By RON ELAND
In high school football, probably more than any other sport, you'll hear former players talking about the big game or the glory days long after they last laced up their cleats or donned a helmet and pads.
And while most just get to talk about it, this weekend, dozens of former island players will get to relive that gridiron experience again.
Thanks to Bob Cazet's Alumni Football USA program, former players from Kealakehe and Konawaena will face one another at 7 p.m. today at Kealakehe High School. On Sunday, those from Honokaa will take on Waiakea at 2 p.m. That game is also at Kealakehe.
"It's going to be great and a lot of fun," Cazet said earlier this week.
The games will feature 50 players from Konawaena, 42 from Kealakehe, 40 from Waiakea and 33 from Honokaa.
In 1985, Cazet was a teacher and assistant high school coach — and about a decade removed from his own playing days. He organized a game that served as a fundraiser for the school's softball team.
"I just wanted to play one more high school football game," he said "And from the response we've had over the years, I'm not alone in that desire."
Over the years, Cazet helped organize once-a-year games in several states but three years ago decided it was time to make it a full-time profession. In the process, he created Alumni Football USA. To date, the organization has hosted more than 400 games in 15 states — with each contest drawing about 2,000 spectators.
"No matter where we've set up a game, the response is the same. 'I just can't believe I get to play again' is what we've heard over and over again," he said. "You can get five buddies together and go down and find a pickup basketball game whenever you want. Or, you can play in a slowpitch softball league, but you rarely get a chance to play full contact football. Guys want to see if they've still got it.
"The beauty about this is it's a single game. A guy can work for someone else for 364 days a year, but for those two hours, he once again gets to be in the spotlight."
Cazet first approached players on the island over the summer. He said it took some time to get things going, but once it did, it began to "snowball."
"It took having two or three really excited guys, and from there word really began to spread," he said. "But that's how it is no matter if we're in West Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma or Michigan. You never know what to expect."
Even though he was very happy Kealakehe agreed to host the games, Cazet was disappointed he could not find venues on other islands.
"We had nearly 700 guys statewide who wanted to play," he said. "It's a travesty that the administrators at the various schools were afraid of this game. I can understand some of their hesitancy, but I can give you dozens and dozens of school administrators who will tell you how great these games are, not only for the school but the community."
Cazet added that his organization invited athletic directors, principals and coaches from every high school in the state to this weekend's game to see what it's all about.
He's hoping that once it catches on, Alumni Football USA could have about 15 games in Hawaii annually.
Because of the costs of shipping all the needed equipment here, each player must pay $125 to play.
Aside from the equipment, that fee will cover the costs of the stadium, liability coverage, officials, security, emergency personnel, announcers, video personnel and a scoreboard operator.
"I've had several guys tell me that for what they paid, it was worth it just to be able to practice with their friends," he said.
In an interview with Stephens Media over the summer, Cazet said he anticipated paying $22,000 for all the equipment and uniforms needed.
However, Alumni Football found a company out of Oakland, Calif., that did everything for $8,100.
Funds raised from both games — half the ticket sales and concessions — will go to a handful of local organizations, including the three West Hawaii Pop Warner football teams.
Keola Cachero-Wimbish, a 2001 Kealakehe grad, will serve as both a player and coach for his squad, which has had dozens of practices leading up to the game today.
"I'm not going to lie, a couple of our guys are extremely athletic and very competitive. We're all excited to play," he said.
Many of the 42 players suiting up for the Waveriders were standouts during their time in high school and after. James Kamoku, a 2003 Kealakehe graduate, took his talents to the University of Wisconsin. Also, the University of Hawaii offered 2007 Kealakehe graduate Gabe Tuata a full-ride scholarship.
"Honestly I'm not so much surprised as I am ecstatic about the numbers," Cachero-Wimbish said. "I'm really glad we've had so many guys come out to play. I think the genetic makeup of an athlete is to see if they've still got it. We all ask ourselves, 'Can I still play?' We want to give it one last shot to see how we can do."
Because Kealakehe has been around for just 13 years, the school's oldest alumni player is not even 30; Konawaena's oldest player is 39.
That doesn't seem to bother Konawaena player-coach Jerry Mareko.
"We're looking good. We have a nice mix of young players and old vets," he said.
When asked about goals, he quickly answered, "To not get embarrassed. They're calling us old and over the hill. We want to show that we have one more game in us. That's what this is all about. We want to prove to ourselves that we can still do it. For those two or three hours we don't have to worry about work or bills. We're just going to have fun and enjoy people cheering us on."
Mareko, a 1998 Konawaena graduate, is older than any of the Kealakehe players, but he and his older teammates are taking it in stride.
"On the Konawaena team, I am one of the young pups, but if I were on the Kealakehe team, I'd be the grandpa," he said, laughing.
While Cachero-Wimbish was pleasantly surprised with the turnout for Kealakehe, Mareko said he was somewhat disappointed with Konawaena's.
"I'm surprised we didn't have more guys come out," he said. "I thought we'd have at least 80. I guarantee you that once people see what it's all about, next year we'll have at least 80."