody from home or anybody that I knew. It`s going to be an exciting event for both teams," said Beatty, a senior from Kaawa, Hawaii. "I never really got into Hawaii football. When I went to high school I knew teammates and guys I competed against who went there, but I really never became a fan. But Hawaii football for the state is always a good thing. There are no professional sports out there, so that`s what they always have to look forward to."
Beatty won two state championships at Kahuku High School. Chris Naeole, the former CU All-American offensive guard, is an uncle of Beatty`s on his mother`s side of the family. His father Byron played linebacker at Brigham Young in the late 1980s after a standout high school career on Oahu.
"It can get down to the wire. I`ve been in some games where my heart has probably stopped once or twice out there," Beatty said when asked about the atmosphere under the Friday night lights on the islands. "It`s always pound the ball and big heavy dudes. The physical side, coaches never have to worry about us. We love to get physical. We love to come down here and hit each other head to head. It`s always good fun."
Sipili, the Buffs` starting middle linebacker, ran into some serious off-field trouble early in his college career. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in 2007 for his involvement in an attack on another student and was sentenced to four days on a Boulder County Jail work crew, 80 hours of community service and two years of probation. CU`s Office of Judicial Affairs suspended him from school for the fall semester that year.
Not surprisingly, Cabral didn`t give up on Sipili, who has rewarded his coach by maturing. He will likely have an opportunity to play in the NFL after graduation.
"Coach Cabral helps so much. He is a big influence in my life," said Sipili, who grew up in Honolulu. "He has been a big help and support for the guys who come from the island. He makes it more comfortable for us to be here. ...
"He has always been by my side and he has always told me to take my mistakes head on and move forward. You can`t do anything else but move forward."
Freshman outside linebacker Kaiwi Crabb, also from Honolulu, is the fourth current Buff from Hawaii. Even though CU`s current head coach is on the hot seat after a miserable 52-7 loss to future Pac-10 foe Cal, Cabral -- who lettered three times for Bill Mallory and has worked for Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Barnett and Dan Hawkins -- will likely be there to mentor Crabb throughout his collegiate career.
"I made the same trip, I took the same plane over the ocean and stepped onto the mountains. I understand the transition, I understand the culture, I understand where they`re coming from," Cabral said. "That has been fun for me. One of the reasons why I do like bringing kids from Hawaii is to give them the same opportunities and experiences that I had. ...
"The neat thing about it is to see them get accustomed, to see them starting to thrive. The people like the island kids because they`re colorful, they`re fun loving, and the players on the team respond to that. To see that happen is a lot of fun for me to see."