Photo: Bob Apisa, Jacob Isaia and Mark Dantonio
Jacob Isaia first traveled to Spartan Stadium as a sixth-grader growing up in Hawaii. His grandfather, Michigan State Hall of Famer Bob Apisa, brought him to a 2011 game that left a memorable impression.
Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary touchdown pass to Keith Nichol upset unbeaten and No. 6-ranked Wisconsin, 37-31. Topping off the weekend, Isaia met Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
“That was my first game there with grandpa,” Isaia said. “I was excited. I met Coach Dantonio, but it was just a brief handshake and hello.”
They met again – with discussions beyond a handshake – once Isaia grew into a highly recruited offensive lineman. Isaia, a 6-foot-3, 272-pounder ranked a three-star prospect, wrapped up his recruitment during a visit six years later to Spartan Stadium.
The 2017 weekend began with the induction of Apisa, a two-time All-American fullback on the Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 Big Ten and national championship teams, in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame Class of 2017. He was enshrined Thursday night and honored at Spartan Stadium during the Saturday win over Iowa.
“It was really special to him,” Isaia said. “Grandpa had been talking about Michigan State all these years.”
The weekend visit continued with recruiting discussions on Sunday at the Duffy Daugherty/Skandalaris Football Center. Isaia was in meeting room with offensive coach Mark Staten and Dantonio when he told them he was ready to commit.
They were joined by family members, including his mother Amy Apisa-Hitzeman, Apisa’s daughter who also is a Michigan State graduate; his stepfather, Brett Hitzeman; and his father, former UCLA and NFL lineman Sale Isaia.
The only person missing from the room was grandpa. Apisa was somewhere in the Daugherty building that was named for his Michigan State mentor, the Spartans’ late College Football Hall of Fame coach. Duffy Daugherty had recruited Apisa out of Honolulu Farrington in 1964 as part of his pioneering Hawaiian Pipeline.
“They called him to come over so I could surprise him,” Isaia said. “I told him, ‘Hey, grandpa, I’m going to be wearing the green and white.’ He burst into tears. He was crying and hugged me.”
Isaia made the commitment official on Dec. 19, the early national signing day. UCLA made one final push under newly hired coach Chip Kelly, but Isaia stuck to a decision he said was deeper than being a legacy recruit at either school.
Apisa pumped his grandson with green-and-white pride as a youth, but once the recruiting process began, he took a step back.
“I didn’t have anything to do with his decision,” Apisa said. “I told him to make his own decision, and he turned down Pac-12, ACC and SEC schools. Once he made his decision, I told him to ‘make your own name. Forget about what your grandpa did here.’ ”
When Isaia signed his letter-of-intent, he posted the news on his Twitter page with a photo that showed him waving the shaka hand sign – also known in Hawaii to mean “hang loose.”
Isaia’s resume, though, reads he’s from Las Vegas, having played his last two years of high school football at national power Bishop Gorman. In that way he does not represent a Daugherty-like re-tapping of the Hawaiian Pipeline.
But he grew up in Honolulu from age 3 through 10th grade; he played on the Honolulu Iolani varsity as a sophomore. His cell phone still has a Hawaii 808 area code despite moving to Las Vegas with his mother and stepfather (his parents divorced when he was 7).
Isaia says if you want to consider him part of the pipeline, let it flow.
“I always want to represent Hawaii – the 808,” Isaia said. “I’m Samoan ancestry. I want to show that Polys (Polynesians) can play. We’re made for football.”
Those words fit Apisa's Michigan State Hall of Fame speech in September and the one he will deliver at the Polynesian Hall of Fame.
“I’m representing the state of Hawaii and Michigan State,” Apisa said. “I learned from all my high school coaches and teammates and all my Michigan State coaches and teammates. I can’t bring all of them with me into the Hall of Fame, but I can shoulder them with me.”
Isaia’s Michigan State commitment no doubt brought a smile from Daugherty perched above us on his Hawaiian Pipeline rainbow. The pipeline connected Hawaii and Michigan State throughout his coaching days. A handful of other schools had a player from Hawaii in those days, but there was nothing in college football like the Spartans’ Hawaiian punch steady link of large men with nimble feet and an affinity for athletic contact.
