Montana coach Mick Dennehy likes to point out that he needed two
years to find out whether quarterback Brian Ah Yat could play.
It took that long for the Hawaiian to take his hands out of his
pockets. "He was a young, skinny kid with his shirt sleeves over
his hands, shivering to death," Dennehy says.
It's a long way from Honoulu to Missoula, about 3,000 miles as
the Hawaiian goose would fly, if the state bird were ever so
horribly lost. The majority of the state's citizens haven't been
inclined to make the journey, either. North American Van Lines
tracks the moves it makes, and in 1995 the company performed
exactly two relocations from Hawaii to Montana. You don't need a
Rand McNally to figure out why. The mean temperature in Honolulu
during football season doesn't dip below 74 [degrees]. The
temperature in Missoula over the same period is just plain mean.
"I didn't have a clue about Montana," says Ah Yat. "I just
thought there was a lot of country and a lot of cowboys. That's
about it. Basically, it was my only offer to play football."
Ah Yat may be the best player to come through a pipeline that,
on and off for four decades, has sent football players from the
islands to Big Sky country. The 6'2", 190-pound junior wasn't
named the starter until 10 days before last season began, but he
had an eight-game streak of at least four touchdown passes per
game and threw for more than 500 yards in two of those games in
a row. He finished Montana's 11-0 regular season with 3,615
passing yards and 42 TD tosses, then threw for 1,397 more yards
and 11 more touchdowns in four Division I-AA playoff games,
including the national final, which the Grizzlies lost 49-29 to
Marshall. He also rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns last
season and finished second in the balloting for the Walter
Payton Trophy, Division I-AA's Heisman.
This fall Ah Yat and his favorite target from Honolulu's Iolani
High, junior wide receiver Raul Pacheco--two of six Hawaiians on
the roster--will be relied on heavily as Montana attempts to
reach the championship game for the third consecutive season.
The latest flow of recruits from Hawaii to Montana began with
the efforts of Tommy Lee, a Grizzlies assistant from 1985 to '90
and a native Hawaiian whose brother Cal is coach at St. Louis
High in Honolulu. "You sign one or two, they enjoy it, and by
word of mouth, more kids get interested," says Tommy, now the
quarterbacks coach at Utah, which by no coincidence has 12
Hawaiian players. On a visit home in 1993, while coaching in the
CFL, Tommy saw Ah Yat play in a passing offense at Iolani High
and immediately called Montana's coach at the time, Don Read.
The call couldn't have been more timely. The Grizzlies had a
junior quarterback, Dave Dickenson, who went on to set 23 school
records and lead Montana to the 1995 I-AA national title. But
the team didn't have another promising quarterback waiting in
the wings. "Other kids we looked at were scared away by Dave,"
says Dennehy, then the Grizzlies' offensive coordinator. "I
don't know that Brian knew what he was getting himself into. I'm
not even sure he knew where Montana was."
Though the football marriage between Ah Yat and Montana seems
ideal, the partnership off the field at first seemed to have all
the staying power of Hollywood matrimony. Ah Yat couldn't tell
what went numb faster--his feet or his heart. "I had a bad
attitude," he says. "I knew I wasn't going to play. I had doubts
about myself. It was a long winter. I didn't like going to
practice, didn't show any emotion, went through the motions
instead of trying to learn. I would always be thinking about
Ah Yat spent his freshman year never letting Pacheco and another
Honolulu recruit, wide receiver Eleu Kane, out of his sight. He
tried to fit practice and class in between phone calls home. "He
just wanted to hear our voices," says his father, Tony, who
played defensive end at Linfield College in Oregon from 1961 to
'65. "You have to understand Hawaiians. We're really family
oriented. When you separate yourself from the family, you can
really miss the people back home--and the food."
Oh, the food. "Lau lau," Brian says. "Pork wrapped in tea
leaves." Or beef teriyaki or kal bi ribs and rice, lots of rice.
Ah Yat survived his freshman year in part because of the people
he met in the weight room. Strength and conditioning coach Bruce
Wallwork came from Honolulu to play for the Grizzlies in 1960
and never moved back. Wallwork and his wife, Susan, think of
themselves as the unofficial Hawaiian ambassadors to Montana.
They have a catering business through which they stage luaus. On
summer Wednesdays, when vendors gather on the banks of the Clark
Fork River in a Missoula park, the Wallworks' cart is a
gathering spot for the 30 or so expatriate Hawaiians in Missoula
County. "The players come down between two-a-days and get
themselves tanked up on teriyaki beef and chicken," Susan says.
In Bruce's office, adjacent to the Grizzlies' locker room, the
walls are covered with photographs of the islands. The players
go there for a touch of aloha. "Once they hear me talking,"
Bruce says, "they feel very comfortable. We don't all speak
Hawaiian fluently, but we can say one or two words."
Montana quarterbacks coach Brent Pease says Ah Yat is ideal for
the Grizzlies' offense because he has a strong arm and he can
"survive with his feet." Wallwork discovered how quick Ah Yat is
without the benefit of a traditional conditioning test. Bruce
once made a potful of pork and cabbage and a pot of rice to take
to his office and share with the Hawaiian players. "Brian walked
in, picked up the food and said to Bruce, 'Tell them it's at my
house,' and left," Susan says. "The other kids didn't even have
a chance to smell it."
Ah Yat has been skiing, has tried snowboarding and even owns a
pair of winter boots. But his best winter sport is football. He
started eight games last season in which game-time temperature
went no higher than 39 [degrees] and as low as 17 [degrees]. His
passing numbers in those games (228 of 347 for 2,711 yards, 26
touchdowns and just 10 interceptions) virtually matched his
performance on the seven warmer Saturdays (153 of 262 for 2,301
yards and 27 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions). "I've learned
to handle the cold a lot better," Ah Yat says.
The willingness of Hawaiian players to brave the Montana weather
remains remarkable. Last winter athletic director Wayne Hogan
was at the Missoula airport on the day that a couple of Hawaiian
recruits were expected. "The coaches were hoping for a fluke--a
decent weather weekend," he says. "It was our coldest weekend
ever. We had a 40-mile-per-hour wind, a foot and a half of snow,
a virtual blizzard. The Hawaiian kids got off the plane without
a coat, in shirt sleeves." One of them, linebacker Jacob Yoro,
signed with the Grizzlies anyway.
This fall, Ah Yat's entire family will join him. His father and
his mother, Aileen, both teachers, are taking sabbaticals to
enroll at Montana and watch their son play. Brian's younger
brother, Akoni, will be a freshman walk-on wide receiver. Only
his older brother, Paul, a pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates'
farm system, won't be around.
"I want to say, for the record, we don't enjoy the cold," Tony
Ah Yat says. "We're going to sacrifice ourselves because we
might never have another chance to see Brian play. We'll go back
to school and refresh ourselves."
Even though Brian hopes to play well in front of his family, he
drew the line at staying on campus for this summer's workouts.
"I need to go home," he told his coaches. "I miss it so much."
Unlike most coaches, Dennehy didn't mind. "If I was from where
he's from," Dennehy says, "I would go home too."