Apisa wasn’t the first Polynesian player to make his mark at Michigan State or on the mainland, but he is the most significant. He was college football’s first Samoan All-American football player on the 1965 and 1966 teams.
“I see Bob Apisa as not only a trailblazer for Samoan and Polynesian players but for coaches as well,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, the first Samoan college head coach, once told me. “You have to be a player before you’re a coach. There are a lot of Samoans and Polynesians coaching now. Bob was a pioneer that opened doors for us.”
Apisa’s journey began with leaving America Samoa for Hawaii as a 7-year-old in 1952. His father had taken a post with the Navy, which was the path that brought many Samoans to Hawaii and California military bases. Once their sons enrolled at local high schools, they discovered football.
Apisa remembers leaving American Samoa aboard a ship at night. He looked back at the island, an American territory, lit by kerosene lamps. When the ship arrived in Honolulu at night, he saw a modern city aglow with electric lights.
Daugherty brought 10 Polynesians from Hawaii to East Lansing from 1955 through his final 1972 season before he retired. Apisa was among five that earned All-Big Ten honors and seven that were NFL draft picks.
But Denny Stolz, Daugherty’s successor, didn’t recruit Hawaii. Neither did the coach that followed Stolz, Darryl Rogers.
Muddy Waters, who played for Daugherty, appreciated the history behind the Hawaiian Pipeline. He re-tapped it in 1980 with Carter Kamana of Honolulu Kamehameha, but Waters lasted only three seasons before he was fired. Kamana finished his career under George Perles, who didn’t recruit Hawaii, either.
The pipeline lay ruptured the past four decades. This despite Hawaii now turning out more Division I talent than in Daugherty’s days.
Honolulu Punahou coach Kale Ane, who played for Daugherty and in the NFL before he returned to paradise, says the Spartans would be welcomed in the islands. After all, Daugherty’s teams long ago planted a flag with strong identity in Hawaii.
No story better represents that personality than the 11-8 win over Ohio State in 1966. All 11 points were scored by Spartans from Honolulu high schools. Apisa, Farrington, scored the touchdown; Charlie Wedemeyer, Punahou, caught a two-point conversion pass from Dick Kenney; and Kenney, Iolani, kicked a field goal.
The headline in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin: “Hawaiians 11, Ohio State 8.”
Recruiting Hawaii isn’t crucial to Michigan State’s success in the Big Ten, but it is unique chapter the program’s storied history. Apisa’s All-American fame started the wave as the godfather of Polynesian talent.
The Polynesian wave grew with time into tsunami washing across the mainland. It now stretches coast-to-coast, including Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa in the Deep South. The freshman quarterback from Honolulu St. Louis came off the bench to save Alabama’s national title with a comeback overtime victory in the College Football Playoff final (Isaia was a sophomore at Iolani and Tagovailoa a junior at St. Louis when the schools played in 2015).
The Polynesian Bowl Hall of Fame website states over 60 Polynesians played in NFL in 2017.
Thanks to the Polynesian Bowl Hall of Fame, this weekend marks a Hawaii homecoming weekend both for Apisa and Isaia.
“This is a great honor,” Apisa said. “Michigan State was a great honor, but this is for all Polynesians that have played across the nation; everybody that has played in college and the NFL. I’m honored and humbled.”
Apisa will be inducted in the Polynesian Hall of Fame in Friday and Saturday ceremonies at the Sheraton Waikiki and Polynesian Cultural Center. On Saturday, Isaia plays in the Polynesian Bowl all-star game at Aloha Stadium.
It is Isaia’s second all-star invitation, having played in the Under-Armour All-American game on Jan. 4 in Orlando, Fla.
“The Under Armour game was a great experience, and it’s going to be special playing in Hawaii,” Isaia said. “I’m happy to play with guys I played against growing up. I feel good about my last high school game where it all started.
“I’m also happy for grandpa. The Hall of Fame is special for him, just like it was at Michigan State. He really deserves it. It really means a lot to him.”
Think of what it would have meant Apisa’s old coach, especially with his re-tapped Hawaiian Pipeline.
Note: Ken Niumatalolo quote was taken from Raye of Light, my book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football.
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